In the same week that the University & College Union (UCU) have gone out on a two day national strike, Jeremy Corbyn has restated his support for a move to collective pay bargaining in the Civil Service. But how do we balance the value of ‘strength in numbers’ against the responsibility of unions to secure the best deal for their members and for employers to offer more sophisticated proposals in the new public sector?
In speaking to his Public & Commercial Services (PCS) union audience this week, Corbyn spoke of the absurdity of having up to 200 different sets of pay negotiations across the Civil Service. For Civil Servants in most departments, there is also a shared frustration that pay rates are different – for example between those working in the Department for Work and Pensions and those working in HMRC – and this creates a sense of injustice. From the perspective of the Government, collective bargaining may be seen as unattractive (giving them a blunter instrument with which to manage reward across a diverse set of services and organisations), but at least it would be possible to come to an agreement and implement a sensible collectively agreed pay deal. The reason this is the case is that government departments and other areas of the Civil Service are centrally funded from the Treasury. In this scenario, it would be possible to consider the fiscal situation, the perspectives of the unions and employers, and have an evidence based discussion about the differences in those views and how options should be identified.
Let’s jump across now to Universities where collective bargaining on the pay spine, through the employers’ association UCEA, is in place for much of the sector. The significant difference in how collective bargaining works here is that there is no central funding model that looks much like the Civil Service one. Although UCU talk about a significant cash surplus in the sector, it is difficult to then translate that across into what universities should pay their staff because that ‘surplus’ is so unevenly spread across universities. For some on the left (and perhaps elsewhere on the political spectrum) the answer might be to move back to a centrally funded model which would put the Higher Education sector in a position where collectively agreed pay increases could be provided for across all organisations. The unavoidable challenge with the current system though is that the organisations represented by the employers are in such different places financially.
We know that there are some universities for whom a 1% increase in pay bill would be enormously challenging; we have universities who are struggling with existing deficits and limited flexibilities around raising cash and making savings. Conversely, there are universities for whom settlements above 1% would be possible. That isn’t to say that they would choose to make an offer above that level, but it would be a feasible outcome of local pay negotiations. Do we need to ask hard questions about how we unlock those deals that would potentially be available, from within in a system where it is likely to be the case for some time that some universities will hold the others back on the grounds of affordability. How do unions in the sector balance their commitment to solidarity and a collective approach across such a diverse set of employers – all of whom are in different states of financial health?
I am a strong believer in the idea that there is no such thing as an illegitimate perspective; all of the many views on collective bargaining, higher education and trade unions are valid and helpful. But I am fascinated by this apparent contradiction that by insisting on collective bargaining within a non-centrally funded system we may actually be seeing lower pay awards than would otherwise be the case.