The results of the USS Pension e-ballot are simultaneously no surprise and deeply shocking. In the end, on a 40% turnout, about a third of members voted No, but two thirds voted to accept.
Intellectually, most activists know that if the national leadership of a union tells members they have a choice between a rotten deal, on the one hand, or, on the other, industrial action short of a strike without any build-up or preparation, and will have to face down punitive employers, and may still be defeated, most members will take the rotten deal.
But it is also deeply shocking. If the outcome was so predictable, how could a leadership that professes to ‘lead’ the union so deliberately engineer such an outcome, knowing full well the damage it will do to UCU in the future?
The result is not just an unnecessary defeat over USS, a defeat members will be paying for throughout our working lives. It is a defeat that will have long-term effects. The credibility of the current national leadership of our union to fight over anything must now be questioned.
In these circumstances, the fact that a third of members who voted, voted No, reflected the many local campaigns and initiatives, and the many branch committees and union activists who had fought to keep the Pensions issue alive in the colleges from November to the present day. But it was not enough.
Many members are asking: we had our pay cut by 15%. Now our pensions have been cut on top. Twice our supposed ‘leaders’ have passed the buck to members, asking them to choose between a shoddy deal and the escalation of industrial action without a serious plan. Given this deliberate ineptitude, what is the point of the national union?
From 87% for action to 68% to accept
What went wrong? How did we get from a huge mandate for industrial action to acceptance?
- At the start of the dispute, the Employers said they would pay 18% into USS. At the end of the dispute, after months of negotiations, the Employers will pay… 18%.
- The Employers wanted the end of Final Salary. They succeeded.
- The Employers wanted to break up Defined Benefit and introduce a Defined Contribution element. They got it.
- When we first balloted members, the Trustees had accepted a valuation that projected a £12bn black hole in its accounts. On the day the e-ballot was counted, the projected deficit had barely changed.
Once you strip away the hype, the negotiations barely shifted the Employers or Trustees one iota. The much-vaunted ‘gains’ were cost-neutral to the scheme and our employers. Our e-ballot offered members an ‘improved’ pension at the expense of increased employee contributions to pay for it. Essentially, the extra 1.5% benefits members and spouses who live more than 15 years beyond retirement at 68. Since some will, and many won’t, this is designed to be cost-neutral.
What went wrong?
How did we get from a massive vote for action to defeat? Answer: because our national leadership subordinated the industrial action to secret negotiations. Instead of taking action, supporting threatened branches, and facing down aggressive employers, our union suspended action after two weeks on the promise of no pay deductions, and then entered negotiations.
Negotiations were sold to members as the rational way to resolve the dispute. Members were not told that this strategy would put no real pressure on either the Employers or the USS Trustees to change their position. From that point on, the outcome was inevitable.
What was the alternative?
There was an alternative. It would have meant calling for and leading the industrial action, engaging members in the dispute, and encouraging a democratic debate over the way forward. It would have meant a visible leadership touring branches, continually explaining what was at stake and the necessity of action. Such a strategy could have involved both strike action and ASOS, with branches and the union deciding to prioritise one or the other depending on members’ support and the response of employers.
A serious strategy would also have meant supporting branches faced with high pay deductions. At the same time as some HE branches were, like Liverpool and York, faced with 100% deductions, members at Lambeth FE College were fighting attacks on their contracts by balloting for all-out, indefinite industrial action.
Had our union faced up to attacks on HE branches with the same fortitude as did ordinary members in Lambeth, the employers would have backed down rapidly, as indeed they did at York. If they had refused, we would have made those stand-out colleges a cause celébre.
We could have also challenged those Employers seeking to make lower punitive deductions. Some branches, such as UCL, passed motions seeking robustly to challenge every last deduction at 25% and, if necessary, to reballot for strike action against them.
As part of such an industrial strategy, the debates about the existence or size of the deficit would have attracted a ready audience. The one positive aspect of the USS dispute was the openness of a very broad audience, way beyond the ranks of UCU, and including many senior management teams, to debate the rationale of the deficit. The Employers began to split on ideological grounds. They could see that they would be paying more and getting less for their employees. This was a position that was difficult for them to accept or to defend.
