It’s good to talk – and it’s essential, too

In the wake of a vote by UCU members to reject pay-bargaining changes, general secretary Sally Hunt calls on all sides to move forward in good faith for the benefit of the sector as a whole

February 29, 2008

I am proud that the University and College Union is a member-led union. It was right to put the proposed changes to the way we will negotiate future national pay and conditions to our membership in higher education. We are confident that we speak with the authority of our members and we are keen to deal with the employers’ representatives as soon as possible to resolve the situation.

There has been a lot of internal debate through our democratic structures and members on both sides of the argument have been making their feelings known to me and to their colleagues through our various networks. The wider membership has now spoken and the two main concerns that brought about the ballot remain the problem.

First is the matter of an amended timetable for pay negotiations, which would all but preclude effective industrial action should talks regrettably break down. Second is the absence of a robust structure to allow UCU to represent the sometimes distinct interests of staff such as academics or those on academic-related grades.

Can these issues be resolved? Yes, with goodwill on all sides. Predictably, a minority of employers criticised us for holding the ballot and will more than likely criticise my commitment to fresh negotiations. Yet to accept the biggest changes in how we negotiate university pay for a generation without seeking the agreement of our members would have been quite wrong and alien to UCU’s democratic ethos.

We are fully aware of the threats made ahead of, and during, the ballot that a “no” vote would lead to the break-up of national bargaining. The ballot has been held and it has delivered a rejection of the proposed changes. That is where we are at present and that is the position we must now all work from.

The immediate response from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association was predictable, but still disappointing. Ucea might not like the ballot result, but trying to undermine it insults our members and their staff, and it helps nobody. Surely one thing the pay dispute in 2006 must have taught everyone is that the longer disagreements are allowed to go on, the harder they are to resolve. UCU members have made their feelings quite clear and we all now need to move forward to resolve the situation.

Those employers who have criticised UCU “militancy” should reflect on the fact that deregulation of national bargaining in such sectors as the railways has increased the number of industrial disputes, not reduced them, and has increased competition to retain staff, rather than reducing it.

Ucea’s own polling suggests that national bargaining is still the favoured approach and no institution has yet put its head above the parapet to say on record that it wants the local free-for-all that the end of national bargaining would bring.

UCU favours national order over local anarchy, but if some employers decide that this is the time to break ranks and choose anarchy, they can rest assured that we will robustly defend our members' interests and seek backing from the whole union to defend national bargaining wherever it is under attack.

Turning to our colleagues in the support-staff unions, members of UCU have contacted me to express concern about off-the-record remarks, purportedly from our colleagues in the support staff unions, made to the press about a supposed “class war” between UCU and other unions and “the gloves being off”.

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