Union recruiters for social partnership

March 7, 1997

On the face of it, universities and unions have little in common. Trade unions are essentially defensive organisations protecting their members' jobs and pay, a bit like an insurance company for the job market, while universities pride themselves on being innovative institutions providing the intellectual seed-corn for the future.

However, the similarities are remarkable. Both are repositioning themselves for the new millennium. Both know that the re-election of a Conservative government will bring them more of the same - financial attacks, hostile legislation, the consolidation of a premier league, mergers, a disgruntled membership.

Universities and unions are also conscious that they have no special relationship with New Labour and no promises that anything will be radically different. Universities have Dearing and unions have the social chapter to look forward to. Will they amount to very much?

The choice is to adopt a fearful and sulky mood or to accept that we have to renew ourselves and be prepared to justify our existence to a sceptical world. Another similarity is our recognition that education and training must be substantially improved if we are to compete in the global market and develop a highly skilled, well-paid workforce on the lines of the European social model.

The alternatives are to lower ourselves into the Third World pool or adopt the United States system of deregulation where at least 30 million people are below any social protection safety net. European unions are busy defending their social partnership model against employers and governments which have suddenly been attracted to the UK free-for-all. Ironic as it is going out of fashion here.

At the European Trades Union Congress next month we will be preparing the case for a social Europe with full employment and equal opportunities for all. It will be the union contribution to the debate at the forthcoming Inter-Governmental Conference. It all sounds a bit dry but this year's events in the UK and the rest of Europe will determine the political direction for a decade to come and the stakes are very high.

John Monks, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, is keen to move British unions towards the positive partnership approach of our European counter parts, rather than the old-fashioned confrontationist style which is part of our history and culture.

He has had remarkable success so far in restating the union agenda so that "we are part of the solution to the UK economy, not part of the problem". Universities, too, have shown that their survival skills and flexibility are well-loved.

Another element in this analogy of the brotherhood (and I use that word advisedly) of universities and unions is that they neglect women's issues at their peril. An Equal Opportunities Commission poll has already shown that women are not fooled by the superficial presentation of women's issues by politicians: that is why women form the majority of floating voters. The appointment of a woman vice chancellor is still headline news and the number of female general secretaries of unions has fallen in the past five years.

The downside is the risk of not taking their constituents with them on their pilgrimage to the future. The job of conversion is enormous and the leadership, whether it be general secretary or vice chancellor, must convince a fretful and fearful following that there is a prize worth having. Perhaps they should try a job swap.

Rita Donaghy is a member of the TUC general council, the European TUC executive, the national executive of Unison and permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union.

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