On Monday a fortnight ago, I was more than usually embarrassed by the current state of industrial relations in academia: as I was wondering out loud why the lecture room was not in use beforehand, the students present reminded me that there was a two-hour stoppage as part of the UCU and Unison Fair Pay in Education campaign. Given the current lull in the dispute – at present, no further action is scheduled, though a date has been set for a marking boycott – it's perhaps time to take stock.

I am not a union member, and I have not participated in the strikes in this campaign so far; I have had strong (but polite) discussions at picket lines about this. But since it has become an issue, and since I would like to believe that I support the principle of collective action, I think it's important to explain why I am not currently participating, and to identify the things which would need to change in either direction for me to participate.

The first point I'd like to make regards a fundamental disagreement about the premise of the campaign: although the industrial action is ostensibly about both pay and working conditions, in practice all the attention, and the campaign literature's focus, is on money. That would be no bad thing if pay were the strongest part of the unions' (workers') case, but I'm not sure it is: in general, I would say that pay for academics is good, and while it is not so good for support staff in general the related benefits (pension scheme, annual leave) are decent.

The headline case made by the unions is that pay in Higher Education has gone down by 13% in real terms (i.e. after adjusting for inflation) over the last five years. For what it's worth, I believe this figure to be approximately accurate, within the terms that are used to justify it: however, I also think that it is a misleading figure given existing practice in Higher Education institutions. The other main point made by the unions is that the HE sector as a whole made a surplus of £1bn in the 2011-12 financial year; this figure, on which more below, is also accurate as far as I know.

Why do I say that the figure of 13% decrease in pay in real terms is misleading? Well, what has actually happened is that the national pay scales have suffered a 13% decrease over four years, relative to purchasing power. This means that a staff member on spine point 37, say, would be earning 13% less in today's currency today than they would have been in 2009-10. However, that does not mean that a typical staff member who was on spine point 37 in 2009-10 is earning 13% less today than they were in 2009-10, because there are mechanisms for spine point progression, and it's fairly likely that a typical staff member on spine point 37 in 2009-10 is at spine point 40 or 41 now, based on incrementing the spine point yearly, and their pay has therefore stayed approximately constant in inflation-adjusted terms.

In some institutions, including my own, spine point progression is pretty much automatic within a particular grade; the jobs we do (“roles”) are assessed for responsibility and after turning a handle on the magic role-o-tron they are placed within a certain band of spine points, which are then those available to those who do that particular job. A newcomer to the job, absent particular experience, is likely to be offered near the lower end of the spine points for that grade, and will therefore receive automatic spine point increases for a period of five or six years. At institutions where incremental pay rises are not automatic, they are typically dependent on an annual appraisal or review process; in practice, I wonder whether the primary effect of this is to distort personal development, as there are then potential direct financial consequences to a frank discussion about personal and career progression.

Under the current system, there is a problem related to those who have reached the top of their pay grade. The typical hard-nosed capitalist might say that if people have grown as far as they can in a particular role, they should move on, but that is the kind of attitude that leads to engineers being made to manage people because that's the only way their career can “progress”. Universities, like many organizations, can benefit from people who are expert at their job, whether that's as a research assistant or a quality assurance officer, and building pay scale obsolescence into the system for these roles seems counterproductive.

(There are other problems related to pay in the sector: the overuse of hourly-paid teaching from graduate students, and other casual labour; the shameful lack of consideration to maintenance and cleaning staff; the spectacular political own-goal of pay awards to upper management that vastly outweigh personal risk taken. While these are not the focus of the current campaign, the unions deserve credit for drawing attention to them.)

The second plank in the #fairpayinHE campaign is sector surplus; viewed collectively, it does appear to be true that Higher Education as a whole currently makes a £1bn yearly surplus, as presented in HESA reports. £1bn per year sounds like a lot of money. It is a lot of money. But if it were entirely and evenly divided among all the staff in the Higher Education sector, it would allow a one-off pay rise of £2600 (total employer cost: before taxes, NI contributions, pension contributions etc.) – and then that's it; if that £1bn surplus was entirely structural, the pay rise would turn it into £0bn surplus, and there'd be no surplus for next year's pay rise. In practice, an evenly-distributed pay rise (and such a progressive distribution is hilariously unlikely) would cause a number of institutions to start shedding staff (or make other significant decreases in cost or increases in income) – since the surplus is not uniformly distributed over the sector, but national pay scales are, the effect of a uniform pay rise is to turn marginally-viable institutions into unviable ones.

With all that said, the union position does have its merits, particularly in its opposition to the continual erosion of working conditions. The transfer of inflation risk from pension scheme to individuals; the growth of zero-hour contracts in the sector; a particular bugbear for academic staff is the constant expansion of administrative responsibilities. Collective action here could be an obvious win: if career progression depends on indicators associated with unproductive work (what is “unproductive”? related, related), non-cooperation is a reasonable signal (if management's ears are not receptive to merely being informed) – but non-cooperation only works if there's widespread agreement.

This isn't straightforward; the fight against administrative oversight would be a long one, and while unions can contribute to the debate there is legitimate cause for disagreement: one academic's intrusive paperwork burden is one administrator's due process, which is one politician's accountability. But the unions could aim for immediate positive impact on the typical working conditions by campaigning for the use of institutional surpluses to hire people to share the burden. Of course, this is almost diametrically opposed to the use of surpluses for pay rises, but as far as immediate return on investment goes, I suspect it would do much more to improve the typical university worker's quality of working life.

So, a pledge. I will support (legal) industrial action if either: the campaign focuses on using some of the higher-education sector surplus to hire more staff rather than pay rises; or the campaign trades off increments (automatic or PDR-related) for automatic cost-of-living pay increases, along with a lightweight process for increments.

(At present, my own institution's Human Resources pages state that non-unionized staff members are not allowed to take strike action alongside their unionized colleagues. This seems in direct contradiction to the Government's own information on industrial action; I have asked for clarification in this respect from HR.)