Cambridge pressed to give unions recognition

UCU and Unite seek formal agreement that will end 'dotty' anachronism. John Morgan reports

January 28, 2010

The University of Cambridge is facing calls to end its "dotty" reluctance to recognise unions representing academic and professional staff.

Cambridge is thought to be the only pre-1992 university not to give formal recognition to its branch of the University and College Union.

As a result, the UCU cannot enter into local collective negotiations with the university on terms and conditions.

The Cambridge branch of the UCU lodged a claim for recognition with the university in 2007. It was joined by Unite in seeking recognition on "academic-related staff", a category covering professional and administrative roles supporting teaching and research.

The two unions and the university recently reached an informal arrangement brokered by the Trades Union Congress on partnership working for academic-related staff, which the unions hope will pave the way to a full recognition agreement.

Mike Robinson, national education officer for Unite, said: "Cambridge has never had any recognition arrangements for its academic or academic-related staff - that is definitely anachronistic. We are hopeful that they are now coming into a more enlightened era."

David Goode, Cambridge UCU president, said the situation had not had a detrimental effect on pay because, until now, the pay award had always been nationally agreed. But he said it "has meant that when it comes to more local terms and conditions, we have no negotiating rights".

The university's governance system is seen as the root of opposition to union recognition. Academics have a strong voice on the governing Regent House, which is made up of 3,800 teaching and administrative staff at the university.

William Brown, professor of industrial relations at Cambridge, said that in the past, many in the university felt that because academics enjoyed self-government through Regent House, unions would simply be "replicating" this role.

But Professor Brown, who is a UCU member and serves on Cambridge's policymaking council, said this was "a bit dotty" and ignored part-employee owned organisations such as the John Lewis Partnership, whose staff have a voice in management and where unions are recognised.

He added that recognition had "never been a very large issue in Cambridge" because relations between university management and unions have been good, and union members who wished to join national strikes have never been obstructed.

Matt Waddup, UCU national head of campaigns, organising, recruitment and training, said recognition would be "positive" for the university and the people who work in it. "There is a lot to admire about the way Cambridge is still largely governed and controlled by the academy itself, rather than by middle managers," he added.

A Cambridge spokesman said the university "has a positive relationship with trade unions. The UCU, Unite and Unison play an active consultation role and assist in the effective running of the university."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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