UCU branch delegates met in London last week to discuss a new “offer” in their pensions dispute. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said a majority wanted the offer to go to ballot.
Des McDermott was the delegate for Ruskin College in Oxford. He said the “majority of branch delegates” said the offer should be “revised and resubmitted”.
“The HEC decided to ignore these views and put the offer directly to a ballot of UCU members,” he said. “Before the meeting 37 UCU branches supported a position of revise and resubmit. This raises serious questions about democracy in our union.”
The offer postponed a planned attack on the pension scheme and said an “expert panel” could look at how the scheme should operate in the future. It gave no long term guarantees on the scheme.
Some 37 branches met in the run-up to the meeting and opposed a ballot. Several also backed a “no detriment” position – that the scheme should not be made worse.
UCU negotiators had no say in the latest offer. Carlo Morelli is a UCU negotiator and is on the union’s national executive committee. He told Socialist Worker, “At yesterday’s meeting, we were read out one paragraph from a letter from the pensions regulator to UUK.
“We didn’t see the rest of it. The paragraph was meant to imply that the pensions regulator won’t push UUK to take a harder line in future discussions. But this doesn’t give us any guarantees. And it shows that the idea the government is not involved in this is false.”
Many UCU branches posted angry responses on social media following the decision to ballot. Liverpool UCU tweeted, “This offer lacks the assurances and clarity that this historic dispute deserves.
“We recommend to our members and to other branches that they say no. We are in a strong enough position to fully guarantee our pensions now and into the future.”
Bath UCU said the offer gave “no long term commitment on defined benefit pensions” and that bosses “are out to destroy our action and our solidarity”. Goldsmiths UCU urged workers to “reject the stitch-up”.
On Thursday a Newcastle university meeting saw 68 UCU members meet - a large number for the holidays - and pass an indicative motion by 64 to three with one abstention. It agreed, “To strongly recommend a vote of No on the UUK proposal and to circulate a petition to this effect to the membership”.
It also noted that “at the conclusion of the branch delegates’ meeting no vote was taken on what was clearly the crucial issue HEC were going to decide on afterwards”.
The union leadership is putting the offer to an e-ballot on 4 April – during the Easter holidays. It closes on 13 April at 2 pm.
This deliberately gives little time for activists to organise the No vote at a time when many union members will be away.
Yet several have called emergency meetings to discuss the offer. The UCU’s London region has called a strike coordinating meeting next Thursday.
And activists are organising to demand that the union calls a higher education sector conference to discuss the dispute.
Carlo said, “Where branches have had discussions, the outcome has been very different to when they are just presented with a bland statement.”
He added that the move to ballot is part of a desire by the union leadership to reassert authority. “They wanted this action and thought it was fantastic,” he explained. “But it got out of their hands and they couldn’t sell a deal. So now they want to reimpose control.”
Unsurprisingly, UUK reacted to the ballot by demanding more retreats. It said bosses’ support for the proposal was “conditional on the suspension of industrial action”.
“We expect urgent clarity on the action planned for the week of 16 April,” it added.
The union has called a week-long strike in 12 universities starting that day, and a three-day walkout in another. Activists should not stand for bosses trying to hold them to ransom. They must demand that the action stays on.
Hunt claimed a letter from UUK’s Alistair Jarvis showed that bosses were committed to “maintaining a meaningful defined benefit pension offer”. But UUK’s actions show the reality – they want workers to have worse pensions.
There is no deficit in the scheme and workers are right to argue that they shouldn’t pay any more or get any less in retirement.
Hunt claimed this is an unrealistic demand. In reality it is something that workers can win if they reject the offer and organise to keep the strikes on.