United we stand but divided we negotiate

February 24, 2006

Unions are keen to shake up the skewed pay system, but they diverge on strategy, says Christina McAnea

As the academic unions start the process for industrial action over pay, Unison will be sending out its own ballot papers this week. More than 40,000 professional and support staff in the higher education sector will be voting on strike action over pensions. We're not in dispute over pay - not yet.

But it would be a mistake to assume that there is a huge split between the unions. On the key point of arguing for at least a portion of the new money coming into the sector to be put towards improving staff pay and conditions, we are of one mind. As a result, we have indicated to employers that our forthcoming pay claim is likely to include a call for a substantial wage increase, £6.50 an hour minimum rate, and improvements in conditions.

A pay hike is urgently required to stop the brain drain of academics and the high turnover of support staff. Wages in the sector have fallen behind for all categories of staff. Implementation of the framework agreement is patchy at best, while some universities are doing deals that only maintain the status quo and do nothing to address the long-term underlying problems of unequal pay and discriminatory reward systems. Such deals usually benefit certain categories of staff (inevitably, the higher paid) and leave little in the pot to be shared among the rest.

The unions agree on the main principle this year. But there are differences in our approaches. While the academic unions have brought forward their timetable for submitting their pay claim, the support and professional staff unions' formal claim would normally be submitted in April to allow for negotiation in the run-up to the August 1 pay settlement date. A key reason for this is that many of our members are on very low pay, with rates just above the national legal minimum. Taking strike action and losing even a day's salary can make a huge dent in a family's income.

It is also almost inevitable that we will be in dispute over pensions in the post-92 sector. Although the Government has agreed to protect the pension scheme for teachers and lecturers, those in the local government scheme - including support and professional staff, mainly in the post-92 sector - are likely to have to fight to get equal treatment. In all likelihood, they will need to take strike action to win this.

It would have been a good strategy to co-ordinate the actions being taken by the different unions. Perhaps the main lesson is that the unions that represent staff in the sector ought to be speaking with one voice - that means agreeing common bargaining objectives, timetables and negotiating together.

The unions I speak for want this to happen. But despite the existence of a framework agreement that, in theory at least, covers all staff in the sector, and the employers' commitment to making an offer across the board to all sectors, the academic unions have insisted on separate bargaining.

This opens the way for employers to exploit our differences.

I hope that in future the new merged union for academics will sit down with unions representing support and professional staff. Maybe next year we can be on the picket lines together.

Christina McAnea is Unison's national secretary for education and trade and union-side secretary for the unions representing the Professional, Technical, Administrative and Ancillary Staff.

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