A week is a long time in politics – and also in Higher Education management apparently!
On Tuesday 13th March the limit of affordability for employers, while conceding that members of staff value a defined benefit pension scheme, was £42K at an accrual rate of 85th and a CPI cap of 2.5%. By the end of the next week (10 days later) the status quo was being guaranteed, at least until April 2019, and any long-term changes would ensure a ‘broadly comparable’ pension would be the outcome.
This apparent change of heart of the employers is being scrutinised by striking UCU members with a fine-tooth comb due to their understandable lack of trust in their managements. Unsurprisingly, members are finding the change of heart might not be quite as great as we first thought. April 2019 is the earliest possible date of implementation of any USS changes so conceding ‘status quo’ until then is not a concession.
Our Action Gets Results
The offer from UUK is however significant and does tell us much about what has happened in our 14 days of strike action and also what we need to do next.
Back in February, a wholly defined contribution scheme was “the only affordable option available” and defined benefit was a utopian dream. According to one commentator, ‘it is unclear how anything less than [massive disruption] that could bring about a proposal that conforms to UCU policy.’ Well, we now know the disruption did work.
First the employers moved to offer a (very poor) defined benefit scheme after three weeks of action. However, that offer was completely inadequate. Accepting it would have been disastrous, amounting to a 19% cut in value for employees at the absolute minimum. That deal was thrown out by the mobilisation of rank and file members of UCU on 12th and 13th March. In university after university, college after college, members met quickly and decided to oppose it.
Now, 10 days later we have a more serious offer that could get us to a point where the existing defined benefit scheme was maintained and even protected in the future. But the offer is not yet sufficient.
It is our action that has achieved this. It is only the threat of our action next term that can now win a settlement that is worth the paper it is written on
We Are Winning: Keep The Action On.
The UUK offer does provide the basis for settling this dispute but ONLY if the ambiguity and obfuscation is removed.
- The ‘status quo’ must not simply be guaranteed to ‘at least April 2019’ and must also be accompanied by a commitment to #NoDetriment if (for some reason) the Independent Expert Group discovers that the valuation is in deficit and changes must be made. Any changes must leave current and future members no worse off than under the status quo.
- The ‘current regulatory framework’ has created the mess we are now in. Therefore we must demand any changes to the scheme must not be undermined by the ‘current regulatory framework’. This means action should not be called off until USS JNC, Trustees and Pension Regulator have agreed the proposal.
- ‘Guaranteed’ benefits must be genuinely guaranteed, i.e. defined. It should not mean guarantees for a minimum pension topped up by hoped-for additional payments dependent upon the vagaries of the market. Guaranteed benefit must mean defined benefit, if it doesn’t, the guarantee is worthless.
- ‘Inter-generational fairness and equality considerations’ must mean no to a two-tier scheme whereby new members get worse pension benefits. The casualised staff joining our strike deserve the same rights to the same pension as the rest of us as soon as they get jobs. In the medium term we should resume the debate about Final Salary vs. CARE. Currently those facing discrimination in career progression also get discriminated against in their pensions due to the way the current CARE scheme. Equal pay for work of equal value must also mean equal pensions for work of equal value.
This offer by UUK has not been negotiated with the UCU elected negotiators. Indeed they saw it for the first time just one hour before it was released to members. They have not been able to change a single word.
UCU branches must now mandate their delegates to Wednesday’s branch reps meeting to demand the negotiators return to talks with UUK and ensure the words on the deal are understood by all to be consistent with those above. If UUK are serious and agree with our interpretation then this can be resolved in days.
If not, then the deal is not worth the paper it is written on, and the action must continue.
#NoDetriment: Do not call off the action or ballot members until we have secured a commitment from the employers not to make detrimental changes to members’ benefits in the current valuation round
#NoDetriment: Do not send it out to ballot by members until USS JNC, Trustees and tPR have agreed it
#NoDetriment: Keep the action on until UUK agree to UCU’s demands
The UCU pensions dispute has now reached a point very similar to the dispute in Scottish FE in 2016/17. We went out to win common pay and conditions for lecturers across Scotland. The employers caved in very quickly and agreed, or rather, appeared to agree to all our demands. After just one day of national strike action they offered negotiations and at 3am in the morning of 19 May 2016, after 15 hours of negotiations signed a document granting the pay we wanted and promising to agree harmonised conditions by October 2016. To us negotiators it seemed that victory was complete since they even said they would not to dock wages for our strike! We returned to work confident that this was a case of ‘job done.’
