How Tracy learned to stand her ground on the front line

26th October 2007 at 01:00

The threat of an all-out strike at Worcester College two years ago thrust Tracy Gascoigne, above, into the role of union branch secretary, writes Ian Nash. "Prior to that, I had been membership secretary for three years but I had no contact with management," she said. It's a task she still finds daunting, even though she will often have face-to-face talks. In 2005, industrial relations at the college were in crisis over pay and staffing, the Natfhe leadership had stepped down, a strike loomed, nothing had been done and no one seemed willing to take the helm.

So Ms Gascoigne stepped into the post that would virtually take over her life. There are meetings on health and safety, staff stress-related issues, pay and contract negotiations, fortnightly meetings with HR directors, termly meetings with governors and much more besides.

New demands appear daily as reforms - such as the right of college corporations to opt-out of national pay bargaining - call for ever more strategic planning and negotiating. In addition, there was the whole debate over the merger of Natfhe and AUT to form the University and College Union. "Fitting all that in with a teaching role is not easy," she said.

Despite 17 years teaching psychology at Worcester, Ms Gascoigne finds herself on a steep learning curve and dislikes the task of leading negotiations. She said: "When we meet management, which we do regularly, the chair does it. He has much more experience and a knowledge of the law."

It all begs the question - why do it? "I have always been a member of the union. I feel passionate about it. The UCU provides courses to support everything you need to do as a union rep but it can be difficult fitting all these in around teaching responsibilities."

Ms Gascoigne urges anyone considering a union role to take every training opportunity - to help "stand your ground in meetings".

Industrial relations at Worcester have improved considerably, she said, although management still sees the UCU as "a thorn in their sides".

She said: "For a long time, the union was quiet, but new blood has come in and it's a bit of a shock to management."

Photograph: Roy Kilcullen.

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