NUS and UCU: Unite and Fight Better than This!

By Dan Davison, Cambridge Universities Labour Club Graduate Officer & NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep

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As covered in a previous article, members of the University and College Union (UCU) overwhelmingly voted for strike action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the primary pensions scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. These changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, effectively ending guaranteed pension benefits, with the typical lecturer set to lose as much as £200,000 in retirement. Following the end of talks between UCU and the employers’ consortium Universities UK (UUK) without agreement, UCU has announced 14 strike dates at 61 universities, beginning 22 February.

On 30 January, Sally Hunt, General Secretary of UCU, and Shakira Martin, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) released a joint statement on the USS action. In this statement, NUS expresses its concerns that ‘the imposition of these cuts in the face of sector wide opposition will lead to a demotivated and unhappy workforce and consequent recruitment and retention problems as staff vote with their feet and move elsewhere’. Accordingly, in ‘full solidarity’ with UCU, NUS has asked its members to:

  • continue to call for the university employers to recognise the seriousness of the situation and agree to meaningful negotiations either directly with the union or via ACAS
  • write to their institution head to complain about the impact the strike will have on their learning
  • participate in local demonstrative solidarity action during the strikes in support of UCU members.

Whilst we in NCAFC welcome staff-student solidarity action around the strike, the overall response from NUS has been thoroughly unimpressive. First, although the UCU industrial action ballot results came out on 22 January, we did not hear any official statement of support from NUS until 30 January. For the union tasked with fighting for the collective interests of students in this country to take over a week to give public backing to a vital and visible struggle of workers organised in the national union for academic staff is nothing short of disgraceful.

Second, the actions that NUS has finally requested from its members range from tepid at best to misguided at worst. Especially objectionable is the call for students to ‘write to their institution head to complain about the impact the strike will have on their learning’. This risks shifting blame onto the education workers standing up for their rights. Make no mistake: complaining to management about the disruptions caused by a strike is tantamount to complaining about the strikers themselves, and management will capitalise on this. Moreover, even if one were to frame such complaints in a manner that more squarely blames the employers’ consortium for imposing the pensions cuts, focussing on the strike’s impact on students obscures how the most hazardous financial costs are those borne by the workers themselves because they are not receiving wages on their strike days. This is especially true of staff on hourly-paid or similarly insecure contracts of employment.

Whilst all this would be cause for disapproval in isolation, it becomes utterly damning in light of the policy passed on 6 December by NUS’ own National Executive Council (NEC) when the UCU industrial action ballot was ongoing. Amongst other things, NUS NEC resolved to ‘produce materials including posters and leaflets that SUs can use to help explain to students what is happening and why our staff need support’. No such concrete support from NUS is anywhere in sight. Furthermore, in the space of time between the passing of that policy and the release of the ballot result, Shakira Martin never publicly wrote to UCU pledging support for their campaign or to the employers’ consortium urging them to reverse the attacks on staff pensions, despite these being clear NUS NEC commitments.

This brings me to the overarching problem with NUS’ lacklustre showing. The pensions cuts at the heart of UCU’s dispute are only one aspect of the bigger picture: marketization. In other words, the hardships facing academic staff, such as the casualisation of employment and the attacks on pensions, and the hardships facing students, such as tuition fees and extortionate rents, all stem from the systematic effort to transform education into a commodity and the education sector into a free market. What should be at the forefront of staff-student solidarity actions around the strike is the message that this fight is every bit as much the students’ as it is the staff’s.

This is why, in addition to avoiding classes on strike days, I urge all those students who rightly refuse to see education as something to be bought and sold to do as follows.

  • Join UCU strikers on picket lines.
  • Find ways to provide financial support for strikers. This could be through UCU’s general ‘fighting fund’ or, better yet, a student-supported strike fund for your local branch.
  • Explain to your fellow students why, no matter the short-term pains of the strike disruptions, the long-term devastation to our conditions of learning, teaching, and research is too great for us to focus on how the strike might inconvenience us as individuals now.
  • Link the defence of staff pensions to other collective actions against the marketization of education at both the national and the local level, such as the NSS Boycott and campaigns against course closures.
  • Pass motions in your Students’ Unions (like our model motion here) in support of UCU’s action.
  • Lobby your Vice-Chancellor to come out against the pensions cuts and to use their voice in the employers’ consortium to press for conceding to UCU’s demands.
  • Use your student and local media to keep solidarity with staff visible.
  • Organise sit-ins, rallies, and other highly noticeable demonstrations of support for the strike.