By Sean Wallis – vice president, UCL UCU and UCU NEC member
We are on the brink of what may turn out to be an historic victory in USS.
We have come a long way from 100% DC being imposed. Mass strike action by our members took us here. The threat of mass strike action in the future is what is motivating the employers now.
But there is an obvious risk in the current proposal.
Fundamentally, the agreement does not prevent the employers agreeing to set up a panel, and then, when USS’s books are opened, find an even bigger deficit, come back in a year’s time and then railroad through changes in the scheme.
The key issue is the following bullet point.
- The panel will make an assessment of the valuation. If in the light of that contributions or benefits need to be adjusted in either direction, both parties are committed to agree to recommend to the JNC and the trustee, measures aimed at stabilising the fund to provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements.
The problem with a new arrangement “broadly comparable with the existing arrangements” is that it is not specific.
How broad is “broadly”? Is a DC scheme “broadly” comparable with DB?
The employers seemed to think so in January. AON was engaged to report that 100% DC was only 10-20% worse than the existing DB scheme. PWC threatened dire problems in the scheme.
We are in an extremely strong position to push the employers one important stage further, as below:
- The panel will make an assessment of the valuation. If in the light of that contributions or benefits need to be adjusted in either direction, both parties are committed to agree to recommend to the JNC and the trustee, measures aimed at stabilising the fund to provide a guaranteed pension whereby employees neither pay more nor receive less than the current arrangements. To achieve this the employers will either pay more into the pension scheme, extend their temporary line of credit, or reach an agreement with the government to support the scheme.
We propose therefore that as it stands the offer Not Be Put to members by e-ballot. Instead the negotiators should go back into negotiations on this point.
If it is put out to members by e-ballot then there will be no chance to nail this down. First one negotiates and then consults. So consulting would delay resolution.
The negotiators should go back to the employers and insist that they agree that there should be no detriment to members as a result of this new valuation process.
For 30 years we had Final Salary. #NoDetriment was the norm.
In the last two valuation rounds we have had two severe detriments. I see no basis for accepting detrimental changes to USS, now or next year.
Let’s nail this down now. If the employers accept this they get one further advantage to them. If they meet our claim in full, we don’t need an e-ballot!
We will simply have won, and our ballot mandate will then end.
By Sean Wallis – vice president, UCL UCU and UCU NEC member
What a week! In less than 24 hours after a terrible offer was announced, a mass lobby of over thousand UCU strikers outside the emergency HEC/branch delegate meeting, forced the leadership of the union to reject the offer and continue the strike.
The hashtag #nocapitulation was soon tweeted far and wide alerting members to the awful offer. Thousands of lecturers, academic related staff and post graduates met on picket lines and in open-air meetings and debated the offer. By the time the HEC had started their meeting 47 out of 64 institutions that were on strike had met and rejected the deal.
This was a revolt of the rank and file the likes of which we have not seen since the Great Miner’s strike of 1984-5.
What this week has shown is that things can change incredibly quickly. What can appear to many trade union activists as a passive and even demoralised working class can transform – springing into action and leaving established activists running to catch up.
The 13 elected commissioners, which I was one, have just finished making recommendations on effective industrial action. The commission was set up by the General Secretary at the last UCU congress in the aftermath of the disastrous pay campaign. A campaign that was so badly led it gave confidence to the employers to go on the offensive to rip up the USS pension scheme.
It is ironic that the commission has just finished at the same time as the most effective national strike action the union has ever seen! The recommendations are good.
They are strike centred and hold up well in light of the present action.
During the course of drawing up the recommendations, which started in November, we heard from many different academics and branches who fed their ideas into the commission. Whilst most understood the need to put strikes at the centre of what would make effective industrial action there were some who did not.
Some put forward the idea that that we live in different times. They argued that the great set piece industrial battles of the 1970s didn’t fit anymore. That we live in a post capitalist age where working people do not wield the power they once did. Even the term ‘working class’ didn’t fit and certainly not in the context of the higher education sector we were told.
It is fashionable today to explain why the working class don’t display the kind of militant action as in the past. Society, it has been argued, is divided between the ‘salariat’, a section of the working class that have a vested interest in the system and the ‘precariat’, workers on casualised contracts who are kept out of full time employment not only by the employers but with the connivance of the ‘salariat’.
