Hustings brings out anger over pay dispute

January 12, 2007

The gloves came off in the fight to lead the University and College Union this week as the two main rivals for the general secretary's job went head to head for the first time at an election hustings event.

In a keenly anticipated meeting, Roger Kline, head of equality and employment at the UCU, attacked the way Sally Hunt, his rival for the top job and current joint UCU general secretary, handled the epic 2006 pay dispute.

During the dispute, Mr Kline was head of universities at lecturers' union Natfhe, while Ms Hunt was leader of the Association of University Teachers. The two unions merged to form the UCU.

Speaking at an elections hustings at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Mr Kline said the two unions had failed to see eye to eye on whether the campaign would be "short and sharp or long and difficult".

"There was no real discussion of strategy or tactics throughout the campaign," he told UCU members.

"This is a difficult issue that needs to be discussed in a grown-up way without being a personal attack. But if we are not honest with ourselves, we won't be able to mobilise people next time."

During the conflict, the AUT refused to set and mark exams, while Natfhe refused only to mark them. At the meeting, Mr Kline said that he had learnt of the AUT's intention to implement its tactic only via an e-mail.

After the meeting, Mr Kline told The Times Higher that Natfhe had been kept in the dark by the AUT, which formed a majority on the lecturers' pay negotiating team, during the final stages before a pay settlement was reached.

He said: "At the very end, on June 1, we didn't know that there were discussions going on about a settlement. Every Natfhe negotiator was astonished."

He also accused the AUT of failing to anticipate universities withholding the pay of lecturers taking industrial action.

He said: "We had a hardship fund, the AUT didn't. We expected employers to deduct money, and the AUT were adamant it wouldn't happen. When it did happen, they were completely unprepared."

Ms Hunt told the meeting: "Some places could have carried on, but others couldn't. Some might not like the judgment call I made, but I stand by what I did."

She reiterated her position that the union had achieved the best deal possible through negotiation.

She later told The Times Higher : "I have never hidden from this view, which was supported by the AUT executive, the Nathfe higher education executive, the new UCU transitional executive and finally by 70 per cent of our members in a high-turnout ballot.

"No doubt some will take issue with Roger's comments. I would urge restraint. Who benefits from the fostering of disunity at a time when we are trying to build one credible voice for our profession? I helped to create the UCU to move away from these old divisions, and my focus is firmly on our future."

Peter Jones, the third candidate, said: "The dispute was not handled well.

It was a question of bad tactics, bad timing and bad strategy. I would have either held it nearer exam time or at enrolling time - you've got to maximise disruption to the employer.

"A lot of lecturers did not know what they were in for - I think a lot of them got a shock when they realised their pay was going to be deducted at the same rate as if they were on strike."

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