Academic journal article Capital & Class

When Unions Merge: The Making of the UCU

Academic journal article Capital & Class

When Unions Merge: The Making of the UCU

Article excerpt

In June 2006, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) and the National Association for Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) merged to form a single union, the University and College Union (UCU). The merging unions had, historically speaking, represented largely discrete memberships in a divided British higher education (HE) sector: teachers in universities, represented by the AUT, and those in the polytechnics, which were controlled by local authorities and whose teaching staff were represented by NATFHE. The rationale for separate HE unions weakened in 1992, when the polytechnics were incorporated as new universities in their own right. Although the binary divide between university and polytechnic was formally ended, there continues to be some differentiation of universities by focus, with the older ones being characterised as research intensive, and the post-1992 universities deriving most of their income from teaching funds. Within this broad divide, the fortunes of individual institutions have varied increasingly, as neoliberal policies have commercialised and commodified higher education, increasing competition and intensifying work (Callinicos, 2006).

Differences in institutional focus conditioned the experiences of staff, but not sufficiently to diminish the attraction of merging the two unions in the face of a HE system that had witnessed significant changes. The expansion of universities has been accompanied by the relative decline of academic salaries, and by intensified pressures on staff through increased quality assurance practices, and demands for more research and more publication, orchestrated by the 'research assessment exercise', which consists of the periodic submission of research activity reports by each institution in order to determine the level of research funding it receives from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). At the same time, there were growing demands from greater numbers of students, carrying less funding per head. Evidence of staff concern over these issues appears almost weekly in the sector's trade paper, the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), and also serves to illustrate unions' lack of success in confronting them. Amongst the many sources of concern, the issue of salaries became a symbol of growing discontent, and the attraction of the merger was its promise of effective organisation, campaigning and action.

This article looks at the 2006 merger process and the way in which it influenced the most significant campaign for a pay rise the sector has witnessed. When Mao Zedong was asked about the impact of the French Revolution, he reputedly replied: 'It is too early to tell'. Certainly, it is too early to tell what the long-term impact of the merger will be on the elements raised in Campling and Michelson's (1997) study, namely, 'the provision of services and support, membership heterogeneity and participation, and levels of membership and density'; but there are indications that it had an immediate and distinctively negative effect on the ability of the two merging unions to conduct an effective pay campaign.

This negative effect was reflected on 6 June 2006, when the newly merged UCU suspended industrial action over pay. The suspension was greeted with anger by many of the union's members, who had been engaged in an examination-setting and--marking boycott. Hundreds of emails were sent by members complaining about the proposed settlement and the manner in which industrial action had been suspended without wider consultation. Some local associations, such as Cardiff's, demanded senior staff resignations. Even seasoned activists and analysts expressed surprise: 'The "old" university side of the union, under the leadership of the AUT and Sally Hunt, unexpectedly settled at a critical stage in the dispute' (Beale, 2006). But far from being surprising, the strategy and tactics adopted by the dominant union, the AUT, made what was seen as a capitulation if not inevitable, then highly likely. …

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