Factions fight for key roles in merged union

February 17, 2006

Phil Baty discovers that the engagement between the AUT and Natfhe may not be running as smoothly as everyone wanted, with both partners vying to wear the trousers in their eventual marriage amid accusations of power-grabbing

A bitter power struggle has broken out between lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers ahead of their merger later this year.

Senior sources close to merger talks have revealed Natfhe fears that the AUT has staged a "power grab" in what looks more like a takeover than a merger.

These fears were exacerbated last week when Natfhe general secretary Paul Mackney confirmed that he would not stand in the election next year to lead the new University and College Union (UCU). He has withdrawn for health reasons.

This could give a clear run to AUT leader Sally Hunt, who is the overwhelming favourite for the top job.

Investigations by The Times Higher have revealed an acrimonious stand-off over senior management positions and the division of responsibilities during the merged union's transitional year, which begins on June 1. These roles are likely to set the political tone and strategic direction for the 120,000-strong UCU. Historically, the unions' styles have differed.

The AUT represents academic and related staff in traditional universities and has tended to be the more conservative union. Natfhe's priorities have been dictated by its further education membership, which forms a majority in the union, and by those it represents in post-1992 universities.

The AUT appears to have gained control of the most influential areas during the UCU's crucial transitional year, including all campaigning activity across further and higher education, all organisation and recruitment activity across both sectors, and full control of the union's higher education policy work.

There is further concern that the AUT is trying to unfairly "anoint" its senior management staff into key roles ahead of a formal recruitment and appointment process when the unions are fully amalgamated under the new general secretary in spring 2007.

"There is a view that we have been stitched up," said one Natfhe source close to merger talks. "We are in a situation where the AUT is levering all its people into the best positions, and is treating this like a hostile set of negotiations with vice-chancellors, rather than merger talks. But this is not over."

Following resounding endorsements by both unions' memberships last year, Natfhe and the AUT will formally merge in June. The unions will operate under a joint management team, sharing posts and elected officials for a transitional period until spring 2007, when a single general secretary will be elected and staff are given firm posts. Mr Mackney has said he will remain joint general secretary with Ms Hunt during the period. But after a heart attack last year, he has decided not to go for the top UCU job.

It is almost certain that a Natfhe candidate will stand, most likely to be the union's head of universities, Roger Kline, or its head of further education, Barry Lovejoy.

The controversy between the unions centres on a memorandum of understanding governing roles and responsibilities in the transitional year. The memorandum was agreed last year by Mr Mackney and Ms Hunt. But it is now the focus of conflicting interpretations by each union.

The document, first distributed to union insiders last October, sets out the "responsibilities under interim staffing arrangements". It includes a "grid" that "sets out joint management team lead responsibility for each main area of the new union's work for the transitional period".

It sets out which general secretary will take responsibility for which areas and which of their senior management staff will take the "management lead" for the transitional year (see graphic).

The document confirms that the general secretaries have agreed that Ms Hunt will control all higher education employment and policy issues, representing 60 per cent of the new union's activity. Malcolm Keight, AUT deputy general secretary, will be taking the "management lead".

Ms Hunt will also control three key areas that cut across further and higher education membership - organisation, recruitment and campaigns. Matt Waddup, the AUT's assistant general secretary, will take the lead in these areas.

Mr Mackney will take charge of further education employment and education issues and will retain a large degree of influence, with control of press and communications as well as parliamentary and public affairs.

There is understood to be concern inside Natfhe that Mr Kline, who was acting general secretary while Mr Mackney was away due to ill health, barely features on the grid, given only the management lead for health and safety issues.

Natfhe has been quick to stress that the memorandum of understanding and the accompanying grid is not an agreed management structure but a broad plan to ensure the smooth running of the union during its transitional year. Natfhe said it was subject to further negotiation and full consultation with the unions representing staff of both the AUT and Natfhe.

Natfhe maintains that those given the management lead in each area should not be seen as de facto managers for the future. They must "interface" with their colleagues at the other union and the positions will be open to competition in 2007.

But Natfhe fears that the AUT is seeking to "entrench" its personnel into the transitional roles so the positions are all but sewn up before the official appointment procedure. The unions are at loggerheads over the arrangements.

Last week's Natfhe national executive committee (NEC) heard that two meetings between the unions to discuss the implementation of the grid were cancelled acrimoniously last month.

One meeting, due for January 13, was cancelled at the 11th hour. Natfhe negotiators raised concerns that the AUT seemed to assume that its staff taking the management lead in designated areas were filling actual management posts, with clear power over their Natfhe counterparts.

Natfhe's report to the NEC says simply that "there has not been as much movement (over staffing matters) as had been hoped... further discussions in this area are urgently required".

The paid full-time officials who work for Natfhe are represented by the Amicus union. An Amicus official commented after a Natfhe staff meeting last week: "The staff unions do not have a problem with respect to general secretaries having an overview of particular functions of UCU in the transitional year. But we do have problems in relation to the assignment of individuals to oversee functions in such a way that they become anointed, de facto, to be the manager of that area when the unions are fully amalgamated."

She said that there was concern that if managers assumed key roles for the transitionary year, they would have an "in-built advantage" and a far greater chance of being appointed to the role on full amalgamation, raising questions of fairness and equality.

"We have been demanding that a fair equality-based appointment process be the hallmark of UCU in the same way as it has been in Natfhe," she said.

"We feel we are pushing at an open door with Natfhe's management, but the problem is that Natfhe's management alone cannot give us guarantees come June 1, when the two unions become one."

Jill Jones, chair of Natfhe's higher education committee and a lecturer at Westminster University, confirmed this week that she had intended to table a motion expressing concern about the allocation of responsibilities in the memorandum at last week's NEC.

But she declined to reveal the details, saying it was an issue of "private detail to be sorted out between the unions" and confirmed that she had decided not to forward the motion after receiving assurances that her concerns were being dealt with by Natfhe.

She said: "At the moment there are sensitivities all over the place as we are right in the middle of the merger process. Those sensitivities need to be addressed but I'm happy that the negotiating team is addressing them.

Other mergers have been far hairier than we've managed here."

In a statement, Ms Hunt said: "The AUT doesn't comment on staffing matters.

The lead responsibilities for the new union have been agreed by members. At such a crucial point in the pay dispute we are putting all our energies into the job in hand - winning the dispute.

"The AUT is committed to campaigning for its members and we are looking forward to doing that from June in a bigger, better and stronger union."

A Natfhe spokesperson said: "Under the transitional rules agreed by the two unions, the two general secretaries must prepare a detailed implementation plan for the management and administration of the new union in its transitional period.

"It would be premature to comment on progress or perceptions as plans are still under discussion and staff unions have to be consulted. The priority for both unions is the pay campaign."



Some 14,047 AUT members voted in favour of the merger - 79.2 per cent of those who voted

21,664 Natfhe members voted in favour of the merger - 95.7 per cent of those who voted

UCU will be made up of almost 70,000 members in higher education and 43,000 members in further education, consisting of:

  • The AUT's 49,000 members in pre-1992 universities
  • Natfhe's 19,000 members in post-1992 universities
  • Natfhe's 43,000 members in further education colleges

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