UCU balloon| Photo: It’s No Game – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article UCU balloon| Photo: It’s No Game – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

Counterfire UCU members argue that we must have one clear demand for strike action – a rejection of the 2020 pension valuation 

An estimated 50,000 university workers look set to take further industrial action over the coming months after employers’ representative body Universities UK (UUK) voted for drastic pension cuts at a recent meeting of the Universities Superannuation Scheme’s (USS) Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC).

Despite attempts by University and College Union (UCU) negotiators to extend discussions to find a compromise, UUK have decided to cannonball a package of regressive pension proposals that will cost higher education employees thousands of pounds in retirement benefits.

The proposed cuts include a reduction of the yearly accrual rate of pensionable earnings from 1/75 to 1/85, representing a cut of 12%, and lowering inflation protection from 5% to 2.5%, despite the National Institute of Economic and Social Research forecasting a sharp rise in inflation to 3.9% for early 2022.

UCU predicts that a typical USS member will see their guaranteed pension income fall by 35% if the recommendations go ahead, which could result in large numbers of university workers choosing to invest in alternative retirement plans. Were this to happen the future viability of the entire USS scheme would be at risk.

Union negotiators and academic experts have also pointed out that UUK’s rash proposals are based on a series of flawed financial assessments by the trustees of USS. For example, several papers published by USS Briefs demonstrate that USS valuation forecasts over the past decade routinely undervalue actual asset growth.

The latest valuation claims the pension fund is running a deficit of between £15bn-£18bn, however, it was conducted at the start of the pandemic in 2020 when stock markets were in turmoil. In fact, USS wasn’t legally obliged to undertake a valuation until March 2021, which would undoubtedly have yielded a much-improved forecast.

This farcical carry on has already resulted in thousands of university workers participating in two industrial actions in recent years. Additionally, several UCU branches have organised a crowdfund to bring legal claims against the USS trustees and managers for inter alia negligence and failure to act in beneficiaries’ best interests.

Meanwhile, speaking at a national UCU webinar meeting at which almost 1000 members attended, UCU general secretary Jo Grady described UUK’s plans as an ‘attack on education and on our conditions’ that are ‘connected to the marketization of education, and the need to drive down staff costs and extract value’.

“We are in a position, again, where we have to fight and defend our pension because our employers have demonstrated that they would rather invest in cutting our pension than in actually working properly with us to not just keep it an attractive and competitive pension but to also future proof it.”

However, though Grady and John Hegerty, UCU head of bargaining, paid lip service to industrial action, equally, they repeatedly emphasised that striking was just one of many possible tactics. Unfortunately, apart from writing letters to MPs, yet more indicative ballots and seeking solidarity from other campus unions and students, attendees were left guessing what the other courses of action might be.

Instead, they talked a great deal about an overall strategy of ‘creating conditions’ whereby employers would want to reengage with negotiations and agree a ‘joint position’ with the union. Grady even suggested that ‘we need to focus on getting as much as we can’ from the disputed 2020 valuation in the hope that ‘we’re in a position to get something better when the next valuation takes place’.

It’s in this context that UCU’s leadership have informed its USS members that they have devised four transitional demands, which, if acceded to, would constitute a ‘short-term win’:

  • Employers would pay 24.9% (3.8% more than they do currently).
  • USS members would pay 8.1% (1.5% less than they do currently).
  • Members who spend less than two years (but over three months) in USS would be entitled to the same benefits as everyone else.
  • Benefits would receive the same protection against inflation as they do currently.

Putting aside why USS members should be contented with a valuation that, according to Neil Davies, ‘presents no credible evidence to support its claims about future asset growth’, it remains unclear how UCU will persuade employers to commit to providing the ‘covenant support’ necessary to underwrite the above proposals now that the UUK horse has bolted.

Hegerty did stress the importance of recruiting new union members to build pressure on the employers, which is fair enough. But his claims that UCU ‘needs hundreds and thousands of members before we can win this dispute’ overlooks the fact that most universities are already heavily unionised, especially among academic staff.

And let’s not forget the already existing hundred and thousands of members who cut their teeth during the 2018 industrial action and spawned a newly energised rank and file movement that genuinely harnessed members’ expertise and (albeit temporarily) transformed UCU’s cautious officialdom and bureaucratic manoeuvres in the process.

On that, despite assurances that any forthcoming industrial dispute will be ‘a member lead campaign’, it would seem that UCU head office still prefers to organise national meetings that are highly stage managed. The recent webinar was no exception insofar as attendees weren’t even allowed to use the chat function, much less speak via their webcams.

One hopes that the forthcoming Special Higher Education Sector Conference (SHESC) on the 9 September is more participatory, that motions are properly debated and, ultimately, that UCU head office respects the democratic process and supports branches accordingly, including building for a ballot on industrial action.

To do otherwise risks the union becoming not unlike the grand old Duke of York, forever marching his soldiers up and down hills to the point where they are neither up nor down.

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