THREE days after the publication of the Government's bill on Fairness at Work, South Bank University de-recognised NATFHE, the university and college lecturers' union.
The university then threatened to take legal action against union officers for allegedly calling on staff to cancel classes during a student union meeting, to enable its members to discuss the issue. Staff had agreed that since students were off classes at the time, it was convenient for a meeting.
NATFHE has now asked ACAS, the advisory and conciliation service, to try to defuse the dispute. Failure to reach agreement may mean that NATFHE will ballot its members on a call for industrial action. It says this is the first time a union has been de-recognised in the university sector.
De-recognition means that NATFHE will not be able to engage in collective bargaining, or make representation on policy. The university would not be bound in law to consult the union in the event of redundancies, and there would be no opportunity for union meetings in the workplace.
In July, Professor Gerald Bernbaum, South Bank's vice-chancellor, gave the union six months' notice, as he was required to do, that he wished to end the existing recognition agreement.
He insisted this week, however, that he was not opposed to recognition, simply that he wanted to update the agreement. The existing one dated from 1989.
He told the union that NATFHE did not represent "50 per cent plus one" of the academic staff. Having four separate union branches was "unsatisfactory", and existing time off for trade union activity could not be justified "in the present climate of higher education and the decline in the availability of resources for teaching over recent years".
He was also concerned about "frequently anonymous and inaccurate" NATFHE bulletins.
The union says it was prepared to discuss restructuring into a single branch, and time off for union activity but needed a full meeting to discuss it. However, after the vice-chancellor threatened to seek "injunctive relief" against officers if the meeting went ahead, NATFHE cancelled it.
Professor Bernbaum said: "The law does not allow people to incite others to down tools and go and have a meeting. We cannot concede that principle. All we were doing was reminding them that they were inciting colleagues to breach their contracts."
Jenny Golden, regional official of NATFHE, said the threat of legal action had escalated the dispute. "It calls into question the vice-chancellor's style of management, where he would prefer legal threats against his own employees to genuine debate."
Natfhe has now asked ACAS to help to resolve the dispute. As The TES went to press, NATFHE was holding an all-branch meeting on premises elsewhere.
Professor Bernbaum said he had not heard of the recommendation to ACAS. "When we hear from ACAS we will make up our minds on what to do next."