The Fightback Starts Here!
Ballot for Escalating Strike Action and a Marking Boycott
UCU branches covering the 68 pre-92 universities met on Thursday 9th November 2017 to discuss our approach to the very serious threats to the USS collective defined benefit pension scheme, which could lead to its closure. Conference voted to ballot for escalating strike action and a marking boycott if UCU’s conditions are not met. This follows the historically high turnout and vote for industrial action in the e-consultation of members. USS have manufactured a deficit and are using various other spurious arguments to undermine the scheme. Despite arguments from members, the employers will be making proposals to reduce benefits next week, which could include reductions or closure of the DB scheme. This is part of the wider attacks on pensions by the Tory government. Members stand to lose half their pension and face all the uncertainty that a defined contribution scheme has.
The conference was united in its understanding and anger at the threat and the need for a campaign combining hard-hitting industrial action with a range of campaigning approaches to stop the destruction of the USS scheme and maintain decent pensions for all members.
USS is a profitable scheme, in surplus with a huge £60 billion asset base. It is known to a have a positive cash flow and is more than capable of paying all of its liabilities to current and future pensioners, as long as it remains an open and attractive scheme for members. Yet government policy to end collective defined benefit schemes, USS’s own empire building and employers desire to cut their contributions risk undermining the whole scheme. An unattractive scheme, which fails to guarantee a future pension risks members (current and future) abandoning the scheme or withdrawing their pension entitlements. Conference was united in recognising that the deficit was constructed not real, but posed a real threat and that ‘[P]redicting an unsustainable deficit via a disputed methodology has provided an ideological justification for the privatisation of collective Defined Benefit pension schemes and movement into individual Defined Contribution schemes’.
Fortunately, the conference was unified in its votes for balloting of members for escalating strike action and a work to contract including marking boycotts if the proposals being discussed at the USS joint negotiating committee materialise into formal plans. UCU will be balloting, as early as December or as late as February, if USS and our employers do not back down, leading to strike action throughout the second semester followed by exam boycotts in the third semester. Delegates overwhelmingly asserted that we should spell out our industrial action plan and proposals so that it is clearly understood that we do not accept detrimental pension changes. There is still time for our employers to see sense. They are now facing the prospect of the most important dispute ever seen in UK Higher Education. The outcome will define the sector for a generation.
Delegates also recognised that our industrial action must be backed up a public and political campaign ‘to end the marketisation and privatisation of higher education’. This included the importance of working with FE colleagues and other trade unions, particularly PCS and CWU. It also included the need for direct political lobbying and working with sympathetic MPs. Although not stated explicitly, this could lead to a focus on influencing the Labour Party’s shadow front bench to stopping the government-appointed Pensions Regulator’s destructive approach to collective defined benefit schemes. Conference also called for engagement with students and members of the public to make common cause over the disastrous effects of marketization on student indebtedness and gain support from them for our strike action and work to contract.
Conference also recognised that the recent Bank of England interest rate rise makes the USS position even more nonsensical and called for an investigation and, if feasible, an implementation of judicial review if USS and UUK do not withdraw their threats. However, Conference was clear that this would in no way replace industrial action.
One of the few aspects missing from an otherwise excellent conference was the need to focus on equality issues and anti-casualisation in our campaigning. This is one of the lessons of the recent HE pay dispute and further highlighted by a statement from the Commission for Effective Industrial Action.
The campaign starts now. Branches should organise meetings with MPs and members of the devolved parliaments to gain their support. We need to continue to lobby employers to convince them that any attack on our defined benefit pensions could have a disastrous impact on the sector. Finally we need to hold public rallies and stalls to explain the importance of pension provision for all and we need to engage with student unions and other trade unions to build the solidarity we will need to break the government’s, USS’s and our employers attempt to make us pay for their non-existent crisis and steal our pension.
UCU Left will be holding its annual conference this Saturday, 18 November 2017. See here for the programme
For more USS pensions information