We don't want a return to disputes, so join us at the negotiating table

Sally Hunt says the UCU will do what it takes to get an equitable pay agreement with employers, if only they will come round and talk

January 15, 2009

It's like déjà vu all over again," the baseball coach Yogi Berra said in his inimitable way, and that's what it felt like as I read the extraordinary attack on the University and College Union in last week's Times Higher Education from the chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, Bill Wakeham.

In 2004, Ucea refused for months to talk to the largest higher education union - which at the time was the Association of University Teachers (AUT) - until industrial action forced an agreement to protect union members' salaries. In 2006, history was repeated almost exactly, this time with lecturers' union Natfhe and the AUT being forced into an industrial action that eventually won decent pay rises for staff across higher education.

So far, 2009 looks like offering more of the same, with the employers preferring to dole out public abuse rather than to engage in dialogue. Surely history has taught us that, in times such as these, it is more important than ever that we eschew posturing and time wasting and get back around the negotiating table to sort out our many differences as quickly as possible.

There is one glimmer of hope though. After ten months of the UCU's offering, Ucea has at last agreed to the involvement of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) to facilitate an agreement.

How serious Ucea's commitment is to the Acas process only time will tell. My commitment on the UCU's behalf is that I will try everything to reach the negotiated agreement that staff across our sector want. But it does take two to talk.

What should we talk about? There are four issues - each resolvable with goodwill on both sides.

First, where issues relate solely to academic or academic-related staff, the UCU wants the right to have distinct negotiations involving only those unions that represent members in those grades on issues relevant to those members of staff.

Second, we want a sensible timetable for annual pay negotiations rather than one that tips the balance unfairly in the employers' favour by rendering industrial action possible only outside term-time.

Third, we want Ucea to withdraw its discredited "opt-in/opt-out" strategy. This system would allow institutions to decide annually whether or not they honour the pay agreement and would make a mockery of national bargaining. The proposals are causing massive, unnecessary instability across the sector.

Fourth, we want to discuss the forthcoming pay increase with Ucea now, not at the end of March. Why? Because as Times Higher Education has reported in recent weeks, the employers are already threatening "pay freezes" and "zero offers", and these threats have big implications for our members.

Personally, I found it a little distasteful that in an introduction to a staffing report released last week, Ucea trumpeted the hard-won pay rises from 2006 as one of the attractions of working in higher education.

The employers fought hard against the significant rises that union members won through strong industrial action, and they should not be trying to take any backdated credit. That said, if high pay is such a success story for the sector, why are we hearing these mutterings of zero offers and why have the employers refused to talk to us for so long?

The bottom line is that Ucea has wasted ten months in stonewalling the UCU's request for negotiations. Although the union has been attacked on a number of issues, we have refused to engage in petty squabbles because we are focused on trying to make real progress. What happens if we can't? Well, in 2004 and 2006 a refusal to engage with the largest union in the sector led to bitter industrial disputes.

I would prefer to avoid this, so I will leave the macho language to Bill and Co and will end by saying that the UCU is ready to talk today on the four issues that concern our members. Yogi Berra also said: "The future ain't what it used to be." In the interests of everyone involved in higher education, I sincerely hope that the employers have learnt from the mistakes of the past and that 2009 will deliver a future of dialogue, not unnecessary dispute.

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