UCU union members are organising to defend their pensions and their union following a vote to accept a deal in their pensions dispute. Some 64 percent voted to accept the deal in a ballot that ended last week.
Activists campaigned for a No vote and many branches voted to recommend rejection.
But union general secretary Sally Hunt pushed hard for a Yes vote, sending out four emails urging people to accept the deal.
Elena is a UCU member at University College London (UCL). She told Socialist Worker, “It’s depressing and frustrating. There are a lot of questions about what happens now. People feel they’ve been kicked in the head.”
Many felt that the union leadership had thrown away a chance to score a real victory. UCL striker Paul told Socialist Worker, “Our main weapon was going on strike during exams. If I was management I’d have been drinking champagne when the result was announced.”
Vijay, a new UCU rep at Imperial College London, agreed. “The momentum was with us,” he told Socialist Worker. “I really felt we were getting somewhere. But now we could end up with something even worse and we’ll be dusting off our placards to strike again.”
But while the result is a serious setback, the battle isn’t over. And the scale of the No vote shows the level of anger that exists among workers—and their willingness to keep fighting.
Lesley McGorrigan is campaigns secretary of the UCU at Leeds university and a member of the UCU’s national executive committee (NEC).
She told Socialist Worker, “The higher education committee didn’t put a recommendation of how to vote. But Sally Hunt repeatedly pressed for a Yes vote. In that context, to get 36 percent voting No is impressive.”
She added, “It’s difficult for members to vote with confidence for more action when they know their general secretary is organising against it.”
Even those who voted Yes won’t all be happy with the deal or their union leaders. Vijay voted No, but said he had been “on the fence” for much of the time about how to vote.
“In the end I thought, if we vote to accept, management and Sally Hunt will feel very relieved,” he said.
But the strikes have built the union. Around 10,000 more workers were balloted over the deal than had been balloted in the original strike vote in January.
People joined the union because there was a fightback.
It will take more rank and file organising to change the balance of forces in the union and build the forces that can defend pensions and everything else.
As UCL UCU rep Sean put it, “I don’t think people voted Yes because they thought we can’t strike anymore. I don’t think we’re defeated.”
No confidence in Sally Hunt after leadership sat on fight that could have been won
Around 40 UCU members came to a meeting in London on Monday, called by the UCU london region, in the aftermath of the ballot.
There was deep anger at Sally Hunt, with several union members saying workers should organise votes of no confidence in Hunt.
Rob from UCL said it felt like strikers “were winning against UUK but losing against Sally Hunt”.
Workers said branches should pass motions calling for a special higher education sector conference to discuss the dispute.
They said left activists must be involved in the panel that is now to be set up to discuss the future of the pension scheme.
Many argued that there isn’t a strong divide between No and Yes voters. Roddy from Imperial College London said people voted Yes for many reasons, “not least because they didn’t feel they had the support of their union”.
“There will be a large number who voted Yes who have no illusions about UUK,” he said.
Oxford university’s vice chancellor has backed a “No detriment” position—that the pension scheme shouldn’t get any worse.
Activists argued that they should use this to pressure others to take the same position.
There was a sense that it is still possible to fight—and that the dispute has changed the union.
Marion from Goldsmiths in London reported from a 100-strong union meeting there on Monday.
Workers there passed a motion saying that the Yes vote wasn’t an endorsement of the idea that there is a deficit in the pension scheme.
“We’ve had at least a 50 percent increase in our membership,” said Marion. “We’re going to maintain our strike committees and our staff/student forums.”
The vote follows 14 days of strikes at over 60 universities against a plan to turn workers’ defined benefit scheme into a defined contribution one. There’s no guarantee that workers won’t end up paying more or getting less in retirement.
Hunt claimed the choice was between this or a “no detriment” position, which she claimed was unrealistic. Geoff, a UCU rep at Newcastle University, disagreed. He told Socialist Worker, “Sally Hunt gave the impression that it would take months of strikes after June to win anything significant.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. The bosses were in disarray and the momentum was with our side.”
A group of activists has launched a campaign for more democracy in the union. UCU United for Democracy called for structures and a culture, “that properly reflects our transformed union”.
Bosses will come back on the offensive over pensions. But workers have built stronger rank and file organisation through the strikes—and are in a better position to resist in the future.