Unions angry over breaches to collective salary negotiations

Some universities have implemented salary rises despite the lack of a pay deal. John Morgan writes

A number of universities and colleges are paying a 0.5 per cent salary increase to staff in the absence of a national deal, prompting campus unions to claim that they have broken a collective agreement and "imposed" a resolution to the long-running dispute.

Of the five campus unions involved in the ongoing pay talks - the Educational Institute of Scotland, GMB, the University and College Union, Unison and Unite - only one, Unison, has accepted the 0.5 per cent offer for 2009-10 from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association.

However, Times Higher Education has learnt that seven institutions - including University College London - are already paying the rise "on account", meaning they can backdate extra pay if a higher increase is later negotiated.

Mike Robinson, national officer for education at Unite, said the payouts by individual institutions were a "direct breach of our processes with Ucea".

He said: "We have an agreement with Ucea that says the status quo applies where we are in dispute. The payouts call into question the validity of the agreement we have with Ucea and whether Ucea is able to engage with staff on behalf of its subscribers as an entity."

A spokesman for the UCU, which rejected the 0.5 per cent offer last month, said the unions were "understandably annoyed at the failure of Ucea to hold up its side of the bargain".

"The dispute procedure states that 'the employers will not impose a resolution ... until the procedure has been fully exhausted'," the spokesman said. "They need to show some leadership when their subscribers break the agreement."

The seven institutions known to be paying the rise are: UCL, the University of Worcester, Oxford Brookes University, Kingston University, Swansea Metropolitan University, University College Birmingham and the Royal Agricultural College.

With the exception of Swansea Met, the universities are thought to be giving the rise to all staff.

David Warner, vice-chancellor of Swansea Met, said: "We are paying the 0.5 per cent only to professional staff because Unison has agreed the matter. Our professional staff include the lowest paid in the university, and we wish them to receive the money as soon as possible."

However, a Unison spokeswoman said Swansea Met was being "mischievous".

Unison has "not been pushing" for payments on account and any decisions have been "taken at local level", she said.

She added that paying on account "could undermine the procedure" on a national basis and that Unison "did not want to undermine any other union's position".

Ucea said the 0.5 per cent offer was "the absolute maximum pay increase that can be afforded in the current climate".

A spokesman said: "Ucea has provided clear advice about implementation. A handful of institutions have paid on account to some or all of their staff - each has their own specific reasons, including local staff wishes, for making a payment."

He dismissed as "nonsense" claims that the pay rise was being improperly imposed, pointing out that Ucea was continuing discussions with the unions through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas).

"In the four months since this pay offer was made, only Unison has provided figures from its membership consultation, showing 81.5 per cent wishing to accept the final offer," he said.

A UCL spokeswoman said the university "remains committed to national collective bargaining on pay and does not consider that it has breached the Ucea code".

The University of Worcester said that, as it was "clear that salaries will rise eventually by 0.5 per cent, or possibly more, we felt it would be unfair not to pay this increase".

Kingston added that it was "keen to pay staff at least this minimum amount while awaiting the result of the national negotiations".

Talks between Ucea and the five unions centre on the pay offer and the unions' push for a national agreement on job security. A meeting at Acas last week failed to produce a breakthrough. Another meeting has been scheduled for 24 November.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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