The row over the representation of black members by the Association of University Teachers escalated this week as black activists warned that the union might be taken to a race tribunal. The AUT has called for the debate to be continued internally - rather than in the pages of The Times Higher .
Gargi Bhattacharyya, the union's vice-president, said this week: "AUT leadership needs to be aware that black and ethnic minority (BME) members increasingly feel that they may have no alternative but to pursue a tribunal application on the grounds of race discrimination (if things do not improve)."
Bill Gulam, a member of the AUT national executive committee and chair of its equalities committee, said: "There are black members of the AUT who are very close to taking it to a race tribunal."
Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, called for this debate to take place "within the union's structures". "We are happy to be open about our position, but we can see little practical benefit to BME AUT members in a continued discussion via the pages of The Times Higher ," she said.
Ten black academics sent a letter to the AUT saying that BME members are poorly represented and noting a 2004 case against the British Medical Association in which it was ordered to pay a black member nearly £1 million for refusing to represent him against the National Health Service.
"The successful case brought by R. Chaudhary against the BMA raises the issue of possible financial liabilities for unions that do not effectively represent the interests of black and ethnic minority members," the letter says.
Ms Hunt said: "We will give serious consideration to the issues raised. The union will look to respond positively in a spirit that encourages continued dialogue."
The letter expresses frustration at insufficient progress on a report commissioned by the AUT from Harminder Singh and described as a "grass-roots review" of its procedures for supporting black and ethnic minority staff.
Ms Hunt said: "The union has an ongoing programme of work arising from Harminder Singh's report to the AUT council, which extends way beyond the initial focus on provision of legal aid."
On the merger currently being negotiated between the AUT and lecturers' union Natfhe, the letter adds: "Although Natfhe may have a more visible history of work in these areas, the proposed formation of a new merged union does not absolve AUT from its responsibility to represent members in their workplaces."
Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, said: "The AUT and Natfhe are working hard to create a merged union with equality structures that are among the best of any UK union."
Ms Hunt said: "AUT and Natfhe negotiators are actively seeking to introduce equality structures for the new union that reflect the best of each tradition."