A Decisive Moment

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					                               A Decisive Moment
               Ending national bargaining to secure higher HE salaries?

              Effectively turning the UCU into a professional association?

This is what is at stake in the current elections for the leadership of the UCU. It is a decisive moment
for the membership of the new union. Never in the history of British trade unionism has the future of a
whole employment sector, and the conditions of service of its employees, hung so obviously on the
strategic and tactical issues being debated in the election campaigns of a newly formed union. Never
has the membership of a merged union been confronted so immediately with such a momentous choice.
What are the arguments?

The Argument against National Bargaining

1. If some universities are richer than others, why should the UCU seek to preserve national
bargaining? National bargaining can only deliver settlements that are affordable by all universities and
colleges – as determined, therefore, by what is affordable by those ‘marginal’ institutions that are
barely viable financially. The great majority of the membership, working in the ‘intra-marginal’
institutions (which could afford to pay more), would consequently be earning less from a national deal
than would be possible from local bargaining.

2. Why is the UCU committed to national bargaining since the Framework Agreement (FA), accepted
by both the AUT and Natfhe, has already created, through locally negotiated variations in interpretation
of the FA, significant regional and inter-institutional disparities in grade structures and remuneration –
disparities that cannot now be reversed?

3. Why is our Union holding on to the rhetoric of national bargaining when it not only accepted but
argued for a review of the 3rd year of the three-year pay settlement on the basis of affordability, with
institutions expected to demonstrate what they can and cannot afford? That is a recipe for more pay for
some, and a pay freeze for others – de facto local settlements.

4. Surely it is time for realism, and a recognition that an academic trade union still has an important
role – but one directed at research and information provision to members and their local organisations,
at lobbying governments, at the creation of positive images for the profession, and at providing legal
cover and appropriate insurance for its members. Is it not time to abandon set-piece confrontations
with the employers and with the Government? Should not the default position in education be hard but
constructive negotiation with managements, recognising a common if fuzzily perceived interest in
negotiated settlements, rather than industrial conflict between incompatible interests?

These are questions openly asked by some members in the wake of last year’s self-imposed defeat.
They are also the silent questions that lie beneath the surface of the election battle currently being
fought out in the UCU. These, and associated questions, together pose the following challenge. Do
members want the UCU to be a trade union advancing the common interests of all, and willing to take
industrial action in pursuit of those common interests? Or, do they want it to be a professional
association representing the idea and ideal of the professional (and guarding, where possible, the
conditions of admission) but leaving it to individuals and to local groups to advance their distinct

Union or Professional Association – the Election Debate

The elections for General Secretary, for the national posts, and for representatives on the NEC, are
centrally about this question. It is not that there is an organised group pushing for local bargaining, or
even many candidates who would openly espouse that strategy. The great majority will argue for
national bargaining. The issue is rather which of those candidates will be prepared to organise for, and
lead, a campaign to preserve national bargaining when, as seems likely, the employers move to
undermine the national arrangements later this year. In other words, are these protestations of
determination from candidates no more than pieties to be abandoned at the first sign of the employers’
determination to attempt to go their own way?

National or Local – What is at Stake?

The consequences of local bargaining are not difficult to predict. Could some universities and colleges
pay academic staff more than could be secured on a nation-wide basis? Of course! That is the logic of
a neo-liberal, quasi-competitive market for teaching and research and consultancy in HE. The question
is whether the UCU is prepared to collude with such an arrangement, whether it will choose to be
complacent in the face of this neo-liberal agenda. What would be the consequences of such
complacency or collusion?

    •    The creation of a multi-tier sector, with an elite sub-set of research-intensive institutions at
         one end, and ‘teaching only’ institutions awarding ‘third-rate’ degrees (as they will inevitably
         be regarded) over two years at the other;
    •    within institutions, a progressive breakdown of the common salary structure in favour of
         individual contracts, first to senior academics below the Professoriate, and then to all
         academic staff;
    •    the consequent marginalisation of the UCU as a force affecting the quality and remuneration
         of working life in HE;
    •    a generalised weakening of trade unionism in the sector that would quickly lead to regionally
         differentiated salaries for non-academic staff as well, and a worsening of the pay differential
         between academic and non-academic posts;
    •    a gradual move away from permanent contracts to a bifurcated workforce – permanent
         contracts for a minority of research and teaching coordinators, and casual contracts or time-
         limited contracts for the majority of researchers and teachers, and project-related workers and
         those engaged primarily in consultancy.