This strike has blown all these theories right out of the water. A sector which does indeed have workers at different ends of the wage structure and some on very secure employment contracts whilst others on very insecure ones have united on the picket line.
In fact the most striking aspect of this industrial action is how much it resembles the industrial battles of the 1970’s. From the mass pickets, the open-air mass meetings and the setting up of strike committees. The solidarity shown by students going into occupations and the mass lobbying of the national executive to stop the strikes being called off could have all come out of a manual on how to organise an effective strike from the 70’s.
I would thoroughly recommend reading an interview with Arthur Scargill the Miners leader in New Left Review from 1975. Arthur Scargill: The New Unionism. New Left Review I/92, July-August 1975. It gives an inspiring account of how the miners organised themselves and inflicted one of the most important defeats on employers in British history.
Whilst we aren’t miners, they had the economic power to ‘turn the lights off’ and halt production right across the country, we can learn a lot about how they organised to become one of the most powerful sections of the working-class movement.
Building a strike movement that can win
What is done in the universities in the next couple of weeks before the second wave of 14 days of action is going to be crucial. Going back to work after such an inspiring two weeks of action can take the steam out of the momentum of the strike. Activists as they go back to work are now showing the kind of creativity inside work as they did on the picket lines to keep the campaign alive. At one meeting I attended last week a striker spoke about how she is going to organise lunchtime meetings where workers can come along eat their lunch and talk about how they can prepare for the next wave of action.
It is clear from debates at the meetings and picket lines that strikers are focussing their demands on the employer to ensure that more is won and to force them to break from UUK’s position. A striker at the London strike rally last Wednesday argued that whilst the petition demanding the government under-rights the pensions scheme is important, it mustn’t be allowed to distract from the central task of taking the fight to the employer.
Seven universities have passed a motion calling on the union to adopt the position of ‘Status quo’. If we are to avoid another attempt to sell this dispute short we need to win as big a side around this position as possible. The central reason why there was such anger over the deal was because many strikers know there is not a deficit. This is why activists are calling upon branches to support motions calling for the status quo.
Some universities have regular strike committees. The strike committee needs to become the centre of the organising and debates around the issues of the strike. UCL has a strike meeting every day in the afternoon. It discusses how the day went and what to do about any weaknesses.
In FE 13 colleges will be taking a further three days of action on the 27, 28th and the 29th March. We are learning a lot from colleagues in HE. The possibility of opening up a second front of industrial action is real. In FE there are 148 colleges that have submitted 168 claims. That is just under 50% of the total bargaining unit in FE. The claims are over a range of issues from pay and workload to fractionalisation and equal pay. Not all will end in branches taking industrial action. But many could move in that direction very quickly.
There are branches in FE and HE that have different experiences and levels of organisation. We need to move quickly to try and generalise what has worked well and what hasn’t. This is why London Region UCU has called a UK – wide activist meeting for the 28th April to listen and learn from each other about how best to ensure we win.
History has taught us on more than one occasion that when the working class moves it does so very quickly and new formations and ideas about how to effectively organise against the employers come to the fore.
We must throw caution to the wind and embrace this new potential.
Sean Vernell NEC
USS Chief Executive Officer Bill Galvin has challenged UCU activists that the so-called valuation deficit is based upon universities going bankrupt.
USS negotiator Carlo Morelli explains the concept of Self-Sufficiency (the ability to pay pensions without any new contributions) and why bankruptcy is exactly the concept being used in creating the deficit.
Also see the article Made in Westminster.
On Tuesday 13 March, UCU members in their thousands voted, emailed, tweeted, lobbied and protested against the outcome of the UCU and UUK negotiation. Members argued that to accept this offer would be ‘#Capitulation’.
There were many reasons why members were opposed. But the central reason was the massive 19% cut in the value of the Defined Benefit pension and the risk that CPI would cut it more. It expanded Defined Contribution down to £42K, drawing in members on Grade 8/Senior Lecturer grades. It was a three-year deal which was bound to unravel.
Members were incensed at the scale of the cut and the thought we would have to fight to protect our pensions in three years’ time all over again.
This ‘deal’ came out of a negotiation conducted within the terms of the ‘November Technical Provisions’, i.e. within a massive deficit cost envelope. This is fundamentally why the offer was unacceptable.
