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Merger on the way

Unions prepare to join forces after autumn ballot. Francis Beckett reports

The lecturers' union Natfhe is on the threshold of a merger with the Association of University Teachers to form the world's biggest post-16 teaching union.

The proposal won almost unanimous support at a conference in Eastbourne - with just one no-vote and one abstention.

There were cheers as delegates at Natfhe's annual conference, which took place over the bank holiday weekend, agreed that members will vote on the merger in the autumn, when AUT members will also be balloted.

If both sets of members agree, next year's conference will be Natfhe's last.

Paul Mackney, who has been considering a merger since he became Natfhe's general secretary eight years ago, said: "A single union will be much more effective in the face of employer intransigence over pay and much more influential in dialogue with government over education policy."

Some members, while supporting merger, wanted more time to debate the proposed constitution, which has been negotiated between the two unions.

Craig Lewis, of Deeside college, in Flintshire, said: "The members of the union have been kept at arm's length from these negotiations. The key question is what kind of a union we end up with. We don't need a union controlled from above, with information drip-fed to members."

Former Natfhe president Tina Downes, from Bradford college, said she wanted a special conference in the autumn to agree changes to the draft constitution for the new union.

"It's been a top-down process," she said. "The branches have not had a go at it. We all want to be in the same union but we may have to be a little patient."

Some delegates privately expressed concerns that Natfhe is the more democratic and radical of the two unions and that it would be weakened by a merger with the AUT, but there was still a clear majority in favour of pressing ahead without making further changes to the constitution, which has already been agreed between the two unions at national level.

Nobody who spoke to FE Focus away from the conference hall believed that there was any realistic prospect of ordinary members of either union voting against the merger.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the AUT, warned Natfhe delegates that both unions had already given ground over the constitution and that it was time to allow the members of both to vote on what had been agreed.

"I cannot go back to my members and my council and ask for further amendments to this document." she said. "It would be cheating you to pretend I could."

She told FE Focus: "I would like to applaud Natfhe delegates for their far-sighted decision to move forward in unity with the AUT to create a new union for further and higher education. There is real momentum now in our two unions, and we will be putting the final decision to merge in the safe hands of AUT and Natfhe members later this year."

Mick Jardine, from the executive, told delegates: "The concessions offered by both sides have produced a document which is as good as it can be made."

Natfhe has 68,000 members, mostly in FE. The AUT has 49,000, mostly in the universities.

For the first time, FE lecturers would find themselves in the minority - outnumbered by higher education staff in the new union, with some of Natfhe's members already in the universities.

It is expected that the combined union will have FE and university sections, which are already a feature of Natfhe's structure.


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