Report Back from USS Conference

UCU delegates in the USS pension scheme covering the pre92 University sector met in Manchester this week to discuss the future of their pension’s dispute. The meeting took place against a background of a vote to reintroduce a Work to Contract and calls for escalating strike action voted for at the National Congress in June. Unfortunately, the National Executive (NEC) had done little to develop a mood for action among the membership between June and September. The Superannuation Working Group had been tasked by the Higher Education Committee to provide members with a credible programme for escalation; instead they produced a transparently unworkable plan involving all out indefinite strike action at the end of October. This was presented to HESC by a leading Independent Broad Left member, while another declared that to vote for it would be ‘dishonest and reprehensible’ and it gained little support among delegates as a result.

Worse still, branches’ attempts to develop a coherent strategy for industrial action, involving one day and limited strikes and a continuation of the Work to Contract were blocked by the NEC  members, who had themselves proposed the all-out action. The NEC members who opposed all industrial action are themselves aligned to the Communist Party & Labour Party led Independent Broad Left and have failed to develop a real strategy to defend pensions in the union. Instead they have argued for a version of the Career Average pension scheme the employers imposed. They were able to win a majority of delegates to ending our industrial action on the basis of their pessimism and defeatism. They argued both that the employers are intransigent and yet that they might give concessions if we end our industrial action and negotiate from a position of weakness. In doing so it is clear they reject the idea that industrial action is either desirable or possible in defence of pensions, pay or jobs.

This decision is a serious setback for the defence of members, in particular those groups of young, women and others facing pay discrimination in their careers. It will undermine attempts to recruit the wide layers of part-time, casualised and newer staff coming into the industry. It will also undermine attempts to build unity across other unions involved in higher education and teaching who themselves are set to take industrial action in October.

Despite this setback the conference nevertheless prevented the national executive members’ attempts to gain support for a negotiating position proposing still higher pension contributions for those in the career average pension scheme in a divisive attempt to protect their own final salary pension position. This is an indication of the limited extent to which union activists and delegates can be pressurised into selling-out members and prioritising one group’s pay and conditions against another.

UCU Left supporters have consistently opposed attempts to undermine the pension dispute and have argued for a strategy which involved strike action and co-ordinated action with other unions. UCU Left supporters have all along argued that defending pensions is part of a wider campaign in defence of jobs and pay, an anti-austerity fight against government cuts and privatisation plans that cannot be won by a focus upon the narrow specifics of our pension scheme.

The attack on pensions is an attack on deferred pay, and the changes in the USS scheme make it easier for employers to attack jobs. It is deeply unfortunate that our union’s leadership has failed to develop any coherent strategy to defend pay, pensions or jobs. Recriminations are not the answer to this paralysis, however. What we need is to create an organisation of rank and file activists, located in every branch, who are not only capable of leading members in local disputes but who can explain to members the implications of national decisions at Congresses and conferences, and the importance of a national union leadership that is prepared to fight and to confront the Government.

The implications of the conference set-back for resistance to the employers will not be long in making themselves evident. This weakness will encourage the employers to bring forward plans to end national bargaining, and, in some cases, to question the need for a recognition of the UCU at all. All activists need to work in branches and regions to build a coherent strategy to resist these assaults, and to insist that such a stance is also taken by our elected national leadership.


Regardless of Thursday’s decision, we would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to join with our public sector colleagues in industrial action in defence of pay and education. UCU members recognise that action coordinated with other public sector unions is our most powerful weapon and we will have another opportunity to fight over pay (Pensions are nothing more than pay deferred and collectively saved); our ballot over pay will open on 18 September 2012 and close on 10 October 2012, see UCUHE/169. Any pay rise won will be reflected in increased pension payments.

Activists now need to demand that an effective national campaign for a YES vote in the ballot is conducted. A nationwide Get the Vote Out (GTVO) campaign can revitalise union branches, win the ballot and help recruit members to the union.

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