News & Analysis  •  Workplace, Trade Unions, Strikes

UCU: organise solidarity and prepare for all-out action to win

01 December 2021
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By Urte March

HIGHER EDUCATION workers in the University and College Union (UCU) are on strike from 1–3 December in a dispute over proposed pension cuts, pay and working conditions.

Workers were balloted in October over cuts to the USS pension scheme for pre-1992 universities, and a sector-wide campaign over the ‘Four Fights’ – pay, workload, casualisation and inequality.

Overall turnout in the USS ballot was 53%, with 76% in favour, and in the Four Fights vote 70% backed strike action on a 51% turnout. Although strikes in 2018 and 2019 passed the national 50% threshold, the UCU ballot on a disaggregated, i.e. employer by employer basis, meaning many branches narrowly missed the threshold.

General Secretary Jo Grady proposed a conservative strategy which was sharply criticised by Branch Delegate Meetings, which overwhelmingly rejected her proposals for a token two-day strike, to decouple the two disputes, and to reballot over Four Fights on an aggregated basis next year.

In a victory for the grassroots, the Higher Education Committee subsequently voted to hold three days’ joint action on the two disputes, and to reballot 42 universities from 6 December in preparation for escalating action in the new year.

The battle is now on to mobilise the biggest possible support on the picket lines, and use the strikes as a springboard to win the reballots, fight for rank and file control over the strike, and campaign to escalate the action up to an all-out strike supported by coordinated action from the other unions in the education sector.

Pension cuts

Since 2011, the USS pension scheme has been subjected to repeated attacks by employers, which have closed the final salary scheme, increased employee contributions, reduced protections against inflation, and introduced a salary threshold up to which defined benefits are accrued.

Now Universities UK are proposing fresh cuts which the UCU says equate to a 35% loss of guaranteed retirement benefits for the average member.

Checking the health of a defined benefit scheme requires a complex calculation founded on assumptions about the future, a process of “valuation”. This includes predicting how long people will live as well as the likely rate of return on contributions which are invested through the pension fund to pay for later benefits.

According to USS, successive valuations have indicated that the scheme is in a large “technical deficit”, i.e. its projected returns will not be enough to pay out the defined benefits it had previously promised. But the financial assumptions made as part of this valuation process are highly controversial.

The Board of Trustees that oversees the USS is entirely unaccountable to members. Meanwhile, UCU has argued that the valuations put forward by employers are flawed and unduly pessimistic; the most recent valuation was carried out at the start of the pandemic when markets were crashing. Alternative projections from UCU have shown it would be possible to deliver higher benefits with lower contributions.

In 2018, UCU members at 64 universities struck for 14 days against an attempt to close the defined benefit scheme (which guarantees a set annual pension) and replace it with a defined contribution scheme, which would have resulted in younger workers losing up to half of their pension.

The strike was the longest in higher education history and a strong grassroots campaign recruited 15,000 new members. But momentum was lost after the union leadership under former General Secretary Sally Hunt proposed a deal which was unanimously rejected by the branch delegates’ meeting. New secret negotiations between the UCU and UUK resulted in a deal to set up a ‘Joint Expert Panel’ to consider the future of the scheme.  

The Four Fights

Staff pay has fallen by 20% in real terms across the higher education sector since 2010 and the gender pay gap is 15%. Huge numbers of university teaching staff are on zero-hours contracts, with ever-greater numbers being pushed into short-term contracts with no security. UCU research has consistently found that members work over 50 hours per week.

The Four Fights campaign is both a national fight and a local one with each employer. UCU conducts yearly UK-wide negotiations at a national negotiating committee with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). But national agreements must be implemented locally by each employer, and some claim they are not bound by national decisions.

This means the Four Fights campaign is an even more complex, shifting landscape than the pensions dispute. The national dispute intersects with local disputes over casualisation, workload, and redundancies, like the ongoing dispute at Goldsmiths where three weeks of action have been announced.

Maintaining unity between the USS dispute and the Four Fights campaign is essential to building a militant national UCU campaign on both issues. Pay, workload and casualisation are essential issues for younger academic staff, many of them PhD students or lecturers on insecure contracts.

Both disputes represent a wider struggle over marketisation of higher education, with employers attempting to minimise their financial responsibilities to staff – as well as intensifying their exploitation through longer working hours and precarious contracts.

As the UCU Left blog states: “Our defence of USS cannot be understood as a narrow vested interest, but part of a wider campaign against the marketisation of higher education and – because pension attacks are fundamentally an attack on younger workers – an inter-generational defence of the right to a decent retirement for all workers.”

A strategy to win

In the 2018 pensions strike, the UCU called 14 days of strike action, escalating from two days to five days over four weeks. In 2019-20, the union called 22 days strike action – eight before Christmas and more in the new year. In both cases, employers were prepared to ride out the action, with compromise agreements eventually reached[u1] .

The fact that the UCU have been forced by employers to undertake a third strike in four years shows we need a bold strategy that can win. The experience of local struggles at Goldsmiths, where lecturers have called for the university accounts to be opened to inspection, and Liverpool, where a three-week strike beat proposed redundancies, shows the way forward.  

The ballot results show the UCU membership is prepared to fight, and the debates in the Branch Delegate Committees show that members are prepared to put pressure on the union leadership, reject timid strategies for action or attempts to decouple the dispute, and demand bold and escalating action on both struggles.

The Branch Delegate Meetings, although they have no constitutional status within the UCU, are clearly important democratic bodies which give branch delegates a way to express members’ interests and put pressure on negotiators and bureaucrats.

The lessons of the 2018 dispute, where the union leadership attempted to demobilise the action without securing any meaningful victory, and the cautious strategy originally proposed by Jo Grady this time, shows we need to fight for the strike to be put under the control of a strike committee of delegates elected and recallable by the members.

To win, we will need to organise the rank and file to fight for:

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