Honeymoon is over for UCU

October 13, 2006

A very public row has erupted at the merged academic union as one joint head attacks the other, suggesting that this year's pay dispute was mishandled. Phil Baty reports.

Open warfare has broken out at the very top of the University and College Union, with joint general secretary Paul Mackney launching a scathing public attack on his senior colleague, Sally Hunt.

Mr Mackney, in a letter published in today's Times Higher , goes so far as to imply that the union mishandled the 2006 national pay dispute. He describes it as the "biggest bundle" of "dirty washing" likely to be exposed in the public arena.

The 120,000-strong UCU was formed earlier this year after the merger of lecturers' union Natfhe, led by Mr Mackney, and the Association of University Teachers, led by Ms Hunt.

But hostilities between the two camps since the merger in June threaten to paralyse the UCU until its leadership is settled in March next year, when a single general secretary will be elected.

Ms Hunt is standing against Roger Kline, the former Natfhe head of universities who is backed by Mr Mackney, in a five-month election race that officially begins when nominations formally open next week.

The latest clash centres on an article in last week's Times Higher. This newspaper received a leaked internal UCU policy paper written by Ms Hunt, which was highly critical of Natfhe's handling of the aftermath of its 2005 dispute over contracts at London Metropolitan University.

She reported that members who had their pay docked after taking part in industrial action at London Met had not been properly protected by the union and had been left personally liable for legal bills in the court battle to recover lost pay.

Although Ms Hunt's paper was agreed by the UCU national higher education committee, UCU members and officials in the ex-Natfhe camp said that the report was a crude exercise in political point-scoring.

Ms Hunt is now responsible for all higher education matters, including those at London Met, but she had no role in the dispute at the time, which was led by Natfhe's Mr Kline and Mr Mackney.

In his letter to The Times Higher , Mr Mackney says that it "is unfortunate" that the paper "was written without consulting me, the union's senior solicitor or any of the national officials involved" and that it is a "pity that Ms Hunt failed to acknowledge the achievements at London Met".

And in the most explosive sentence, he warns: "London Met is only one university. If we are really going to do our dirty washing in public, let us look at the biggest bundle - the national higher education pay dispute."

Mr Mackney declined to be drawn on exactly what he meant by this comment, but it is known that he and senior Natfhe colleagues were extremely frustrated with the way the 2006 joint union national pay dispute was handled.

Ms Hunt and the AUT established the tactics used in the conflict, as their representatives outnumbered Natfhe's by four to three on the national pay negotiating committee, the JNCHES.

Natfhe disagreed with the AUT's tactics of refusing to both set and mark students' exams when Natfhe simply refused to mark them.

It is also known that Natfhe was more keen to make small concessions to allow talks to begin, while the AUT refused to negotiate for several months as tensions rose.

Natfhe sources claimed this week that after the situation had been unnecessarily prolonged and made acrimonious, the AUT "caved in" and settled the dispute "too cheaply", and Natfhe was forced to follow.

Ms Hunt told The Times Higher : "It is a matter of record that Paul has decided to support one of my opponents in the forthcoming election. That is a matter for him.

"Members want to see the union focusing on the issues that matter to them, not internal squabbling.

"My concern is what we now do for the London Met members who made considerable sacrifices to support their union.

"UCU members have a reasonable expectation that their general secretary will get on and do the job, and that is what I will continue to do."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

SIMMERING TENSIONS

* Paul Mackney described the lecturers' union Natfhe-Association of University Teachers merger in his conference speech in June as "like trying to reverse evolution with a merger of birds and reptiles". He declared his support for his Natfhe colleague Roger Kline in the race to lead the new union, saying that Mr Kline had "the kind of breadth of experience and approach" needed.

* When the AUT and Natfhe settled the 2006 national pay dispute in June, for 13.1 per cent over three years, Natfhe sources let it be known that they thought the unions had "caved in".

Ms Hunt and Mr Mackney issued a joint statement to members that said: "We believe that this is the best that can be achieved within the current national negotiating environment." However, Natfhe said that it had agreed to settle only because the AUT, with a majority of members at the negotiating table, had forced its hand.

* When the University and College Union's transitional arrangements committee decided in July that Mr Mackney should be in charge of equality issues for the UCU, a furious Ms Hunt wrote to 32,000 female members saying that "male colleagues... sometimes do not fully understand what issues are actually most important to women. Too often they make assumptions that they know best."

Mr Mackney hit back, claiming that Ms Hunt was "playing politics" as the decision to make him head of equality was taken by a committee of male and female elected members.

* Mr Mackney was reported to be furious last month about the lack of consultation between the two former unions over UCU policy. He let it be known that the first he knew of a new awards scheme launched by the union was when he saw the advert placed by the former AUT in The Times Higher .

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