Why divide and be ruled if we can unite and win?

April 15, 2005

For nine months, Paul Mackney and Sally Hunt have negotiated for a merged union with real clout at the bargaining table

The annual council of the Association of University Teachers will next week meet to discuss proposals for a merger with lecturers' union Natfhe. Natfhe starts its decision process the following week. Our belief is that in forming the world's largest tertiary education union, we will be stronger at the bargaining table; more effective at influencing the Government; better placed to reverse attacks on working conditions; and will provide a much-needed voice for the whole sector.

The separate existences of the AUT and Natfhe has been used by employers to divide and rule staff. Take last year's pay modernisation negotiations. The AUT and Natfhe took different approaches. The AUT ended up in dispute, Natfhe did not and each union ended up negotiating its own deal. While each union sought not to undermine the other, this division was to the advantage of the employers. In a new union, there will be discussions about tactics, but if we speak with one voice we'll achieve more.

This is equally true in Whitehall. With a united approach against top-up fees, the AUT and Natfhe, with the National Union of Students, came close to defeating the Government's plans. A union of 116,000, representing the majority of academic and related staff across further and higher education, will be a voice ministers ignore at their peril.

The need is pressing in higher education because our employers have failed to stand up for the sector. Universities UK found itself hopelessly divided over top-up fees and, as long as our universities still feel the need to organise into special interest groups rather than speaking as one, the Government will continue to ignore them. A new union will need to speak up for the sector to fill the space vacated by the national employers' bodies.

Natfhe has a large body of members in further education, where it is the recognised union for lecturers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and further education is becoming a key arena in discussions about the future of higher education. More than 40 per cent of undergraduate students now arrive from further education colleges. The Foster review of further education is likely to acknowledge the growing role of higher education in further education. Ensuring that further education has the resources to prepare students well for university is in our interests as higher education professionals, and ensuring that those higher-education-in-further-education degrees are high-quality courses taught by well-rewarded staff in properly resourced departments is vital.

A new union must be able to stand up for high quality - not least in terms of employment conditions and professional influence. The AUT and Natfhe understand the growing importance of the relationship between further and higher education but we also respect the differences between the sectors and the need for autonomy on issues specific to higher education.

That is why the proposals going to the AUT council and to Natfhe's executive and conference provide for autonomous higher and further education committees. Decisions taken by the new union about higher education pay and policy will be taken by higher education members alone.

Our proposals also recognise the need to protect special interests.

Academic-related staff will play a key role in the new union, with their own committee and meeting structure and dedicated representation on a new executive committee. The same is true of staff on fixed-term or insecure contracts.

Equality will be at the centre of any new union. We have agreed structures that provide guaranteed representation for women, for black members, for disabled and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members. The new union will fight discrimination in the workplace in whatever form it arises.

We are proud of the traditions of the AUT and Natfhe. Each union has unique qualities. In their histories, both organisations have made a positive difference to the lives of thousands of members. Both unions have tasted victory and defeat, and while we both know which we prefer, we understand that, for good and for ill, where we come from is important.

It will be for members of both unions to decide whether they wish to move forward together in a new organisation, but we believe that the best way to preserve the legacy of both unions is to refuse to be prisoners of it. Pay, politics, job security, equalities, campaigning, effective representation: we believe that what our unions can accomplish together is greater than either can accomplish alone.

Sally Hunt is AUT general secretary and Paul Mackney is Natfhe general secretary.

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