Leading Article: The union needs to pull together
Thursday 14 February 2008
Mergers of organisations are always difficult. Bringing together two staffs, two cultures and two ways of doing things will cause problems. The merger of the two lecturers' unions, the AUT and Natfhe, to form the University and College Union 18 months ago has been a tortuous process, made more problematic by the fact that lecturers at the "old" universities – the posh ones in membership of the Russell Group and the 94 group – have different traditions to lecturers at the "new" institutions. But this particular merger has also been bedevilled by personality clashes and by what some insiders regard as a lack of openness in decision-making.
The latest clash has come over a plan by the general secretary, Sally Hunt, to restructure the union. In an email to staff explaining the plan, she said she wanted to increase the collective power of the union by improving the support provided to branches and members. "What is set out is both radical and necessary," she added.
The plan includes reducing the number of departments from eight to three and demoting the two national negotiators for higher education and further education (FE). At the moment, these are the most senior jobs below general secretary. They would become relatively junior jobs in the Campaigning and Bargaining Department, which makes the FE people in the old Natfhe suspicious. Also, Hunt wants to establish a national advice centre for members to phone or email, a proposal that some staff believe would undermine the work of branch representatives. Her ideas were rejected at last week's NEC meeting by an overwhelming vote of 60 to one. The general secretary has been told to go away and redraft the plan in close consultation with a working party of nine people.
Hunt is right to attempt a restructuring to make the union more effective, but the challenge is to do so with the support of the staff from the old Natfhe as well as with her colleagues from the former AUT. That takes leadership and openness. The old Natfhe people must not feel sidelined, or have grounds for thinking that the AUT has taken over the new union. Hunt could face the prospect of the FE group being pushed towards a rival union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.
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