Students and workers have begun to unite and fight against the pensions cuts, but we can and should go much further than NUS has gone so far. We are not only battling for education workers to enjoy some security in their retirement: we are battling for the future of education itself.

Solidarity with striking staff: Acting like consumers is not what’s needed!

Tyrone Falls, NCAFC South-West Rep, offers a response to proposals that students should demand fee refunds for days and lectures disrupted by strikes. For a contrasting view, see this article by NCAFC International Students’ Rep Bobby Sun. Want to write an opinion article for our blog? Email [email protected]!

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At KCL a campaign has recently been launched by students to demand a refund for days and lectures lost due to strike action by UCU. The slogan for the campaign reads: “Our conscience should be free, refund our fees”. Whilst it’s understandable that students are annoyed that their lectures and seminars will be cancelled, presenting it as an either-or situation – either we have to strike-break because we are not getting a refund or we stand on the picket line because we are going to get a refund – creates a false dichotomy. Ultimately, staff are on strike because their pensions are under threat. Moreover, if these reforms go through they pave the way for further cuts and restructuring of universities. Therefore, the strike is to stop conditions worsening in education. This ought to be cause enough to support it.

However, there are further reasons why this campaign is the wrong approach. Firstly, it accepts the logic that students are consumers; secondly, the way it’s formulated now, it doesn’t strengthen solidarity, but instead says we might show solidarity if we get a refund; and thirdly, it misses the point that the people most immediately affected by the strike are lecturers, particularly those on more precarious and lower-paid contracts.

Solidarity with workers based on defending education not consumerism

A major issue with this campaign is that it embraces the logic that students are consumers and that education is a commodity. Rather than calling out this view of education – that you can attach a price-tag to the education you receive – as a myth, the campaign accepts it. Of course, you might reply, ‘Yeah, I’m against this logic too but the fact is that’s the system we have and we have to work with it’. You can still reject this logic and look to how we can best support the strike. How can we best make links with other workers that will set up structures to fight for a free and democratic education? Unfortunately, behaving like consumers who are paying for a service does nothing to question this model’s underlying logic, and so does nothing for people to become conscious and persuaded that education based on fees and consumerism can never be fair.

Lecturers are fighting cuts to education – this is why we should show solidarity

Again, I can see why students are annoyed that they are missing lectures. However, it is unfortunately normal that strikes negatively affect people other than management. However, if you understand why it is that lecturers are going on strike and agree with them, then you should be supporting the strike anyway. For any support of the strike to be real and genuine, it has to come from people appreciating why it is that workers have been forced to take this action. This is how we should be talking to students and others about the strike. If an en-masse refund campaign were done together with strikers purely for the tactical purpose of causing administrative disruption, then it would be different. However, as currently formulated, the campaign basically says that you can be unsupportive of workers who are taking action, losing pay, and trying to stop further cuts to education, if you don’t get a refund.

Those most affected by the strike are the lecturers

The third issue with the Refund Our Fees campaign is its focus. Yes, people are missing lectures and (based on a marketised view of education) they are losing money. However, those who are most affected by the strike are the lecturers, particularly lecturers on precarious and low-pay contracts. These workers will be losing out on big chunks of pay to defend their pensions. As people who are sympathetic to the lecturers’ actions, our focus should be first and foremost on how can we support striking staff to get over this difficult period and win. We should be asking: “How can we best build the morale of strikers, or help with strike funds, or get other students to understand what is at stake and genuinely support the strike?”

Victory to the UCU strike!

Open Letter from Sussex Labour Club – Support the UCU strike!

UCU strike

University of Sussex Labour Society have released this open letter calling for students to support the UCU strike!

Sign up to it here: goo.gl/M4dnba [Read more…]

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!’

Model Motion to Back UCU Industrial Action in Pensions Dispute

UCU poster reading "YOUR PENSION. AXED. Fight back against a brutal attack on your pension"

UCU trade union members have just voted to take industrial action against major attacks on staff pensions, affecting 61 universities (listed here). Please check out and share the article here to find out more about it, and pass this model motion in your student union as part of the solidarity campaign!

