THE UNIVERSITY SUPERANNUATION SCHEME (USS) pension dispute has been without a doubt the most significant dispute in the UCU union’s history. Many branches have been transformed, with membership increasing by as much as 50% over the course of the dispute and levels of activism increased beyond recognition.
The ballot on the latest offer resulted in acceptance by a two-thirds majority in the largest ballot return since UCU was formed. That this offer was rejected by a third of the members voting shows there is a sizeable minority within the union that was still prepared to continue the action after 14 days of strikes in February and March, and there remains a significant level of distrust of the union leadership. There is a danger, however, that some on the left have perceived this significant victory as a defeat because members have voted not to continue the strike.
Immediately prior to the ballot, a national meeting of branch delegates met to discuss the UCU’s response to the latest offer from Universities UK (UUK) at which there was a wide-ranging discussion. Concerns about the offer were expressed but no vote was taken on whether members should be balloted on the proposal. After the meeting, General Secretary Sally Hunt sent out a message that all members would be balloted, leaving many delegates feeling they had been hoodwinked.
The UCU left had focused on a response to the proposal of “revise and resubmit”, raising numerous points that needed clarification. This was presented as an alternative to outright rejection of the deal as it became obvious from discussions among the members that there wasn’t the same strength of feeling to reject the proposal as there had been almost unanimously in relation to the previous one. The problem was that there was some sleight of hand with the “revise and resubmit” position (which the UCU left presented as broadly accepting the proposal but requiring further clarification on a number of points), and was contrasted to the “no capitulation” slogan that people organised around in rejecting the previous offer. However there was no agreed process to revise and resubmit the offer, so it would still have amounted to an outright rejection.
The deal itself has not resolved the pension dispute. Rather it has established a procedure through which negotiations could proceed. One of UCU’s central criticisms of UUK has been that its valuation of the scheme was based upon conservative assumptions and that the projected deficit has been significantly inflated. The UUK proposal accepted entirely the union proposal for a new evaluation panel comprising equal numbers from the union and the employers, with an independent chair agreed jointly by both sides.
All other proposals are now off the table, and both the employers and the union negotiators now have been sent a clear signal from the historic levels of strike action that:
- Members would strongly oppose any attempts to replace a defined benefits (DB) scheme, where pensions are related to career average salaries, with a defined contributions (DC) scheme, where the pension received is entirely based upon how well the stock market does, and has no relation to working life salaries.
- The kind of DB scheme that ACAS proposed is woefully inadequate in the eyes of the members.
What the agreement doesn’t include are any guarantees about the kind of deal they expect to come up with at the end of negotiations. Much of the left has argued we need to conclusively win this dispute while we are in a position of strength, but it isn’t clear what would constitute such a victory. There might have been some further tinkering with the wording of the agreement if the union had held out with further strike action. But what is almost certain is that the employers would not agree to fund a pension scheme in advance of agreeing on a valuation.
There was a real danger that by continuing strike action now the union would risk seeing the strike fragment and expose our weaknesses. This would have made it far harder to take action in a year or so when the new panel presents a revised valuation of the USS scheme.
This strike has been an important victory, and has pushed back the employers on a number of key levels, though the pensions issue has not, and could not, be resolved for perpetuity. Effectively it has been postponed for at least a year. It is important now to consolidate the gains of the strike, to maintain the strength and unity of staff, and to unleash the activism we have seen throughout the dispute.
Alongside the forthcoming pay negotiations we have a campaign around the gender pay gap, casualisation and a myriad of other local issues through which staff can considerably strengthen our position. If we can maintain our momentum we will come back next year in a much stronger position than we were at the beginning of this year. It is important that we recognise this outcome as the victory it is, and consolidate the strength of the workforce before we discuss pensions again next year.
Chingford and Woodford Green CLP,