Alex Miller, London
Some 220 members of the University and College Union (UCU) met at the London Metropolitan University on June 24 to launch the UCU Left, an organised progressive platform within the 120,000-strong union, which was formed when the previous lecturers' unions — the Association of University Teachers (AUT) and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE).
The UCU Left conference, titled "Education is Not for Sale", was attended by delegates from 77 higher and further education institutions from England, Scotland and Wales.
Speakers at the conference included veteran Labour Party left-winger Tony Benn, the Socialist Workers Party's Alex Callinicos and Fanny Gilliot, a student activist from the Sorbonne in Paris who was involved in the successful February-May campaign by French students and workers against planned government restrictions on the employment rights of young employees.
The conference took place in the aftermath of the bitter industrial dispute in Britain's higher education sector that had run from March 7 to June 6. The March 7 one-day strike by NATFHE and the AUT had been followed by a boycott of all student assessment and examinations beginning on March 8.
To the anger of many rank-and-file union members, the UCU national leadership agreed to suspend the assessment boycott on June 6 and to ballot members on a pay deal of 13.1% over three years, just as the boycott was beginning to bite, threatening the July graduation ceremonies.
As academic salaries have suffered a relative decline of 40% over the past 30 years, the unions had been campaigning for a rise of at least 23% over three years. Only weeks before June 6, the AUT national council and NATFHE national conference had instructed their negotiators to reject offers only marginally different from the 13.1% eventually accepted by the UCU leadership.
The results of the ballot will not be known until mid-July, by which time it will be impossible to resume the assessment boycott, as all of the relevant marking and assessment will have been completed.
Speaker after speaker at the conference condemned the sell-out by the UCU national leadership, and UCU Left pledged to campaign vigorously for a "no" vote in the ballot.
From Green Left Weekly, July 5, 2006.
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