UCU says moves by universities to work around, rather than with, unions on campus represent a return to the 1980s. Melanie Newman reports.
Vice-chancellors were accused of adopting 1980s-style "union busting" tactics this week after a law firm confirmed it was advising universities on how to circumvent recognised campus trade unions.
Jonathan Coley, partner at lawyers Pinsent Masons, said frustration with higher education trade unions had been a "recurring theme" in discussions with university clients in recent months.
Writing in the firm's latest bulletin on higher education, he said: "In some instances, the relationship with the union has deteriorated significantly, and in others there is simply a feeling that the union is, or has become, unrepresentative, either because of a low density of union membership or because the union's position is polarised in a way that does not genuinely reflect that of the staff."
Institutions should consider establishing alternative employee relations arrangements such as a works council or a staff forum, Mr Coley said. These offered "a real opportunity for a new direction in employee relations" and demonstrated to unions that they were not "the only show in town".
There was "clearly a risk that trade union representatives would seek to stand for election to these staff forums" and, while universities could not legally bar union members from standing for election, they could ensure "balanced representation" by giving union officials a specific number of places on the council. The remaining places could then be reserved for non-union staff. "Limiting the term of office of staff council members is another option to consider," Mr Coley advised.
He warned against union derecognition, which he described as a "nuclear option" that would escalate the problem. It was "akin to getting a divorce and both parties being forced to cohabit".
Industrial relations in higher education have been strained after last year's pay dispute, one of the most bitter ever seen. The dispute saw the newly created University and College Union make its pay claim ahead of the usual schedule, declare a dispute before the first official pay negotiation meeting, and eventually mount a boycott of exam marking and other assessments, timed to impact on the graduation season.
Malcolm Keight, head of higher education at the University and College Union, said: "I am surprised that this 1980s union- busting idea is still circulating in the higher education sector.
"I am aware that a number of new human resources directors in the sector are from non-unionised backgrounds and are unused to having their wisdom questioned, but they should concentrate more on understanding how staff see their employers regarding pay and conditions, and understanding low morale - not shooting the messenger.
"UCU has an effective and constructive relationship with most universities, who understand and respect our role. In a sector where employers acknowledge the benefits of a degree of national bargaining, the union provides an essential link between these agreements and local employment conditions. If this does not happen the result is greater inequality."
Jon Richards, head of higher education at Unison's Education Workforce Unit, said: "Mrs Thatcher's going back into No 10 (to visit Gordon Brown) appears to have woken up some 1980s legal dinosaurs. This at a time when Universities Secretary John Denham says 'thank you' to unions for working with employers in improving workplace learning.
"When institutions are complaining about lack of resources, suggestions that they spend additional money and tie up their human resources in extra bureaucracy sounds a little bizarre. It is particularly odd to propose introducing 'nodding dog' committees into a questioning university environment.
"We have been running a Joint Partnership working programme with Ucea (Universities and Colleges Employers Association), which has helped a number of employers solve their local problems and this is the way forward. Better to work with us rather than around us - because we're not going anywhere."