Jubilant delegates left the conference of the university lecturers’ AUT union in Eastbourne on Friday of last week after a historic gathering.
There has been a real change in the AUT. A confidence to fight for change was evident in the tone of debate. Younger members have come forward. Women were taking a leading role in many of the debates.
Delegates representing lecturers and academic staff from the pre-1992 university sector voted overwhelmingly for merger with Natfhe, the union covering lecturers in other universities and in further education colleges.
This is a great step forward, overcoming the divisions which benefited employers in last year’s pay and grading dispute, and which have bedevilled other campaigns.
There is a danger, however, that the structures of the new union will be less democratic. The left in both unions is participating in the merger process to ensure maximum democracy in the new union.
On the international scene, the dominant issue at the conference was Palestine. Two years ago AUT conference voted against a comprehensive boycott of Israeli universities.
This year, Sue Blackwell and Shereen Benjamin from Birmingham AUT argued — against executive opposition — for a boycott of three specific Israeli universities:
- The Hebrew University of Jerusalem — for confiscating the land of a Palestinian family.
- Haifa University — for harassment of Dr Ilan Pappe, a notable critic of the Israeli state.
- Bar-Ilan University — for supervising the degrees of the College of Judea and Samaria, which is in Ariel, an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank.
The motion concerning the Hebrew University was narrowly defeated, but the other two went through.
A motion in favour of circulating a Palestinian call for a comprehensive boycott also succeeded. An executive motion calling for links with an Israeli academics’ union — which turned out not to exist — was defeated.
Unfortunately, a proposal to affiliate to the Stop the War Coalition was also defeated. But conference did endorse a call to end the occupation of Iraq without conditions.
The AUT also affiliated to the Make Poverty History campaign.
The last few years have seen the transformation of the AUT into a “proper” trade union, with many new activists coming into the union through last year’s dispute.
There is also strong opposition to the further encroachment of the market into universities, with campaigns against closures and job losses at Hull, Leeds, Bangor and elsewhere.
There is an opportunity to organise resistance to New Labour’s attacks at a conference on “Can Education Survive the Market?” at Vaughan College, Leicester, on Saturday 14 May.
London Metropolitan University
Members of the lecturers’ Natfhe union at London Metropolitan University have voted for industrial action in their dispute over contracts — and were to meet this week to discuss a strike date. From Tuesday of next week they will be boycotting key areas of administrative work. That will escalate from the following Monday.