by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser • Strikes work! Well organised collective action, with full involvement and mobilisation of union members, can put to flight even the most hard-nosed employers.
That’s the core lesson from the ongoing, rapidly evolving struggle to defend pensions for university staff, involving unprecedented strike action by members of the University and College Union (UCU).
Lecturers, teaching assistants, researchers, librarians, IT and other student support staff voted by a whopping 83 per cent majority for strike action, smashing down the multiple barriers erected by the Tory Trade Union Act, designed precisely to prevent workers from fighting back in self-defence.
The first phase of action involved 14 days of strikes, plus action short of strike action (ASOS), including sticking to their contracted 35-hour week.
Before the wave of strikes, growing pickets and massive rallies, the UUK university bosses insisted the existing defined benefits pension scheme was dead and gone, never to be resurrected.
Staff were to lose defined benefits, their pensions to switch to an entirely Stock Market-dependent defined contribution scheme, with the loss of an average £10,000-a-year on retirement.
All based on their dodgy valuation of the state of the pension scheme—the USS—which perpetrated the austerity-driven narrative that the pension pot is in deficit, so they simply can’t afford to sustain the deferred wages of university staff, throwing them at the mercy of the vagaries of the grotesque gambling den that is the Stock Exchange.
For weeks, the UUK bosses refused to even talk to the UCU union. Then they made the absurdly offensive offer of talks… but not about pensions!
Faced with the third of a four-week strike plan, they entered ACAS-sponsored talks with the UCU, and offered some concessions, which initially the national UCU negotiators portrayed as an agreement.
All hell erupted on the picket lines, with online petitions gathering thousands of objections to the ‘deal’ literally overnight, and just about unanimous rejection of this ‘agreement’ by every single UCU branch meeting the next morning.
The rank and file of the union—the strikers and their branch activists—seized back control, and insisted the national negotiators throw out a shoddy package that meant (to quote a couple of the numerous examples I was given on the pickets) staff ‘only’ losing 42 per cent of their pension instead of 52 per cent, or ‘only’ 38 per cent instead of the original 48 per cent!
This episode massively emboldened the strikers, hardened their resolve to hold onto their defined benefits pensions, without cuts to what after all is earned, deferred wages.
New forces joined the pickets. New recruits joined the UCU and joined the strike; union membership grew by 15-20 per cent nationally over the duration of this phase of strike action.
The strikers’ strength was further fuelled by the solidarity shown by fellow trade unionists at the pickets, solidarity rallies, and collections for their Strike Hardship Fund. Likewise, by the widespread support from students—including the courageous actions of a determined minority in student occupations at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Stirling, Glasgow, Strathclyde, and Dundee universities.
This workforce has not traditionally been the most militant in its trade unionism, but a month of collective action has taught more than decades of theoretical discourse.
The electrified atmosphere of the pickets, roving marches round university buildings, and rallies with strikers and their allies speaking, have served to make determined fighters of people who are often on their first ever strike… or who’ve only just joined the union!
The growing strike force went back to work after the first phase of 14 days with heads held high. In Stirling, for instance, they assembled at the site of picketing and marched back to work with union banners, behind a piper!
The strike and widespread solidarity from other workers, and students, impacted on the university bosses, leading to splits and public disagreements between the various Vice-Chancellors and the UUK.
Union branches pounded the former with demands to make supportive declarations, and to spread loss of earnings through strike action over 3 months, often successfully.
They also kicked up hell about more bellicose bosses docking pay for staff working to contract, rather than the usual millions of unpaid hours worked through goodwill towards students’ education.
After the roaring success of the first four weeks of strikes, UCU members enforced a ‘work to contract’, and in preparation for the second national strike phase announced for the exam period from 25 April onwards, close to 1,000 resigned their posts as External Examiners, which would make the exam-period strikes really bite.
First serious offer
Hot on the heels of this mounting pressure, Unison announced a ballot of its union members on the same pension scheme, which undoubtedly was an added factor in the sudden, apparently spectacular retreat by UUK bosses on Friday 23 March.
Many strikers were at first astonished and euphoric at what appeared like capitulation by the bosses. But as they scraped away the layers of verbal trickery and obfuscation, it became clear that whilst this is the first serious offer from the employers, and a huge retreat by them, it needs an awful lot of clarification and tightening up to become acceptable.
As Strathclyde UCU branch president Brian Garvey told me, “After declaring the UCU demand for the status quo on defined benefits to be impossible, they’ve now conceded it—at least until April 2019.”
The new offer also proposes ‘an independent panel of experts’ to assess the valuation of what the pension scheme (USS) can support in the future, with 50 per cent nominees from the union, 50 per cent from the employers. But as Brian added, “We need to test the real independence of this panel.”
One of the crunch clauses in the offer is that after April 2019, and after valuation of the USS by the ‘independent panel’, pension benefits would remain “broadly equivalent to current arrangements.” What does ‘broadly equivalent’ mean?
Closing the loopholes
This could be a trap, a deal-breaker, whereby a besieged gang of university bosses try to obscure future cuts to pensions for current and/or future staff, including the spectre of two-tier pension schemes for current and future staff.
Strikers have pored over the details, and as the Voice goes to press, are holding branch meetings instructing national union negotiators to demand these grey areas are cleared up, to defend the existing defined benefits system, without detriment to staff.
As Brian Garvey told me, “We need to close the loopholes on economic arguments about the valuation of the pension scheme. If the proposed Panel was to decide the USS is in deficit, we should demand action against mismanagement—and there’s been plenty of that around!
For instance, the employers’ past pension contributions holidays. The bottom line needs to be no detriment to staff. This is a huge step forward which demonstrates the effectiveness of strike action, but in its current wording, it’s not yet an acceptable offer.”
The UCU strikers have plenty of grounds to be distrustful of top UUK bosses—and their slippery use of language!
After all—as I’ve hammered home in speeches at four solidarity rallies at Strathclyde and one at Stirling university—“These are the same bosses who declare a black hole in the pension fund—despite last year’s USS annual report showing 20 per cent growth in assets.
“These are the bosses who claimed £8million in expenses over the last two years—on top of the 60 Vice-Chancellors who each earn over £300,000 a year. In the same institutions which rake in £17billion a year from students alone. Hardly a corner shop in crisis!”
One of the obstacles to the UUK’s verbal trickery, as they are beaten back by the solidarity of the strikes, is the expertise on pensions of many of the academic staff on strike!
They’ve helped demolish the bogus claims and false valuations that were constructed to justify these drastic pension cuts.
But the power of their expertise needs to be combined with the power of sustained industrial action, until such time as defined benefits are guaranteed not just “until at least April 2019” but for the future.
Sustain action until victory
As we go to press, members’ branch meetings are poised to demand the planned 14 days of further strikes from late April go ahead, unless the UUK fully concede on the UCU’s demands.
Powerful, unprecedented strikes have pummelled the austerity brigade at the top of this huge sector of the economy, forcing massive retreats already.
It could be a massive victory for the entire working class, provided the planned action is sustained until the university bosses accept UCU members’ demands to close the loopholes in their 23 March offer.
As one after another group of workers suffer loss of Final Salary Pension Schemes, and switch to defined contribution schemes and increased worker contributions—paying more to get less, and later—this could be a turning point in fighting back against austerity.
This struggle is about pensions, but also about much more; against the spreading curse of casualisation and precarious employment, and against marketisation of education, which has increasingly turned students into passive consumers for university business profits, instead of being partners in learning for the good of society as a whole.
Unless the UUK bosses capitulate completely, we need the wider trade union movement to escalate solidarity for the UCU strikers until they win an outright victory for us all.