Sunday, January 28, 2007

Lecturers: why your strike was sold out.

Last year, Lenin's Tomb posted a bit on the ongoing lecturers' dispute, including a guest post from one of the strikers. When a settlement was reached by the union leadership, it was widely regarded as a sell-out. They accepted a deal that had already been rejected only a week before, breaking terms that had been clearly agreed on by the union membership, thus outraging and disappointing thousands of people, and surprising many commentators. Some incendiary new research explains why.

Attacks on pay and conditions
The background is this: it was widely acknowledged by government and opposition politicians alike that lecturers' pay was ridiculously low. Even the Prime Minister said that "everyone agrees that the status quo — the huge backlog of repairs to infrastructure and university lecturers' pay increasing by only 5 per cent in the past 20 years, when the figure for the rest of the economy is 45 per cent — is not an option". However, the employers, despite pledges to the contrary, were engaging in a sustained attempt to suppress the compensatory pay increases required. It had been agreed that at least a third of tuition-fee income would be used to make up the shortfall in lectuerers' pay, but instead the employers had been exploiting the organisational weakness of the two unions engaged in the dispute - AUT and Natfhe - to diminish both pay and conditions. In past years, the AUT and Natfhe had represented clearly distinct groups of educational workers, with the former representing lecturers in independent universities and the latter representing polytechnic workers. But the polytechnics were recognised as universities in 1992. Not only that, but the distinction between further and higher education was being eroded as well. In the circumstances, and given their common problem and their inability to resist the employers' offensive, it made sense to merge the two unions, which is what they set out to do. The merger, which resulted in the University and College Union (UCU) was completed one week before the dispute was controversially ended.

Culture clashes
New research by the TUC-funded Union Ideas Network describes what happened. Through interviews with leading organisers from both Natfhe and the AUT, and with the use of documentary evidence and some background theoretical discussion on union organisation, it elaborates how the respective unions approached the merger and what they expected to come out of it. The AUT, so the report argues, dominated in the decision to cut a deal out of a desire to be seen as the 'wing' within the new union that had secured an unprecedented pay increased. The AUT leadership are seen as having run national policy without any real accountability or democracy. Cultural and organisational clashes include the AUT's hostility to Natfhe's 'political' tendencies (whereas the AUT saw itself as more of a professional association). They distrusted the system of regional committees, seeing them as being run by militants. The AUT are seen by Natfhe activists as approaching the merger as if it were a 'take-over', which was essentially the approach that the AUT developed in the early 1990s when it attempted to recruit Natfhe members. "By contrast, in the AUT the National Executive was elected directly by members on the basis of candidates’ short electoral statements. As elected members had no defined constituency in the AUT there was little day-to-day accountability (AUT EMP) and this was not acceptable to Natfhe lay activists."

The Pay Dispute
"The very formation of the pay claim in Autumn 2005 gave early indications that despite the agreement to merge relations between the two unions would be fraught in the ensuing period", the report says. The AUT's draft proposal for a pay claim was very simple, outlined on one sheet of paper because it was felt that employers ignored the usual charts and figures supplied alongside it. Natfhe's Higher Education Committee were unimpressed, and so were the other unions party to the dispute. One AUT organiser explained that people were ringing up, saying "we’ve got the cover sheet can we have the rest?"

The claim was nevertheless submitted, and when employers did not offer a positive response fairly quickly, the AUT declared a dispute, which Natfhe officials say they weren't consulted about. Further, it was felt that the fact that the claim itself stipulated no figure, simply asking for an "adequate proportion of new income derived from top up fees and other sources" to be used for pay improvement, which must involve "substantial percentage increases". Some AUT officials are unhappy, since it relied on fees income and "there was no discussion about how that would work out in different places" - it could result in uneven local settlements. There were also doubts from Natfhe members about the basis of the claim since both unions had opposed the introduction of tuition fees in the first place. Sally Hunt, then leader of the AUT, did not succeed in explaining to Natfhe's Higher Education Committee why there should be no figure to aim for. "Following Natfhe pressure a figure of ‘over 20%’ was added". Unfortunately, "the initial focus on student top-up fees allowed the employers to dwell on this aspect alone and to argue that with the bursaries and other improvements that were expected to be financed from this source, the amount for salaries fell well short of the aspirations of the unions." This had the effect of dividing activists since many were convinced that the money wasn't available from the stated source.

