Socialist Worker

40,000 UCU members could strike, shutting down 68 universities

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2588

John McDonnell promised to support the strikes if they went ahead

John McDonnell promised to support the strikes if they went ahead (Pic: Guy Smallman)


40,000 UCU union members are being balloted for strikes over pensions. The ballot ends on Friday.

If workers vote for action, walkouts could paralyse some 68 universities across Britain every week next month.

Carlo Morelli is a lecturer at Dundee university and a member of the UCU’s national executive committee. He told Socialist Worker, “People need to prepare now for the strikes that will come. We should call activists’ meetings to organise them.”

Workers are in dispute over plans to change their USS defined benefit pension scheme to a defined contribution one. Instead of having a guaranteed income in retirement, this would leave workers at the mercy of the stock market roulette.

For some, it would slash the value of their pension by half or more. That’s why there is so much anger—and a determination to fight.

Carrie Benjamin

Carrie Benjamin from Soas UCU spoke about turning out the vote (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Carrie Benjamin represents lecturers who are employed on a fraction of a full term contract at Soas University of London. She told Socialist Worker, “For people on fixed term or hourly paid contracts, the defined benefit pension scheme is the one bit of security we have.

“I’m hopeful we’ll get a good vote in the ballot.”

Workers were still getting the vote out in the final week of the ballot. Carlo said, “I emailed people who hadn’t yet voted on Sunday to remind them to vote. On Monday morning I got a dozen or more people who told me they’ve now voted.”

Attack

Conor McCann, a UCU member at University College London (UCL), pointed out that the attack on pensions is not the first.

“In 2014 our USS scheme changed from a final salary one to a career average one,” he told Socialist Worker. “It feels like a continuous barrage against workers. But universities like UCL have got so much money in the bank.”

The ballot has helped to build the union. Roddy Slorach, a UCU rep at Imperial College London, told Socialist Worker, “Whenever you get to speak to anyone about it, the anger comes fizzing out.

“I had one head of department who took it upon himself to email his entire department about the ballot. He’s never been to a union meeting before.

“Our membership is up by nearly 10 percent in two months. I’ve been at the university for four or five years and this dispute has put me in touch with new people. The ballot has helped create a new network of people who can build the union.”

The union’s higher education committee was set to meet on Monday and decide on what action to call. It could call strikes of up to four or five days a week throughout February.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt told Socialist Worker, “UCU is ready and willing to negotiate for as long as it takes to find a better way forward.

“But we cannot rule out sustained industrial action if no acceptable resolution is found.”

Pledged

During the ballot Hunt told UCU members, “Intermittent one-day strikes will not budge the employers.”

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell spoke to a UCU rally in London on Wednesday and pledged to back workers in their fight. “I’m here in solidarity,” he said. “We haven’t gone away, Jeremy and myself.

“Whatever decisions you take, we will be alongside you in exactly the same way we have in the past, whether that’s in parliament or on the picket line.”

The ballot is disaggregated, so each institution’s vote will be counted separately. The employers will hope that some branches will just miss reaching the 50 percent threshold the Tories have imposed on unions.

Roddy said, “Activists think that the union should say that we should look at the national result, so areas with lower turnouts should come out anyway.”

And Carrie added, “The union should support strikes in any case, regardless of the turnout. I’m hoping that the UCU takes a firm stance on it.”

If there’s a vote for strikes, the union should call them – and before negotiations with bosses end on Tuesday. Escalating action has the power to stop their assault on pensions.


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