A key debate at the UCU’s higher education sector conference was over how to fight attacks on the USS pension scheme that includes lecturers in older universities.
Members in many of these institutions have voted overwhelmingly for strikes to defend the scheme and have already struck to defend it.
Delegates narrowly backed a motion proposed by the higher education committee to reballot over whether to strike against the employers’ imposition of changes to the scheme.
This means they will not be on strike over pensions on 30 June—although many branches will be involved in others forms of action on the day.
SWP members on the higher education committee, together with those of the wider left, opposed the motion.
A sharp debate among delegates reflected the level of anger over the attack on pensions and lecturers’ determination to fight.
“We balloted, why would we ask members again? They’ve voted for strike action already,” said Holly from University College London, after the debate.
Some members were so angry at the decision that they said they would challenge it after congress closes. Many delegates also raised concerns about what the union leadership might be prepared to concede in the fight over pensions.
They argued that the union should not accept a new scheme based on career average earnings as a replacement for their existing final salary scheme; against any two-tier scheme that gives new lecturers worse pension provision; and against accepting the normally lower CPI rate as the measure of inflation.
Mark O’Brien from Liverpool university said, “It is crazy not to be joining what could be 800,000 trade unionists out on strike on 30 June.”
Others opposed the call to re-ballot saying that the UCU “needed to belong to the broader trade union movement”.
Some delegates felt that lecturers had already given a clear vote for strikes and that the union already had a mandate to call further action.
But sections of the union’s executive argued that they wanted a renewed mandate for strikes after the employers had imposed changes to the scheme.
The motion was passed with 69 votes for and 58 against, along with a number of abstentions. But the battle to defend USS is far from over.
Although it is unclear exactly what the wording of the ballot will be, the key task for all UCU members will be to fight to win the biggest turnout and the biggest yes vote—and to fight for escalating action.
The ballot is likely to take place over the summer, and activists will need to to ensure this does not adversely affect turnout.