Non-negotiable stance kills London Met talks

June 24, 2005

Talks to end the 14-month industrial dispute at London Metropolitan University collapsed this month when Brian Roper, the vice-chancellor, insisted on nine "non-negotiable" principles to take to the negotiating table, writes Phil Baty.

An exchange of e-mails earlier this month between Mr Roper and Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union Natfhe, leaked to The Times Higher , shows that both parties tried to reach an agreement to return to formal negotiations.

But Natfhe said that any movement was prevented by Mr Roper's list of no-go areas, which included performance-related pay and a measure to prevent staff working "off site" without prior approval.

After an unprecedented five-day strike in May, members of Natfhe are taking continuous action short of a strike over London Met's attempt to impose new contracts on staff of the former London Guildhall University.

Mr Mackney met Mr Roper on June 2 and e-mailed the vice-chancellor the next day welcoming the "good humour" and helpfulness of the meeting.

He listed the union's plans for a return to talks, including a proposal to suspend all industrial action for five days "to allow a period of at least two full days of talks".

Three days later, Mr Roper said that a suspension of action for five days was "not acceptable" and suggested a period of almost two months. He also listed nine "employment conditions" that were "non-negotiable".

These included the need for "performance appraisal and performance-related pay" and a move to ensure that staff work on campus "regularly" and obtain management approval if they want to work "off site".

The list also included no automatic entitlement to "dedicated blocks of time" for research.

Mr Mackney e-mailed back calling for the withdrawal of the list of conditions.

He said that even though the offer of a five-day suspension of action had been rejected, he was willing - as a goodwill measure - to suspend action for two days so intensive talks could take place.

But on June 14, Mr Roper said that while his list could be "discussed", "the principles... remain fixed points".

He said that because Mr Mackney had "not fundamentally moved" and because he had proposed to reduce the period for suspending industrial action, "it is difficult to see how the talks we both wish to see take place can in fact do so".

Mr Roper told The Times Higher that the real sticking point was Natfhe's refusal to suspend action for more than the "completely meaningless" short periods offered.

"Only 80 of the 1,080 staff on the disputed contract declared that they had taken part in the strike," he said. "Support for this action is rapidly declining."

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