We have to argue that the deficit is not real. It is a projected deficit based on assuming the scheme was wound up.
We should argue that USS should instead be valued on an ongoing basis, i.e. as a going concern. If the USS Board need the Government to guarantee the future of the scheme, then USS and UUK should join UCU in calling for a government guarantee.
We demand the status quo, i.e. #NoChange to our USS Pension.
And we’ll take whatever strike action is needed to win it.
Lesley McGorrigan, University of Leeds, NEC member
Sean Wallis, University College London, NEC member
Joseph Choonara , King’s College London , Teaching Fellow
Prof Malcolm Povey, University of Leeds, Professor of Food Physics, UCU Committee Member
Nigel Bubb, University of Leeds, Lecturer
Laura Miles, UCU retired member
Christina Paine , London Metroplitan University , NEC HE casualised rep
Nita Sanghera, SCCB/Bournville College , NEC Black Members Representative
John Croft, Brunel University London, Reader in Music
Jo McNeill, University of Liverpool, President, University of Liverpool UCU
Liam Wrigley, University of Liverpool, Graduate Teaching Assistant
SIGN THE PETITION HERE
– this petition is initiated by UCU Left, https://uculeft.org
The deal which UCU and UUK have agreed falls a long way short of what is possible, and members who have been on the picket lines in the snow and rain for three weeks clearly expect a lot better.
We are being asked to accept swingeing cuts to our pensions as part of the transitional arrangement: the change in accrual rates alone will take nearly 20 percent of the value of our pensions, never mind the impact of CPI and lowering the threshold for Defined Benefit to £42k, and we are being asked to pay more in contributions.
The inflation cap of 2.5% will hit new USS members the worst. If inflation continues at the same average rate it has had over the past twenty years, members will lose a further 26% of their pension in addition to all the other proposed cuts. So this is a divisive element which perpetuates and deepens the intergenerational unfairness contained in the earlier agreement which first introduced a DC element.
Moreover this agreement is only temporary, giving us at best a three-year pause before the employers come back with more cuts. The proposal to consider Collective Defined Contribution opens the door to a future agreement on a Defined Contribution scheme which has no guaranteed benefits. After 11 days of strike action we are being asked to agree to the very thing we have taken action to oppose.
Worse than this, the agreement ‘encourages’ UCU members to reschedule teaching. This will encourage employers to go on the offensive and leaves our members vulnerable to victimisation through pay docking for ‘partial performance’. Moreover, it suggests that the union accepts the employers’ spurious arguments that it is our strike, rather than their intransigence and incompetence which has caused disruption for students. We have seen magnificent support for the strike from students around the country, we should not give in to the employers’ blackmail but continue to build political unity with students around a common defence of higher education from marketization. At Cambridge members are being asked to accept this shoddy compromise at the very moment when students have occupied the University administration buildings in support of our demands for a decent pension. They are demanding that the University stops acting like a corporation and starts behaving like a University once again – a call which is popular well beyond the ranks of UCU.
We know that our strike has fractured the employers’ unity at a local level, with VCs around the country being forced to break with various aspects of UUK’s line. This shows the potential for winning a much better deal than the one on the table now.
But we cannot demobilise, we should reject any calls to suspend the strikes which have already been announced for this week. Any wavering now will hand the advantage to the employers.
Reject the agreement, keep the action on.
It is Monday evening after Day 10 of our strike. UCU Left HEC members are quite rightly being bombarded with texts, emails and tweets calling for #NoCapitulation.
UCU has two tasks: to kill off 100% Defined Contribution (DC) and fight for more.
We have come to a crunch point in the USS dispute.
What is on the table
This offer is an improvement on 100% Defined Contribution. Therefore if the USS JNC votes to take DC off the table and replace it with a shoddy compromise, that is an important step forward.
By all means, let’s get rid of DC. UCU reps should vote with UUK in the JNC machinery to kill off the existing 100% DC imposed proposal.
So that’s step 1.
But scrapping 100% DC is not enough
First of all, just taking into account the accrual rate and contribution increase, this offer is a swingeing cut. It is at least a 19% cut in pension value. That is before you think about the effect of CPI capping and lowering the threshold.
- It is a three-year deal at most. The employers will come back for more in three years’ time.
- Don’t trust an “expert’s group” to solve the problem. Whoever picks the experts picks the outcome.