That a significant section of the employers is determined on this course seems clear. Should they not
get their way in the employers’ national organisation, the UCEA, they may break away, and seek local
negotiations with the unions (UCU, UNISON, and others) independently. They will offer powerful
inducements. They will explain the insistent logic of the change, and emphasise its inevitability. They
will show immense respect to the trade union partners that they seek at a local level. They will flatter
to deceive. They may concede much to gain their prize. Once secured, however, they will know that
the medium-term future belongs to them. Henceforth, the local union organisation will be indulged, if
it is compliant; it will be ignored if it is not.

Further Education and the Future of the UCU

Colleagues in Further Education were looking towards the successful outcome of last year’s HE pay
dispute as the platform on which they would be able to mount a fight to restore national bargaining and
national terms and conditions in FE. Our self-imposed defeat last year in HE (or at best our no-score
draw) was not, therefore, a setback simply for those directly involved. What would it mean now for
UCU colleagues in FE were the Union to fail to resist the employers’ drive to local bargaining? It
would be not just a betrayal of those colleagues in weaker positions in HE, it would be a betrayal of
every single member and potential member in the FE sector as well.

The Framework Agreement and National Bargaining

Does the FA, and the divergences that have resulted from its local interpretation, mean that national
bargaining has already been sold down the river? No, this is not the case. The FA was always a bad
deal for the Union and its members. That is why left-wing activists in the AUT and in Natfhe opposed
it at the time. It was always going to mean a partial fracturing of national scales. Moreover, by
conceding contribution points at the top of each grade, it introduced de facto an element of
performance-related pay. The acceptance of the FA by the AUT and Natfhe was a major strategic error
on their part, and a major strategic success for the employers. The employers saw this as the
establishment of a structure on the basis of which they would be able to move to local pay bargaining
within three or four years without the unions being able to mount significant resistance. This must now
be evident even to those who were in favour of the FA at the time. This is clear to anyone who steps
back from the immediate struggles today, and looks at the strategic landscape of negotiations over the

Subverting the Fragmentation

Though the FA has partially undermined national pay rates, it has NOT ended national bargaining, and
nor has it secured for the employers their ambition. What happens next will depend on what happens
within the UCU, and whether members are apprised of the implications of the current situation, and are
prepared to fight.

1. The first thing is for the Union nationally to compile a complete picture of the detailed grade
structures that have been agreed in local interpretations of the FA, and to investigate how best the
national picture might be classified: are there types of local interpretation that can be identified (e.g. is
it the case that the best local deals are all in the pre-92 sector, or is there no such correlation; are the
best agreements only to be found in institutions that are financially viable or possessed of strong
financial reserves, or is there no such correlation; do ‘good’ agreements in respect of the enhanced
incremental points on grades also include contribution points, or is there no such pattern; etc., etc.)?

2. The second step must be to identify those institutions on which the Union will focus in order to draw
those conditions of service towards the national mean, and thereafter to move those approximating the
mean closer to the best conditions available. This would indeed be a protracted process. It is,
however, the only means by which we can restore commonality to academic salaries and grades, and
reverse the consequences of accepting the FA three years ago.

How Local Bargaining can be Resisted

The starting point is that we must recognise the political context of the employers’ drive to achieve
local bargaining. That context is the Government’s corporate-friendly, pro-market, neo-liberal agenda.
In other sectors of the economy, this agenda means a destructive internal market in the health service
leading gradually to the privatisation of the NHS. It means the privatisation of air traffic control, of the
Bank of England, of the postal service. It means league tables for schools, a national curriculum, and
an educational ethos based on testing. It means the abolition of ESOL provision. In HE it means the
fostering of corporate competition and the Americanization of educational provision.

