Union members to vote on structural reforms and ban on industrial action during pay talks to preserve national bargaining. Melanie Newman reports.
The future of national pay bargaining was cast under renewed doubt this week as the University and College Union confirmed that it is to ballot its 120,0000 members on changes to the pay negotiating process.
A "no" vote could derail reforms that employers claim are essential if national bargaining is to continue.
The union's representatives on the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff had agreed to structural reforms, which would mean that academics would negotiate pay in future at the same table as support staff. They also agreed a new disputes procedure, which would prevent industrial action between March and April/May while pay talks are under way.
The UCU's higher education committee was split on whether to accept the reforms and agreed last week to put the changes to a ballot of all members, without recommending that they accept or reject the plans.
One of the most hotly debated issues at the meeting was the new disputes procedure, which one committee member at the meeting described as a "no- strike clause".
Jimmy Donaghey, assistant secretary of the UCU at Queen's University, Belfast, said: "Given that the proposals will prevent us taking effective industrial action and also do not guarantee us lead bargainer status, the HEC has taken the position of allowing the membership to decide on the future structure of their pay negotiations. This is to be supported."
Opposition to the single-table bargaining structure came from the Open University. Its representative argued that academics' claim for restoring pay comparability with other public sector workers would be lost if they joined support-staff unions at the same table.
Some union members are already predicting that the ballot, to be held early in the new year, will be lost on a low turnout.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, said: "The proposed changes are sizeable, and it is right that members should have their say. I will abide by their view, whatever that is."
A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges and Employers Association said there was "growing concern" that the deal was "being called into question".
"The modernisation of the negotiating machinery is essential for the continuation of national negotiations," he said.