Our negotiators had a gun pointed at their heads. A gun of “accept this or get DC”. A compromise was born. It doesn’t necessarily mean negotiators are selling out. This compromise is what happens when you work within the projected deficit and face the threat of 100% DC.
But ordinary members are not prisoners of the negotiation process.
We have to keep up the fight
That’s step 2.
Therefore, at Tuesday’s meeting, it is essential HEC and delegates vote against suspending the action on the basis of the offer. We have to show to the entire sector and the public that the fight is not over. Our own members expect this as an absolute minimum.
We should therefore take the action we have already called and keep our strikes on this week.
We should also argue for a NO vote.
HEC can’t vote to end the dispute, but it could agree to send it out to members in an e-ballot.
At the delegate meeting, we should vote no to putting it out to members by e-ballot. But if it is put out to members by e-ballot, we have to argue for voting no in our branches.
This means challenging the deficit that generates the cut.
What is our alternative?
The most straightforward position is to demand no change from the current scheme (status quo) and call for a government guarantee to underwrite the pension scheme. This is straightforward, logical, and easy to understand.
This is also a realistic prospect, provided that we unite around this demand.
Members have been out in the snow and rain. A new union has been born. We are in a stronger position than ever before.
We have to use the last few days of strikes to assemble around the demand for #NoCapitulation #NoDeficit.
For everyone in London – come on Wednesday’s demonstration from Malet Street to Parliament Square. Assembles at 12 Noon. Rally in Westminster Central Hall.
Let’s debate where we are and what we do next!
Further Education lecturers and students joined our magnificent battling HE comrades in a march on Parliament last Wednesday. It was the first day of a two-day action in FE to be followed up by a further three days of strike action before Easter and possibly more days beyond that. There was a confident, almost celebratory atmosphere on the snowy march which was reflected in the powerful messages of support (for “however long it takes”) from the ‘star-studded’ platform in the packed hall and surrounding streets at Westminster.
A particularly moving speech from UCU and UCL’s Sean Wallis ran with John McDonnell’s stance against the continuing commodification of education in the UK and passionately painted a picture of how we, as lecturers, nurture, support and inspire our learners in FE and in HE to journey to the limits of their current potential and then to look over the edge and set their sights on what lies beyond – for this was a demonstration to defend the very principles of education as we have known it. This is a struggle not just about pensions and pay and equality for workers on precarious contracts.
I work in an inner-London ‘super-college’ – a merger of three (to date) financially strong colleges, stretching massively from Pimlico through Soho, Camden, Islington, Holloway and Finsbury Park on to Tottenham and Enfield. The college group has a turnover of over £120M and £30M in cash reserves. The top four people in the management hierarchy earn £3/4 M between them. Last year the successful business-people on our Board of Governors set a budget with a surplus of £2.5M and an allocation of £½M for redundancies. Teaching staff have not had anything more than a paycut (in real terms) for as long as we can remember and many of us with permanent contracts are working alongside hourly-paid colleagues who teach the same number of hours per week, are overloaded with the same admin and ‘other’ duties as the rest of us, have the same qualifications, get equally good observation grades and yet are re-employed year after year after year ….. some for as many as 10 years, 15 years, even 20 years on precarious contracts which reward them with not much more than half the salaries of permanent staff! Being low-paid throughout your career impacts on your ambitions, your housing, your lifestyle choices and those of your family and your children. My college says it has sympathy with this group of staff but “can’t afford” to fractionalise them.
So we stood, last Thursday on the picket line in the bitterly cold winds and snow flurries singing our ‘silly’ “Super-college Fractionalisation – that is why we voted!” song, to the tune of Supercalifragalisticexpialidocious, waving our ‘Because we’re worth it’ banners, laughing and cheering as the bus drivers hooted their horns. It made us feel better – doing nothing is not an option! (If you haven’t seen it yet have a look at CLL members’ great rendition of Super-fractionalisation Click to Download
We have a massive mandate behind us, with a 96% vote for ongoing action on a 63% turnout across 16 colleges in London (and two beyond). Now we must stay strong and press on. Our cause is just. Even the AoC (the Association of Colleges – our employers’ representative organisation) when recommending only a 1% pay rise this year, said that, where affordable, colleges should look to pay more! We have agreed to call a further three days of strike action (dates to be confirmed).
Eamonn Leddy, Chair City and Islington College UCU