Part of this agenda, therefore, necessarily entails pushing the employers towards the abandonment of
national terms and conditions so that universities are forced to differentiate their ‘product’ in the
marketplace, and to charge students according to the value of the product. Associated with this is the
importance of paying staff as little as the labour market will bear which, in most cases, requires a
gradual move not just to local bargaining but, in the longer term, to individual contracts for core staff,
and casualisation for the remainder.

It is for these reasons that it is not simply mistaken but quite patently ridiculous for members of
the UCU, particularly those running for high office, simultaneously to say that they are opposed
to the loss of national bargaining and, at the same time, to insist that they want the UCU to be a
non-political organisation.

The most important point for all UCU members to appreciate is that if the Union remains determined to
preserve national bargaining, and to take action so to do, the employers simply cannot abandon it. If
any employer attempts to break away, that would immediately involve such an institution in industrial
action. The question that all employers will be asking themselves, in those circumstances, is whether
the medium-term advantages to them of local bargaining are worth both the short-term costs of
protracted industrial action, and the medium-term consequences of that action in respect of damage to
their corporate image. In other words, each university’s management will be calculating whether the
defeat of the AUT and Natfhe last year has sufficiently demoralised the UCU membership in its
institution to make local resistance to local bargaining unlikely.

For us, as members and activists of the Union, that is not simply a calculation for us to make – the
result of the calculation is a variable affected by what we do. If we campaign effectively, explain the
implications of the situation adequately, and prepare for a determined struggle, there is no doubt that
we can retain national bargaining. While it may not be easy to organise or coordinate such action, it
will certainly be easier to do this than to retain the influence and strength of the Union, and the salaries
and conditions of staff, in the absence of national agreements in the future.

The 3rd year of the Three-Year Pay Settlement

One of the most dangerous elements of last year’s settlement was the agreement that institutions would
have to demonstrate to the Union by how much they could afford to increase salaries in the 3rd year.
This was presented to members as a step forward, and as an inducement to accept the employers’ offer.
In fact, it was a Trojan Horse for local bargaining. It will be the case, without question, that some
institutions will use this clause as a means of demonstrating that they can afford no increase at all.
Others will use the clause to demonstrate that all of their funds are committed to other projects,
including an expansion of staffing. The UCU will then be accused of sacrificing additional jobs in the
interests of enhanced salaries for members already in employment. A third set of employers will be
quite keen to offer more than was agreed in the national settlement in the interests of securing local
bargaining. There can be no greater proof of the ineptitude of our negotiators last year, and their lack
of strategic vision.

What this means is that, unless the UCU is simply going to roll over on the question of national
bargaining, it has no choice but to negotiate for additional pay in the 3rd year, based on the averaging
out of the surpluses (and deficits) of all HEIs, and to demand that the employers (with, or without,
assistance from the DfE) vire the appropriate funds between the institutions. Without such a process of
cross-subsidisation, the 3rd year of the current settlement will inevitably produce what the employers
want, and what our Union negotiators could not perceive.

Can we do it? Can we mount a campaign that forces the employers (and the Government) to
backtrack, and to sacrifice their corporate independence, and thereby undermine the competitive
market in HE? We can do it, and we must do it. We can do it if we have sufficient determination,
political clarity, and organisational diligence. We must do it because to do other would make us
complicit in the final transformation of education in the HE sector into a commodity, and the
termination of academic endeavour as a collegial as opposed to a competitive process.

The Election – a Decisive Moment

Few contenders, if any, in the forthcoming UCU election will advocate local bargaining.
That does not mean that this is not the central issue of the elections. There are two ways of declaring
one’s opposition to the end of national bargaining: one is to speak the words but in so doing to utter
mere pieties; the other is to declare a determination to hold on to national bargaining, to describe
clearly the difficulties of the situation that we are in, and to identify what needs to be done in order to
succeed. It is in this sense that these elections are about both the soul of the UCU in the immediate
future, and the future character of Higher Education and of Further Education. Thus, the stakes in
these elections - for all those in post-school education - could not be greater.

Tom Hickey, January 2007
Candidate for President, and as a National Representative for HE, and as a
Regional Representative (South) for HE

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