This leaflet is good for your legal health

January 3, 1997

This month I shall be sending a leaflet to hundreds of Association of University Teachers members which will vitally affect their future. You will know it if you see it. It has a red warning triangle at the top. It is a leaflet I would rather not send and which I should not have to send, It is not about any of the issues on which you would expect AUT's general secretary to be writing to his members just now. It is not about lecturers and related staffs' pay, or their contracts of employment, or their academic freedom.

It will explain a point of law which appears rather arcane and technical, but is actually deadly. The law now demands that people who pay their trade union subscription by check-off - that is, whose subscriptions are automatically deducted from their pay cheques - must restate every three years that they still want their subscriptions deducted. If anyone fails to do so, the employer is legally obliged to stop deducting the subscription and that person ceases to be a union member.

AUT members gave their instructions on check-off three years ago. If they are still paying by check-off, they must renew their instructions by March 28. If they do not, they cease to be members. I shall have to explain all this at a time when universities have made an insulting pay offer and have descended to the pettiness of "fining" the professionals who were on strike for one day. When academics have been rendered far more vulnerable by their new contracts so that AUT head office has seen a sharp rise in the number of colleagues needing help to combat unfair treatment; when in many universities, academic freedom has become a joke in rather poor taste, because they can be disciplined if their teaching does not meet with the approval of any one of their commercial sponsors.

How can any leaflet be so important that it is worth distracting the AUT's attention, even for a morning, from these issues? But if I do not send this particular leaflet, I shall be forced to remove many names from the list of AUT members. If any of them subsequently are treated harshly by their employers; if any of them is forced out of employment; if any of them has pressure put on to teach in a way that is ideologically acceptable to their management or commercial sponsors, we will not be able to offer them advice, help, or legal representation.

And the members to whom I write are not the only ones who will be affected. If we are forced to remove them, our ability to help all the others will be sharply reduced. With fewer subscriptions it would be harder to finance representation and our clout and credibility would diminish.

Most of the members I am writing to are too busy to have noticed March 28 creeping up on them. If I do not write and remind them they will be pushed out because they have not kept track of the erection of a bureaucratic obstacle course.

No doubt that was what the Government intended when it introduced this legislation. People were not leaving trade unions voluntarily in anything like the numbers the Government wanted. This law was enacted in the hope that people who had refused to leave their trade unions voluntarily would slip out accidentally. It also acts as a convenient diversion.

Last year we asked members to stop paying by check-off and switch to direct debit. Thousands of members did so. But a number did not. Some do not find direct debit convenient. Others, perhaps, were under too much pressure to give attention to the matter.

On the response to my leaflet this month rests much of the AUT's ability to influence pay settlements, and to protect themselves effectively. So if you hear from me, please deal with the matter straight away. Even better, if you pay by check-off, do not wait to hear from me. Deal with it now.

David Triesman is general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.

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