Delegates to Unison's higher education service group annual conference last week voted against throwing out the current pay offer before balloting members, but in favour of preparing for strike action if it is rejected by members.
And this week members of the Association of University Teachers voted to accept this year's pay offer in a ballot that drew a turn-out of nearly 50 per cent.
Unison plans to ballot members over the next few weeks on the deal, which offers a 2 per cent increase for the first six months, followed by 1.8 per cent for the remaining six. This works out at 2.9 per cent for the whole year.
While the conference voted against settling below a 3 per cent real-terms rise, many delegates felt it could be difficult to drum up support to fight for the extra amount, particularly if it meant asking members to lose pay to strike.
Union general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe criticised the government for focusing on reducing debt rather than rewarding workers. "I don't want spend, spend, spend," he said. "But why should we take money out of the pockets of health workers and workers in higher education by staging pay awards rather than paying the whole amount up front?" Elaine Harrison, the union's head of higher education, said: "The level of settlement is not a happy proposal. It's unfair to staff and it damages morale." But she said it may be difficult to persuade better-paid staff in other unions to take action against it. She criticised the Association of University Teachers for refusing to join other unions in the pay negotiations.
The conference agreed to press for unity between unions, although it conceded that it may have to take industrial action alone. Delegates also agreed to persist with Unison's campaign for a minimum wage of half male median earnings, rising over time to two thirds.
The result of the AUT ballot, announced at its annual conference this week, was 58 per cent in favour of accepting the deal and 42 per cent against.
It is likely to deter other staff from voting for industrial action against the staged pay offer, but AUT general secretary David Triesman said he would advise his members to support any union that did decide to take action.
The ballot result was being discussed by AUT council at the union's annual conference as The THES went to press.