When it came to tactics, "because there was no proper joint discussion the assessment boycott did not have the same meaning for the unions". Natfhe's approach was that there should not be an exams boycott, since this would alienate students, but they should boycott marking. AUT members, on the other hand, were persuaded to mount an examinations boycott, which had little effect in the end, since most of the exams had been set well in advance. "The AUT envisaged a short, sharp dispute with the use of the maximum pressure of not setting examinations resulting in a quick victory for which it would be largely responsible. The AUT General Secretary told the Natfhe NEC that the dispute would be over if not by Christmas than February ... This account was endorsed by AUT sources, with one NEC member stating that: ‘We always saw it, particularly the General Secretary, as a short dispute’". This would explain why the AUT did not warn their members, or the NUS who supported their action and argued on their behalf, of a potentially prolonged dispute with pay docking, but it doesn't explain why they refused to meet with Natfhe to discuss tactics, deeming it "inappropriate". "The failure to consult and coordinate was to be a feature during the entire dispute." Aside from anything else, there was very little internal consultation in the AUT so it may have seemed inapposite if Sally Hunt had to explain to Natfhe members what was not explained to AUT members. "In contrast, Natfhe had an elected action committee made up from members of the NEC with additional members elected via national conferences and national negotiators." One AUT regional officer confirms that: "‘Every initiative from both sides, with lay people saying we must get lay activists together that’s how you build a new union, was blocked. I know they were blocked from AUT side through officials and some key lay people’". The reason for this, according to the officer? Positioning: "Key AUT officials thought that the way to preserve their territory was to be the initiators – so the press release comes out before it’s been through AUT let alone Natfhe".

Inauspicious start, bungled conclusion
The tactic of pressing an unspecific claim, and then of declaring a dispute before negotiations had started, resulted in an inauspicious start to the campaign. Natfhe felt that doing so gave the employers reasons to resist and too much time to elaborate their response. Eventually, however, a one-day strike was called on 7 March 2006, whose effect was described as "patchy". The employers' response to the boycotts and the strike was to dock pay and make offers well below what had been demanded. The AUT were nevertheless bullish, expecting a shift to come very soon. In late May, a somewhat better offer than previous ones was made during ACAS talks which, had it not been withdrawn, could have been voted on at the Natfhe Higher Education Conference which was due to take place. The reason for the withdrawal is unclear, but: "One opinion was that the employers did not want to hand UCU anything that looked like a victory ... It might also be that vice chancellors thought the offer simply too generous given that an earlier circular had revealed that ‘Sally Hunt has previously signalled to Ministers and other senior figures that something in double figures or in the range 11-14% “should do it”". If Hunt had conveyed these expectations, Natfhe had not been consulted.

Both the AUT and Natfhe were committed by decision of conference to continue the dispute, with Natfhe demanding no less than 5% a year over each of the three years of the agreement. Natfhe suspected that the AUT wanted to simply end the dispute without a substantial improvement in pay, as soon as possible, and that the involvement of Brendan Barber in the dispute was to achieve that end. One Natfhe officer who was at the subsequent meeting says that when employers returned with a smaller offer than had previously been mooted, "Sally Hunt announces it’s a wonderful offer and that we can do business on this ... The AUT President then went over the top in praise of the offer and how it could easily be sold. We were astounded."

Not all AUT members were happy about this, but the view of the executive was that employers would go no further, the action was fizzling out and they would be isolated nationally if they continued. Some of Natfhe's leaders were extremely unhappy about the deal and he manner of the suspension, but given the weakness of Natfhe's higher education sector, it would have been extremely difficult for them to continue alone. Internal reports of theirs suggest that if the AUT pulled out, then "it could lead to individual branches and groups of members becoming isolated". Therefore Natfhe withdrew and the resulting deal did not end the erosion of pay. One AUT official explains: "People complained that it did not deal with the erosion, but the claim was not about that it was for a third of the top-up fees and when the figures are added up I think we’ll be quite close to this." But 'third of top-up fees' was understood by most, including employers, to be a means to reversing the erosion of pay.

The future of education
Sometime after the suspension of the action, members were asked to vote and endorsed the deal. "The ex-AUT leadership interpreted this as an endorsement of their strategy." This is unlikely: it was their strategy that had, after all, produced the poor deal. But given that the action had been suspended, and given that a continuation of the action would potentially expose members to punitive action, it would have been difficult for many to contemplate continuing. Further, since many marks had already been released and students had gone for the summer, a vital pressure point had been passed.

The report concludes that the actions of the AUT leadership were about manoeuvring for power within the new merged union. It adds that there are traditions of organisation and accountability at stake, not merely the careers of particular leaders. Of course, it also about the broader approach to organising and to political engagement. One way to test whether UCU members have accepted the ex-AUT leaders' strategy avails itself: elections for the UCU leadership are coming up. Candidates include Sally Hunt, who aside from backing her own failed strategy is feted by supporters of Israel for promising to oppose the Israeli boycott campaign. UCU Left, for their part, are backing Roger Kline, former Natfhe activist who was intensively involved in organising for the dispute, but also stands in opposition to New Labour's twin policies of war and privatisation. This research should be shown to every UCU member, and should be widely publicised.