HE strikes - Unity or politics?

Nick Savage, Cambridge AUT Branch Sec. (p.c.)


The current industrial dispute in the universities is an important and interesting one. For many years AUT (the Association of University Teachers) which represents academics and other professional staff in UK universities had been one of the more 'moderate' of the unions in the UK. Even in 1998 when I first joined it, AUT's exec and officers were reluctant to take strike action and did not really organise even when there was a ballot for industrial action with a recommendation to vote yes.

Last week's Times Higher Education Supplement headline was "'Hardline' AUT Targets Exams". The culture of AUT has changed considerably in the last few years, particularly it seems, since David Triesmann left to be replaced by Sally Hunt. The new union philosophy is based around the ideas of the TUC organising academy - changing the culture of the union from one where the members are serviced by the union full timers to where the role of the full timers is to facilitate the local members in organising campaigns and so recruiting members who are in turn more likely to be involved in organising and campaigning. It is a part of the slow revival of trade union confidence in this country.

Cambridge saw twice as many picket lines as two years ago (ok only 2) and probably three times as many people out on the picket lines as well as having a joint rally with NATFHE from Anglia Rsukin University. Like most AUT branches it is also growing rapidly especially when there is industrial action.

The strike is focussed on campaigning for a 1/3 of the extra money from top up fees and other sources being spent on pay. This has been criticised by many on the left. For example Socialist Worker this week writes: "Unfortunately, some of the information put out by unions suggested that staff should earn more because of the money flowing into higher education from student top-up fees."

Yes the left should keep reminding the rest of the union that the fight against top up fees can and must go on. However in the absence of a serious campaign by NUS and given that more money needs to spent on HE, not less, then surely the role of a union is to fight for better pay. The money is now going to the universities and if it does not go on across the board pay rises it will go to Vice Chancellors (who got 25% in the last 3 years) and their cronies (more and more universities are employing managers on six figure salaries) or on incentive payments for research 'stars'.

AUT is becoming more radical and confident but this dispute is a critical point in that process. There are clear signs that most universities are seeking a confrontation. We can win but victory is by no means guaranteed. If the new union to be formed from the merger of AUT and NATFHE starts with a defeat over
this issue it will set a defeatist tone for the new union. A victory will mean that the new union can take forward the organising and campaigning agenda.

Still what do I care? I should be leaving HE soon as I am sick of the feudal nature of employment for researchers and the totally insecure model of employment. But that's another story.


March 2006

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