Had we been taking industrial action, these splits between the employers would have opened wider, putting pressure on the USS Trustees to reconsider their accounting method and to lower their estimates of the deficit. The so-called ‘de-risking’ plan that was used to justify a fire-sale of stocks, doubling the deficit, and imposing the Defined Contribution scheme, could have been stopped. This would have substantially changed the parameters of the dispute.
Even if all this had not been achieved, the deficit debate could have bought the UCU some time. With the Employers increasingly divided about the scale of the problem it would have been possible to argue that ‘solutions’ should not be negotiated until this matter was resolved.
Democracy and accountability is essential
Fundamentally, such a political and industrial strategy has to be open and democratic. Instead of stalling over calling a Special Higher Education Sector Conference (HESC) to debate the strategy, once branches started calling for one in October, a serious leadership would have simply backed the call. The Chair and Vice Chair of HE could have called a Special HESC in November – in plenty of time to review the strategy and the negotiations, and to allow the whole union to decide the next steps.
This secrecy was profoundly undemocratic. Officers from branches who passed motions were systematically denied information from their own union about the progress of the requisition (how many branches had passed the call, and which ones). The information was not even provided to members of the HE Committee.
This secrecy undermined the dispute and the national leadership in the eyes of many branch activists. If the democratic mechanisms for holding the leadership accountable are blocked, it is not surprising that some activists have despaired, even talking about quitting the union. The solution is to demand democracy!
We believe that it would be fundamentally wrong for angry activists to leave our union. It would mean handing over the UCU to the same leadership that mismanaged the dispute in the first place.
Reclaim our union
Members need to reclaim our union. What has happened in the Pensions dispute is an unmitigated disaster for UCU. Our leadership demobilised the dispute and abandoned members to a snap e-ballot with a Hobson’s choice – fight and probably be defeated – or roll over and accept huge cuts.
This leadership has a name. Some, but not all, are members of a group called the Independent Broad Left (IBL). It has a built-in majority on the HEC of 2:1 against the left (UCU Left and other left-wingers). The IBL is neither particularly broad nor particularly left-wing. Rather, it embodies a perspective of a traditional trade union strategy of negotiation in preference to industrial action that was only ever, at best, able to secure compromises not victories. It is a perspective that has been out-dated for at least a decade. It is signally inappropriate in an era of austerity policies and neo-liberal privatisation.
In practice, the IBL grouping has little confidence in members’ ability to take industrial action. Some supporters of this political grouping clearly have no confidence in members at all. For them, negotiation is a ‘commonsense’ approach.
They think members won’t fight, so they don’t prepare them for action. They are fearful of relying on them in any battle with the employers. Apart from repeating the slogan as an empty mantra, they have lost the realisation that its members are the union. That is why they so distrust delegate conferences and democratic procedures – they think that the union has to be protected from its members.
We are not in a period where such an attitude can work as a strategy, even for compromises. We saw how the HE Pay dispute was sabotaged. Now the same thing has happened with pensions – with even more long-lasting effects. We are in a period when the employers are attempting to go on the offensive on a range of hard-won rights, from pay and pensions at a national level, to contracts, workload and performance management (etc.) at local level. Unless the union has leaders, national and local, who are prepared to resist these attacks we are going to be attacked continually, encouraged to make concessions, and face more attacks later on.
This has to stop. We need to reclaim our union!
What we need to do
Demand a Higher Education Sector Conference. Over 20 branches have passed the requisition resolution. The same HEC leadership who wrecked the dispute want to stop this. But we need more democracy and accountability, not less!
Branches should organise General Meetings. They can submit motions to the HESC on two topics:
- Defence of pensions: defence of final salary and opposition to defined contribution schemes, challenging pensions deficits, and lessons for post-92 campaigns.
- Defence of ASOS and industrial action capacity: developing a credible industrial strategy, lessons of the pensions disputes, accountability of negotiators, and so forth.
These are ‘live’ and urgent matters to debate. If we want UCU to be a campaigning union, not a service union, we must insist on the HESC being called.
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