Special conference says 'yes' to employer demand - but with caveats. Melanie Newman reports. The University and College Union has abandoned its long-held opposition to negotiating academics' pay around the same table as porters, cleaners and other university support staff.
Despite concerns that single-table bargaining could weaken the academic voice in pay talks and hold down academics' pay, an overwhelming majority of delegates at the UCU's special higher education conference last week accepted demands from employers that academics join single-table pay talks.
At present, academic and academic-related staff have their own negotiating table, with a separate table for support staff. But the Universities and Colleges Employers Association had warned that national pay bargaining might collapse if the UCU did not agree to the new arrangement.
Single-table bargaining is seen by employers and support staff unions as essential to ensure equal pay between all university staff.
"We are very much looking forward to reaching agreement with our sister unions on a united bargaining front that will strengthen our ability to stand up for university staff," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU.
While UCU delegates agreed to a single table, they insisted that the union must still be able to negotiate separately and directly on behalf of the academic staff groups. The UCU hopes to retain a separate sub-committee within the national negotiation structures, which would discuss pay, terms and conditions for academic and academic-related staff at higher grades (grade 6/AC1) on the national pay spine.
These discussions would inform negotiations at the main table, where any pay settlement would be finalised.
UCU will meet unions representing professional, technical, administrative and ancillary staff (Patas) later this month to discuss their proposal. But early indications suggest it will not be welcomed wholeheartedly.
Jon Richards, Patas staff-side secretary, said: "We have no desire for a separate sub-committee. We are struggling to find issues that the sub- committee would discuss that would not affect the rest of the pay spine."
Any changes to pay scales, grade boundaries and the pace of progression through increments agreed for academics at a sub-committee, but not implemented for non-academic staff, could leave employers facing claims under pay equality laws.
UCU branches opposing single-table bargaining include Queen's University Belfast, which has argued that agreeing the same percentage increase in pay for all staff would rule out differential increases ("catch up") to take account of historic underpayment for academics.
Tom Hickey, chair of the UCU's Brighton branch, who backed the move to a single table, said: "The whole of the university sector should be fighting together for reasonable salaries. The single table doesn't preclude adjustments such as extra points on the top of the scale, which could be possible for some academics."
The UCU also resolved to make the right to strike and to ballot for industrial action at any time during pay talks non-negotiable. This may fail to meet the employers' demands for a clear negotiating timetable, which would limit the UCU's ability to strike before the end of the exam period.
A Ucea spokesman said: "Ucea awaits clarification on the two essential changes: a single table for pay negotiations and an agreed annual timetable for national negotiations."
He said Ucea encouraged the UCU to agree changes with support staff unions "so discussions to resolve the future of national bargaining can continue".
SUMMER WORK PLAN TO CUT CO2
The University and College Union has called on academics to work through the summer and cut conference travel to reduce their carbon footprint. In a discussion paper, Brian Everett and Rob Copeland say using campus buildings more intensively in the warm summer months would cut carbon emissions. "This is likely to be very controversial, particularly with academic staff who have seen summer as a period for research," they admit.