Socialist Worker

University bosses make new offer. They are in retreat but workers can win more

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2597

Workers lobbying against an earlier deal

Workers lobbying against an earlier deal (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Bosses have made a new offer to try to end a bitter pensions dispute with university workers. A wave of powerful strikes has got the bosses on the run – and there is now an opportunity to score a stunning victory.

This is the moment to increase the pressure, not withdraw it.

Carlo Morelli is on the UCU’s national executive committee and a union rep at Dundee university. “Activists are going through this offer with a fine-tooth comb and a healthy dose of cynicism,” he told Socialist Worker.

UCU union members across over 60 universities have staged 14 days of strikes to defend their USS pension scheme. Bosses had wanted to shift the scheme from a defined benefit one to a defined contribution scheme.

This would make payouts dependent on the stock market – and slash the value of the pension.

Solid – and growing – strikes have forced the bosses to retreat. Now they say they will back off from the attack and instead agree to an “expert panel” to look at how the scheme should operate in the future.

The current scheme would remain in place until at least April next year.

“It’s not good enough,” said Carlo. “We need a deal that says there will be no detriment to the scheme after next April. We have to win the status quo—or better.”

Climbdown

The shift is a massive climbdown for the bosses and is a testament to the strength of workers’ strikes. But bosses hope to use it in order to buy time, undermine the momentum of the strikers and make their attacks at a later date.

Why give them a year to regroup? Workers have got them on the run – and they should keep on fighting for a deal that protects the pension scheme for good.

There have been many examples in the past where bosses have retreated only to come back when they feel more confident.

There should be no agreement to any deal, or any move to ballot UCU members, unless the bosses agree the outcome must be at least equal to the present scheme.

And the mass redundancies announced in recent days at several universities such as Liverpool university and Hull college should also be withdrawn.

The deal would see a “Joint Expert Panel comprised of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers from both sides” commissioned to deliver a report.

It said, “Recognising that staff highly value Defined Benefit provision, the work of the group will reflect the clear wish of staff to have a guaranteed pension comparable with the current provision whilst meeting the affordability challenges for all parties, within the current regulatory framework.”

The deal commits both parties to recommend “measures aimed at stabilising the fund” to provide a pension “broadly comparable” with the current arrangements.

Affrordability

Yet the bosses remain committed to imposing a worse pension scheme on workers. And talk of “affordability challenges” gives too much ground to the false idea that there is a deficit in the scheme.

There is no deficit in the USS scheme – it is in surplus. It has been valued based on an impossible scenario – that all universities go bust – and this valuation has been the basis for the bosses’ attacks.

Carlo said the method used to value the scheme is “at the heart of the problem”.

“If the panel accepts that valuation formula, then we’re back to square one,” he said. “The pensions regulator has to accept a change in the valuation.

“And it has to be recognised that this is a collective scheme. We don’t want a two-tier scheme where new members get worse pensions.”

It is fantastic that the strikes by UCU members has forced them to retreat from their aim of imposing the attacks now. But they still want to impose them in the future. And the only reason they have made the latest offer is because they are desperate to stop the strikes and kill the momentum of the action.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt wrote to members explaining that the deal would assess the valuation of the scheme. And in light of that “contributions or benefits” could be “adjusted in any direction”.

But why should workers pay any more – or get any less in retirement – when the scheme is not in deficit? Why shouldn’t workers keep the scheme they have now?

The union’s higher education committee (HEC) will make a decision on the offer, following a branch members’ meeting next Wednesday. This follows a previous deal that was overwhelmingly rejected by branch delegates earlier this month – and that forced the HEC to withdraw it.

The union leadership has failed to give a recommendation to branch delegates on whether they should accept or reject the deal.

UCU members are already organising activists’ meetings to discuss the deal. Involving the maximum number of workers will be key to fighting to defend the scheme. And they should demand that the union does not throw away its advantage by calling off future strikes.

Activists are rightly discussing a lobby for Wednesday to keep up the pressure.

Bosses and workers elsewhere are watching this dispute. The USS scheme is one of the few remaining defined benefit schemes in Britain. If bosses get away with wrecking it – now or in a year’s time – that will send a message to other bosses that they can attack workers too.

It’s fantastic that strikes have humiliated the bosses and blocked their plans. If workers build on this, they can win a victory that will have implications for everyone.

The union should name the dates of the next strikes and fight to win an outright victory.


Fat cat university bosses try to sneak through cuts

Bosses at the University of Liverpool want to cut over 200 jobs.

The UCU union said it was “seeking more information on what exactly this will mean for staff and students”.

Meanwhile workers at the Open University (OU) face course cuts of around a third.

The UCU said leaked proposals suggested that 41 degree courses at the OU would be cut, leaving just 71 available. It said the cuts would “destroy the Open University as we know it”.

UCU members at the OU struck against cuts and closures in 2015 after delivering their first ever vote for strikes.

After a series of rolling strikes at different OU centres, union leaders failed to escalate the action.


Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.