United we stand on better pay

October 24, 2003

Collective national bargaining by university unions is essential, says Chris Kaufman

As a member of the Bett committee and a frequent visitor to university campuses across the UK on behalf of the Transport and General Workers'

Union, I have had a close-up view of industrial relations in higher education over the past few frenetic years. The major driver of change has been the need for equality at work, especially equal pay. Universities knew they were vulnerable to litigation through the hundreds of cases unions had in the pipeline to go to tribunals, but we said we would prefer negotiation.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association came to the Bett table expressing a desire to go to local bargaining. After 18 months of debate between employers, unions and independent members, a consensus was reached on the importance of national bargaining and of tackling the key questions of low pay and unequal pay with proper funding from the government.

The Bett recommendations appeared and the employers disappeared. It took another year and a strike by all the university unions acting together to get the employers back to the negotiating table.

The result was the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff, which telescoped eight different negotiating bodies into one overarching body with two sub-tables (academic and non-academic). Over the following two years, JNCHES, its sub-committees and its working groups met many times to try to hammer out ways by which to promote the Bett agenda. This process, with so many different interest groups, was never going to be easy.

This is the background against which university workers through their own unions are now deciding on the merits or otherwise of the two-year deal on pay and a national framework agreement proposed by the employers on July 17. The three results in so far, from Amicus, the TGWU and Unison, have favoured acceptance.

That is no surprise: support staff are notoriously low paid, predominantly women, often employed part time and stuck with little chance of training or career development. This deal offers a way out and a path away from poverty. It has given the best pay increase ever for university support staff and the prospect of more money in the future with assimilation on to a single spine.

Very large numbers will still be paid at £5. an hour, so we won't be celebrating yet. And the job evaluation/role analysis process at universities is not all we would have wished it to be. The lesson, however, is to ensure full local training and involvement of union reps at institutional level to engage in a process owned by both employers and employees. Without this crucial local agreement, the process will stall and the unions will be looking to litigation again.

The national framework agreement is designed to maintain a national influence at local level, and the unions will ensure that we pursue this vital issue. Our sister academic unions have problems with some aspects of the deal, and I hope that the employers can make clear that accommodations can be reached.

Higher education workers, from porters to professors, have a critical interest in working together locally and nationally through unions on shared agreements for implementation of the national framework. That strong input is our protection against fragmentation into local bargaining, which we would forfeit without the national framework.

We must keep our nerve. All university unions may need to stand together in future, and JNCHES represents the best vehicle to keep us united. It also represents the key to adequate government funding for the sector and the best way to ensure the continuation of national bargaining.

Chris Kaufman is national secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

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