Motion to Back UCU Industrial Action in Pensions Dispute

[X] Students’ Union notes:

  1. In the period 27 Nov 2017 to 19 Jan 2018, the University and College Union (UCU) balloted on industrial action in Spring, in response to damaging proposals from employers to the USS pension scheme. 1
  2. Nationally, 88% of UCU members who voted backed strike action and 93% backed action short of a strike. The turnout was over 58%2.
  3. The USS proposals will end guaranteed pension benefits, making final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions. They risk the futures of academic staff, effectively destroying the pensions scheme.
  4. The USS pension scheme’s own analysis shows that the employers could muster the funds to avoid this and keep guarantees on pension payouts.
  5. UCU have consistently supported student campaigns and actions.3
  6. NUS Conference has previously voted that our default position as students should be to back industrial action by education workers, because we understand that working conditions and teaching quality are so closely tied, and because we understand that the alliance of solidarity between students and education workers is vital to our own campaigns.
  7. NUS have resolved to support the industrial action.

[X] Students’ Union believes:

  1. Student-worker solidarity should be central to everything we do.
  2. Although industrial action is likely to affect students in the short-term, fighting for pensions means fighting for the long-term health of a profession of which students are primary beneficiaries.
  3. Threats to staff working conditions are part of a wider picture of cuts to education funding and marketisation.
  4. The attacks on different pension schemes are used to play staff against one another – one scheme is undermined, then members of another are told that they must accept attacks on their own scheme on the grounds that it is unfairly better than the first.
  5. These attacks will be most damaging to workers at the beginning of their careers, including our members such as PhD students looking to begin research careers, which could have a devastating impact in years to come. Furthermore, we all have a long-term interest in halting and reversing the erosion of pensions across the labour market.

[X] Students’ Union resolves:

  1. To give full and public support to UCU on any industrial action that follows the ballot result.
  2. To lobby the University to oppose the changes to USS.
  3. To encourage students to show solidarity by not attending lectures and seminars, or using services still in operation, on the strike day(s).
  4. To encourage students to join staff picket lines.
  5. To engage in an educational campaign for our students explaining why the strike is happening and why we should all show solidarity. Staff working conditions are our learning conditions.

References:

1. https://www.ucu.org.uk/strikeforuss
2. https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/9194/University-staff-overwhelmingly-back-strike-action-in-USS-pensions-row
3. https://www.ucu.org.uk/boycott-the-nss

Strike for USS! UCU Now Balloting to Strike over Staff Pensions

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by Dan Davison, Cambridge Universities Labour Club Graduate Officer & NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep

Over the past couple of weeks, the University and College Union (UCU), the national trade union for academic staff, has been sending out industrial action ballot papers. This is over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pensions scheme for staff in what are mainly ‘pre-92’ universities: that is, institutions that had university status before the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. In short, the proposed changes would leave staff pensions at the mercy of the pension fund’s gambles on the stock market and we should fight them at every turn. That is why I welcome NUS’ backing of the dispute after a motion submitted by NCAFC activists was voted through their National Executive Committee.

Currently, the USS is what is known as a ‘defined benefits scheme’. In other words, one’s annual pension is linked to salary and service. More specifically, each year of contributions guarantees a defined retirement income to each member. The employers’ consortium, UUK, wants to turn this into a ‘defined contributions scheme’. Under such a scheme, the contributions of individuals and their employers build up as personal investments, which are cashed in on retirement. This move effectively scraps guaranteed pension incomes in favour of a retirement income based on how each individual worker’s ‘investments’ perform on the stock market.

Whilst it is evident from even the USS’ own research that most employers could indeed pay more to protect existing pension benefits, they have chosen not to do so. With USS’ tens of thousands of active contributors, the choice to de-invest in pensions is nothing short of a slap to the face for university staff. Those most affected by the changes will be early career academics, since they have built up the least on the current pension scheme. In an industrial sector already rife with casual employment contracts, this additional insecurity will only make education workers in the beginning stages of their careers even more victimised by the gig economy. Shifting financial risk onto individual workers aids the marketization of education by making such practices as outsourcing and privatisation easier. It could also see talent drawn away from the education sector and towards jobs that struggling workers perceive as more secure.

We in NCAFC support the UCU in their dispute. We can pass motions in our Students’ Unions to back the campaign and any resulting industrial action, including marking boycotts. We can call on activists in Defend Education groups, anti-casualisation campaigns, Labour Clubs, and other bodies on campus to spread word of the ballot and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with academic staff on picket lines if a strike materialises. The ballot closes on 19 January 2018 and, under our repressive trade union laws, we need a turnout of at least 50% for a valid result. Every round of leafletting, every burst of social media promotion, and every conversation with current or potential union members about the dispute could make all the difference. For the sake of our teachers, researchers and other university workers, spread the word to every corner of your campus! Vote yes to strike action! Vote yes to action short of a strike!