University Challenge

Nick Savage, Cambridge AUT delegate to conference (personal capacity)

The most striking thing (no pun intended) about last week's (final) AUT conference was not that the delegates voted to continue the action (this always seemed likely) but that they did so unanimously. This fact (unsurprisingly not reported in the media) has to be understood in its context. For years pay
disputes have involved a token one day strike and then a settlement for a 0.5% or less above the original offer. Comparisons to the Grand Old Duke of York were often made. Two years ago we saw the beginnings of a shift. AUT (but not NATFHE) took strike action and action short of a strike over the proposals for new pay and grading an HE version of Agenda for Change. The action only won some small concessions but was far from a defeat. AUT had stood alone (all other unions had accepted the original proposals) and by industrial action won some improvements. We were, in our own minds, a real trade union now.

So where has this new resolve in the current pay dispute come from? A variety of factors are involved – partly the new emphasis of the union leadership of getting branches to organise and campaign for themselves with training and support from them. This has increased the confidence of local activists. The current general secretary has also been a real contrast to the previous general secretaries. She has shown a determination to take on the employers and win and, unlike so many other union leaders out there, refused to suspend the action just to enter negotiations. The key part of the mood this time though, expressed from the top of the union down to much of the membership is a feeling that it is now or never. If we cannot win our members a substantial pay rise at a time when large sums of extra money are coming into HE we will not win another above inflation rise for a generation.

The conference started with hearing the experiences of activists around the country overall a real confidence booster especially for those delegates from universities where the action is having a real but smaller impact. Then we came to the two key votes: whether to reject the offer (which is smaller than the current average in the private sector) and whether to continue the action. Both motions were passed unanimously. The unity of the conference was, in my experience of 8 years of AUT conferences, almost unprecedented on such an issue.

Now it will get nasty though. The exam period should be in full swing so the boycott is really starting to hurt. Universities are increasingly starting to deduct pay, in some cases leading to a lock out where the deductions are 100% of salary (so far only at Northumbria University). So far Aberdeen and St Andrews have offered local deals before the national offer on 8th May (which was worse than the local offers) and others may follow suit. However these deals have been rejected so far. There was also a real mood to reject local pay deals at the AUT conference. This is partly as we have seen what a mess it has been in FE but also as we have spent the best part of the last two years trying to negotiate our local implementation of the new pay and grading and it has been bloody awful to put it mildly. The final part of the pressure being brought to bear will be demands that we ballot on the miserable offer on the table. Vice Chancellors, Alan Johnson and some students are making this demand. A ballot would be a disaster whatever the result. If members accept the offer we might as well not have bothered with the action. If they reject it then it will mean the dispute will be prolonged further doing even more damage to students. If the action is suspended while we ballot then the strength of the action will have been crippled. The only way is to continue the action until we get a decent offer. That was the unanimous view of AUT conference and it is now up to local activists to do the work to sustain that action. We must patiently explain to members and students the reasons for the action and remember to listen as well as talk. We can resolve this dispute quickly and favourably if we stand together.


May 2006

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