UCU: We failed our members

October 6, 2006

Sally Hunt slams Natfhe support in year-long dispute, reports Phil Baty

The University and College Union jeopardised its future industrial strength by failing to fully protect rank-and-file members who took part in one of the most bitter disputes in recent history, an explosive leaked paper admits.

In an internal policy paper, joint UCU general secretary Sally Hunt says that hundreds of lecturers who took part in a marking boycott in 2005 were left to suffer "enormous" pay deductions of up to 40 per cent without "the kind of support members expect from the union".

Some of the lecturers, who won a year-long contract dispute at London Metropolitan University, were encouraged by the union to take legal test cases to try to recover their docked pay, as outriders for hundreds of their colleagues.

But they were left personally liable for legal costs, potentially running into thousands of pounds. Some had "already spent substantial sums of their own money pursuing the cases", Ms Hunt's paper reveals.

Some were even advised by the union to "check to see if their household insurance would cover any costs incurred".

"This is a major issue in terms of the confidence that members will have in supporting the union in any future industrial action and the lessons...need to be learnt," says the paper, which has been accepted by the union's national executive committee.

"The important thing is to ensure that in the future UCU members' interests are protected fully by the national union".

The 18-month dispute at London Met was initiated by lecturers' union Natfhe, before its 2006 merger with the Association of University Teachers created the UCU.

Natfhe won a settlement, perceived as a great victory, in the autumn of 2005, but the deal did not secure the return of pay to staff who were docked 40 per cent of pay in July, and a further 10 per cent in August and September.

This summer, 12 of 17 individual members seeking to recover their pay were advised that they had poor prospects of success. The remaining five were advised to withdraw their claims in the light of the high legal bills they would face if they lost.

It is understood that the 17 are facing a £19,000 bill to cover the university's legal costs, although a settlement is being discussed.

Ms Hunt's paper has sparked a furious political row at UCU. Ms Hunt was general secretary of the AUT at the time, and had no involvement in the London Met dispute, which was led by Roger Kline, former head of universities at Natfhe.

Mr Kline is currently Ms Hunt's main rival in the election early next year for general secretary of the UCU.

Supporters of Mr Kline claim that Ms Hunt's paper, although agreed by the executive, is an exercise in political point-scoring designed to influence the election.

Two highly provocative statements claiming that London Met members were let down, made in Ms Hunt's original paper, were struck out before the paper was passed.

The deleted statements claimed that members at London Met felt that "the practice of the national union in these cases did not match the rhetoric"

and warned: "Members must never be allowed to believe that the national union has forgotten about them."

A paper to the same executive meeting by Greg Barnett, a member of the UCU executive and the London Met branch representative, said that the Natfhe legal department "did not have the time or resources to provide legal representation" for the members, who were not fully aware that they could be held liable for costs.

But Mr Barnett told The Times Higher that there was no intention to criticise any Natfhe official.

"I cannot fault at all the level of support the branch received over 18 months from the regional and national offices. We would not have won the dispute without that support," he said.

The union has now agreed to cover the members' legal bills, to fund further legal test cases and to always "defend and support" members facing docked pay.

Mr Kline said: "The UCU has demonstrated that it will continue the support Natfhe gave to members throughout the desperate attempts to unsuccessfully impose a new contract."

He pointed out that as well as winning the dispute, Natfhe had backed a successful claim in the employment tribunal that members were unfairly dismissed when they had their contracts changed.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

NO CLAIM, JUST MORE PAIN

UCU advised members who suffered pay docking to "check to see if their household insurance would cover any costs incurred" in the legal case to recover the salary. The Times Higher asked leading insurance companies for their advice:

"Gosh, that sounds absurd," said a spokesman at Barclays, which provides home insurance.

David Ross, from Norwich Union, said: "Home insurance might cover you for legal disputes with neighbours, for example, but it won't cover you for pay docking. No household policy would cover you for that."

A spokeswoman from Direct Line said: "Our home insurance policies would not cover loss of earnings."

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