Super-union to get go-ahead

December 2, 2005

The creation of the largest academic trade union in the world was due to be confirmed this week, as members of lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers gave the final endorsement to plans for the merger of the two organisations.

As The Times Higher went to press, both unions were expected to declare that a large majority of their members had voted in favour of historic plans to create a new "super-union" of more than 116,000 lecturers, researchers, tutors and academic managers in further and higher education.

One of the first official joint acts that the unions were due to take, ahead of formal merger next spring, was to declare their intention to take industrial action on an unprecedented scale in support of a pay claim for university staff of at least 10 per cent for 2006.

"There's a feeling that if we are ever going to get a proper pay increase it is now or never," said one senior union source. "Let's bloody go for it - that's the mood here."

The formal results of a ballot of both unions' members were due on December 2, but although there has been a visible campaign for a "yes" vote, there has been little noticeably vocal or organised opposition to the merger plans.

The merged union, to be called the University and College Union, promises greater influence with the Government and "decision-makers", "more dedicated support" to members, "better resources, regional offices and improved support for branches", and perhaps most important, "more bargaining clout over pay".

With approaching 70,000 members in higher education, the union is not far from representing the majority of the UK's 150,000 academic staff.

The merger of unions representing staff in further and higher education could also potentially lead to co-ordinated strike action on pay in both sectors, which could shut down the entire post-16 education sector for periods.

The national executives of both unions are due to meet on the same day that the merger ballot result is declared this week to discuss their strategy for the pay campaign.

The unions are seeking to hold employers to a commitment made by Alan Johnson, the former Higher Education Minister, in April 2004. Mr Johnson said that vice-chancellors had assured him that they would spend "at least a third" of top-up fee income on pay, when the Government was seeking to get the top-up fees Bill through Parliament.

Both unions are keen to declare a formal dispute as early as possible and had initially set December 2 as the deadline for employers to make the commitment.

The employers have stressed that no commitment was ever made by vice-chancellors. Nonetheless, they have agreed to meet the unions on January 10, months earlier than the usual start of the bargaining process, to begin formal negotiating over the 2006 pay offer.

A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association said that the unions had turned down informal meetings on both November 24 and December 2 because they insisted on a fully representative meeting with the employers' formal negotiating team, under the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff structures.

"Consideration of balloting for industrial action seems somewhat premature when a date for the opening of negotiations has been agreed," a Ucea spokesman said.

Natfhe has called a special conference of its higher education branch representatives for January 14 at which, if merger is approved, the AUT will be represented. A formal ballot of members to agree industrial action is expected shortly after that.

The unions have secured the backing of the National Union of Students - which said that students had no desire to be "taught by underpaid, demotivated staff". This is despite the fact that industrial action could be designed to hit students, through, for example, a marking boycott.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

MAKE-UP OF THE UCU

The new merged union will be known as the University and College Union (UCU). It will have at least 116,000 members made up of:

  • The AUT's 49,000 members in pre-1992 universities
  • Natfhe's 19,000 members in post-1992 universities
  • Natfhe's 43,000 members in further education colleges
  • And an additional 6,000 Natfhe members who are retired, unemployed or students
  • Higher education members will be in the majority - 68,000 compared with 43,000 in further education, and both sectors will have their own distinct governing committees and members' services
  • The UCU will formally come into being on June 1, 2006, with elections for general secretary in early 2007. The new leader will take up office by June 1, 2007.

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