Whose interests do unions really serve?

A university HR director speaks out on UCU’s position on the forthcoming ballot on single-table bargaining

February 14, 2008

Before I get howls of derision let’s get one thing straight. I believe in trade unions: responsible trade unions. But being responsible means not pandering to a vocal, militant minority who cannot see either the future of modern employee relations, or the benefits it can bring to hard-working colleagues.

Let’s take a specific. What exactly are the University and Colleges Union at a national level doing to help hard-working academics through the current ballot about single table bargaining – the proposal, to which UCU object, that all university trade unions sit down together to negotiate with employers? Having signed up to the principle of a single pay spine and system of job evaluation for all staff, whether academic or not, how can UCU argue against negotiating alongside other unions?

For a start they are risking the fragmentation of national pay bargaining – something I thought they held dear. Their argument is that unless UCU have special negotiating status, academic pay is driven to the lowest common denominator with “lots of money… to distribute in discretionary rewards”. Funny that. Isn’t local pay bargaining more likely to lead to discretionary and unequal pay?

Call me naive but this appears quite simply as being unable to sit around the same negotiating table as other trade unions because they are so… different. How is it then that equal pay principles are fine with UCU – unless it applies to them? And how is it that a single pay spine and job evaluation are fine – so long as afterwards you can ignore it and seek differential pay increases? In my HR world, that smacks of one of two things: either inequality or different market rates for academic staff. Well let’s have some honesty then and have UCU say that, of course, market rates are entirely justifiable and we might have some sensible negotiations.

UCU also suggest that not being given a special status around a national negotiating table threatens “the survival local agreements on academic freedom, grievance, discipline and redundancy procedures”. Since when exactly? Apart from any debate on academic freedom, when would any of these issues affect academic staff any differently to other groups? If anything, joint efforts by trade unions on such issues must surely have more influence than UCU alone?

Then UCU suggest that they will be unable to take the lead role in negotiations for staff about “the abuse of hourly paid and fixed-term contracts”. Absolute rubbish. These issues are already being discussed and negotiated across the UK in just about every institution. Significant improvements have been made in these areas in just the last couple of years, and national framework agreement negotiations in each institution are resolving them further. And let’s not forget that UCU nationally have to vet these local NFA agreements before they are signed off.

And what does this UCU posturing say about the professionalism of an academic trade union? Look at it another way. How ridiculous would we other professionals (like us in HR) look if we refused to meet with some of our colleagues around a table? Precisely… it is disrespectful and unprofessional.

Basically the UCU arguments just don’t stack up. The reality is that UCU have a minority membership and I strongly suspect that a small proportion of those members will vote. Unfortunately that small vocal minority could hold sway over a significant national issue that affects us all.

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