Stand Up for Staff Pensions! UCU Votes to Strike for USS

By Dan Davison, Cambridge Universities Labour Club Graduate Officer & NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep. See here for a model motion supporting the UCU campaign to propose to your SU!

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On 22 January 2018, the University and College Union (UCU) voted to back industrial action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pensions scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. The balloting took place between 27 November 2017 and 19 January 2018. Based on a turnout of over 58% of UCU members eligible to vote, 88% backed strike action and 93% backed action short of a strike. Consequently, as many as 61 universities could see industrial action this Spring.

The dispute itself has arisen because UUK, the employers’ consortium, wants to switch the USS from a ‘defined benefits scheme’ to a ‘defined contributions scheme’. Put simply, this means that final pensions will depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions. This in turn means the effective end of guaranteed pension benefits. According to independent modelling of the proposals, a typical lecturer is set to lose as much as £200,000 in retirement.

The significance of the ballot results should not be understated. They boldly show that tens of thousands of workers in one of the largest national unions are willing to go on strike, more than meeting the Draconian threshold of 50% voter turnout for a valid ballot result under the current legislative regime. Already, universities might face escalating strikes over 14 days, beginning with a two-day walkout starting on 22 February, if the USS dispute is not resolved. In the words of Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary, ‘Universities will be hit with levels of strike action not seen before on UK campuses if a deal cannot be done over the future of USS pensions. Members have made it quite clear they are prepared to take action to defend their pensions and the universities need to work with us to avoid widespread disruption.’

We in NCAFC support UCU in their dispute. However much industrial action affects students in the short-term, students are the primary beneficiaries of education and should stand with the workers responsible for keeping our academic institutions running. Moreover, PhD students and early career academics stand to lose the most from the proposed USS changes because they have built up the least on the current pensions scheme.

We also cannot ignore how these threats to the material conditions of workers on campus form part of the wider, harrowing picture of an increasingly marketized and commodified education sector. Therefore, we encourage activists to submit tailored versions of our model motion to their Students Unions. We call on students not to attend lectures and seminars, or use services still in operation, during any strike days. We urge as many as possible to stand with staff on picket lines. Let that rallying cry of the student and labour movements ring out across our campuses: ‘Students and workers unite and fight!’

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