SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 218 May 2018

Striking education deal

On Friday 13 April, University and College Union (UCU) members voted to accept the latest proposal from Universities UK (with 63% in favour) and to end the pensions dispute – this round, anyway. There can be no doubt that university workers have won a significant victory. On 23 January, UUK announced plans to completely scrap ‘defined benefit’ pensions in university superannuation scheme (USS) institutions and introduce 100% ‘defined contribution’. That represented a monumental attack which would have left the average member of staff £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.

Fast forward to April and, after 14 days of magnificent and determined industrial action, UUK have been forced to state that 100% DC pensions are off the table. They have offered a joint working group of employer and union representatives to analyse the pension fund and agree a way forward which provides a ‘comparable’ pension benefit. And to maintain the current provisions for at least another year.

These concessions came about purely from the power of our strike and that is perhaps the most important lesson for UCU members, and for workers everywhere. UCU is not known for militancy. Undoubtedly, the employers thought they would be able to get away with this attack without provoking anything more than a one- or two-day ‘protest’ strike, rather than a full-blown industrial battle. That’s just not possible any more.

Since 2008, pay in higher education has declined in real terms by around 15%, and the gender gap is worse than any university system in the western world. An explosion of insecure and part-time work has created an army of casuals: people in work related to teaching, research and student support on fixed-term or zero-hours contracts, even on ‘casual worker agreements’ or ‘non-staff contracts’, depending on the institution. This latest attack – the third proposal to cut our pensions in the last eight years – was the final straw.

Decades of marketization and privatisation, begun by New Labour and accelerated by the Tories, have decimated the sector and radicalised not just university workers but students too. The vast majority of students have been incredibly supportive of the strikes because they see how marketization is damaging their education and leaving them with crippling debt. Indeed, many young UCU branch reps and organisers who have come to the fore during this dispute are veterans of the 2010 free education demonstrations. The USS strike has acted as a spark to reignite the student movement.

The employers and probably some in the leadership of UCU will say that the power and militancy of this strike came from nowhere. In reality, the anger on campus at a range of attacks on higher education and working conditions had already created the conditions for a major struggle. Pensions are just the tip of the iceberg – many of the young pickets don’t earn enough or have secure enough employment to be in the pension scheme yet!

Even when concessions were first offered by the employers and it seemed the UCU leadership was poised to accept, branches around the country mobilised fantastically. They held mass emergency meetings to discuss the offer, organising a demonstration outside UCU HQ to successfully pressure the union not to call off the action when its Higher Education Committee (HEC) met on 13 March. The level of organisation and determination from ordinary reps and members was incredible, and stands as a shining example of grassroots lay-member control of industrial action.

Around 45,000 UCU members in the pre-92 universities went on a 14-day strike – more strike days than across all sectors in Britain in 2015 or 2016! Additionally, this was achieved despite the arbitrary obstacles to industrial action created by the Trade Union Act. UCU members have shown decisively that national strike action is possible and no trade union leader must now be allowed to claim otherwise. Our campaign began with the run-up to the ballot for action, organising meetings of members and students, department by department, even using phone canvassing and door knocking to get the vote out. We secured our highest ever turnout, with 88% voting for strike action.

Nonetheless, we do have to say that, while the accepted offer shows how far the strike forced the employers to move, more could have been achieved. Unfortunately, the conservative approach of the UCU leadership – under significant pressure from the Tory government behind the scenes – led the union to rush to ballot. This was a mistake. A majority of branches made clear at the consultation on 28 March that they needed more detail on the offer, which came directly from UUK and was not the product of negotiations. Broadly speaking, a majority of branches favoured a #ReviseAndResubmit position, basically meaning that, while the offer represented massive progress, we needed clarity on what was proposed before balloting.

For example, we need to know who will represent UCU on this joint working group, and how they will be elected/selected. We need to know what power this group will have to challenge the methodology used to evaluate the pension fund, and to call for a new evaluation. We really need to know why senior UCU full-time officials were so keen to rush this ballot through as quickly as possible!

We do not have the answers, but we have to assume that UUK wants to demobilise the activists, and return for a more piecemeal attack on pension benefits in the future. That’s why Socialist Party members advocated a no vote, and to keep the pressure on until we had secured clearer commitments from the employer.

At the same time, we need to recognise that the timing of the ballot affected its outcome. The Easter holidays meant the strike had been demobilised and made it difficult to organise branch meetings and membership discussions. If it had come in the middle of industrial action, when members were discussing daily on the picket lines, the result would likely have been different. Furthermore, while the HEC did not take a vote on whether to make a recommendation to members, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt repeatedly contacted members urging them to accept.

She deliberately conflated the #ReviseAndResubmit position with the demand for a #NoDetriment clause, raised by UCU Left and backed by a minority of branches. That asked for a commitment from the employers that the joint working group would not propose cuts to pension benefits or increases in contributions. While that demand was understandable, it was an error. Hunt seized on this, arguing that it would require much more extensive strike action. She used it to confuse and divide members and branches.

The lessons of the dispute are clear for UCU members. We now understand our collective industrial power. We have also learnt that we need to develop strong lay-member control of the union, and build a strong broad left network of rank-and-file activists. In their absence, Twitter has served as an important organisational tool for the membership – ironically, as many academics are pressured into promoting their work on Twitter by management! But social media can only take us so far.

There are serious questions for UCU members to deal with. For example, that the general secretary is UCU’s only elected full-time official, giving a lot of power to unelected senior officials. And the fact that there is no mechanism to recall elected representatives who members are dissatisfied with. These questions will dominate the union in the coming period. We also need to be vigilant. There can be no doubt the employers will attack our terms and conditions again.

Nonetheless, UCU members have waged a fantastic struggle, forced major concessions from the employers and built our union in the process – nearly 10,000 new members are thought to have joined nationally! We have set an example for other unions to follow. We have shown that it is harder for the weak and divided Tories in government to attack workers in struggle as they once would have. Workers across Britain should take heart from this strike, organise to drive the bosses back, and kick out the hated Tory government.

Sam Morecroft

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