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Higher Education pay deal: Opportunities lost - further action can get more
LATE IN the evening on 6 June, negotiators for the newly formed University and College Union (UCU) reached a deal with the employers UCEA over pay in Higher Education.
The leadership of UCU has missed a significant opportunity by recommending this deal to members. Because action will be suspended while the ballot is taking place, members will be pushed by management into catching up on three months' marking over the next few weeks, in the knowledge that whatever the outcome of the ballot further action will have no effect until the next academic year.
There will be widespread anger that, just as the action was starting to bite, it was called off without adequate assurances about return to work, reversal of pay docking, and full implementation in every university.
There will be still more anger at the details of the offer, which falls far short of the initial claim of 23% over three years. UCEA's derisory 'last and final' offer of 12.6% over three years was rejected in May by union negotiators, and this decision was resoundingly supported at AUT and NATFHE's final conferences.
A more recent offer of 13.1% over three years was also rejected by negotiators, so it is surprising that the offer accepted is only roughly 10% over the next two years, with the UCU leadership arguing that they will be able to win a significantly better deal in the third year, when there will be three years of students paying top-up fees.
With Gordon Brown's talk of a public-sector pay freeze and likely increases in inflation over its current rate of 2.6%, this is unlikely to be possible without a fight.
This deal comes after three months of struggle, consisting of a one-day strike in March followed by an assessment boycott. While it is clear that UCEA were starting to move due to the action, opportunities to get a better deal were lost. It will be necessary to build further action in the next academic year.
Support for the unions had been growing steadily, partly due to the bullying anti-union tactics of many university managements and the intransigence of UCEA. This included docking pay of union members boycotting assessments, attempts to employ scab markers and revision of exam regulations in an attempt to break the action.
The action caused many to join the precursors to UCU - AUT and NATFHE - which were seen to be finally doing something about declining pay in universities.
Despite the predictable barrage of hostile media, which focused on students and commentators hostile to the unions' action, significant sections of students supported the action.
Particular credit must go to Socialist Students societies, which campaigned in support of the AUT and NATFHE even when their local student union was hostile.
Even some university staff too well-paid to benefit from any pay deal showed solidarity and undertook the assessment boycott.
Even Sally Hunt, one of the joint general secretaries of UCU, said in her email to members recommending the offer that the offer: "is not enough to show that the employers are finally treating you with the respect that you deserve".
More could have been won by continuing the action. UCU members should, therefore, reject the offer and plan to continue the dispute in the new academic year.
While many members are worn down by the pressures of the assessment boycott and are keen to end the dispute, there is no guarantee that employers will keep even their current meagre promises.
In fact, accepting the offer now will show weakness to university managements and encourage them to scupper the deal in local negotiations.
An emergency conference of UCU should be called after the summer break to plan future action. It will be necessary to re-evaluate the tactics used, since while an assessment boycott or other actions short of a strike can be useful, they are isolating and leave open greater possibilities for divide and rule between students and staff.
Future action must involve escalation of strike action. Actions short of a strike should include boycotts of management activities so that students do not feel victimised.
It is also vital to include students from the outset and link the demands for better pay not to the introduction of top up fees but to a united campaign against the privatisation of our universities.
The National Union of Students should be approached on strike days to organise a full higher education (HE) shutdown, demanding an end to fees, fair pay and conditions for university staff and no to cuts, closures and privatisation.
The HE attacks are just a part of New Labour's neo-liberal agenda in the public services. UCU urgently needs to start making links with other trade unions - a good start would be supporting the "Public Services not Private Profit" rally at Westminster on 27 June.
Vote 'no' in the ballot
SOCIALIST PARTY member Andrew Price, a member of the UCU NEC, told the socialist: "Working in and representing teaching staff in the further education sector I am concerned at this settlement as it has implications for all members of UCU.
"The negotiators were far too quick to grasp a slightly improved offer from the employers, ignoring the call for a special conference on the matter. In my view our members should vote 'no' in the ballot and through their branches demand a special conference in the autumn to plan a programme of escalating strike action to win the full claim."
In The Socialist 15 June 2006:
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