Ask the panel

March 24, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am not yet a union member and was therefore not balloted on the industrial action on pay. But I am sympathetic to the aims of the campaign. Can I legally join the union and the action even at this stage?

* Our Natfhe panellist is clear: "Yes, you can. Hundreds of people have joined Natfhe since the dispute started and they receive the same protection as existing members. As soon as we receive confirmation that you have completed a direct debit mandate you are counted as a member."

He adds: "Some employers have suggested that new members cannot take part in the action because they were not in the union at the time of the ballot. This is nonsense. Others have suggested that they can take part but do not have the same protection against unfair dismissal and damages claims because they were not members at the time of the ballot. That is equally untrue."

He goes on: "Within Natfhe's rules, those joining the dispute now will be counted as members from the point at which their membership is entered in our system. Although they may not get confirmation until a few days later, that does not affect their legal right to take strike action or their rights within the union rules. That means they have access to all membership services within our rules. The same applies to their right to join action short of strike - such as the assessment boycott, boycott of the Quality Assurance Agency and work to contract. The same protection would also apply to any further strikes Natfhe might call."

He says: "All members of Natfhe working in higher education were sent 12 pages of detailed dispute advice on topics such as the precise meaning of the assessment boycott and the work-to-contract aspects of the action. The advice also covers the position of hourly paid staff, who may be disproportionately hit by strike action. Further advice can be found online at www.natfhe.org.uk. It is important to understand that only sanctions that existing members were balloted on can be taken. Advice is constantly updated and there is a weekly members' e-mail."

He concludes: "There will be important variations in management's response in each institution and it is crucial you make sure you are also on the local branch e-mail network by contacting your departmental representative or branch secretary."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "While you may join the union after the ballot and participate in industrial action, it is worth checking the background to the dispute on the Ucea website. The employers have repeatedly expressed their commitment to substantive negotiations with all higher education unions and see the industrial action as unnecessary and premature, especially as the pay review is not due until August. Be aware that one of the implications of joining the action is the potential for having your pay withheld for breaching your contract. You may also want to consider the different approaches, and their implications, of the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe to the boycott of setting and assessing coursework and exams. While Natfhe plans to continue to set and assess work but withhold marks and grades from employers, the AUT refuses to engage with any part of the process. The AUT's approach, in particular, has the potential to create an irretrievable scenario that will leave students unable to progress or graduate until the huge backlog of work has been cleared. This dispute needs to be settled as soon as possible so that we can work together to undo the damage being caused to students' education by the unions' action."

* The AUT panellist says: "If you join the AUT, the union will endeavour to confirm membership by e-mail as quickly as possible, and once your membership has been confirmed, you will be called on to take part in any industrial action in which we are involved. The legal protection afforded to union members taking part in lawful industrial action will then extend to you in the same way as it applies to members who took part in the original ballot for action."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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