The battle to defend university pensions is back on following a resounding demand for action at the UCU union’s annual congress.
The higher education (HE) sector conference met on Sunday and agreed to immediately kickstart a campaign to defend the USS pension scheme.
Megan Povey, a delegate from Leeds university, said the debates in the HE conference were “a big win” for the left.
UCU members at over 60 universities struck for 14 days to defend the scheme last year. Now bosses have come back with another attack. That dispute ended with the setting up of a Joint Expert Panel, including UCU members and representatives of the bosses, to discuss the future of the scheme.
But USS trustees are plowing on with attacks that would see workers pay more in contributions. Workers say these attacks will wreck the scheme, as people leave or don’t join it because they can’t afford the contributions.
HE delegates passed a motion defending that USS members shouldn’t pay more or get less when they retire.
Tim Wilson from the University of Dundee told Socialist Worker, “USS always starts by saying, ‘Your pension is safe’.
“That’s true as long as it remains a viable, strong scheme. Currently more is paid into the scheme than is paid out. But there’s a danger that the scheme could be run down over decades.”
Delegates to the HE conference passed a motion that said conference “has no confidence in the Corporate Trustee of USS and its board”.
An amendment said that if Universities UK bosses refuse to confirm, by 1 June, that they won’t impose any contribution rises in October, the union will begin “an immediate campaign for industrial action”.
This campaign would involve “a ballot commencing 1st September 2019” to defend the USS scheme.
Carlo Morelli is a UCU negotiator and on the union’s national executive committee. He told Socialist Worker, “USS wants to make us pay through the nose for our benefits. They want to force out individuals by raising contributions - and to encourage bosses to offer contracts that don’t give them pension rights.
“It’s all about undermining the scheme.”
Carlo was optimistic about the potential to launch a strong fightback. “We now have a left general secretary with the election of Jo Grady,” he said. “She’s capable of demonstrating what a different campaign could look like.
“The general secretary should do a speaking tour as part of the campaign. It can show that the national union is going to lead a serious fight.”
Roddy, a UCU rep at Imperial College London, said that there is an “overwhelming mood to fight over pensions”. And John, a UCU member at Oxford university, said, “There are people who are not in the union who are angry about this. There are many new layers we could tap into.”
He explained that some bosses could start to attack other elements of workers’ conditions, such as research grants, in the guise of needing to pay more for pensions.
Roddy is one of many UCU members who said last year’s USS strikes transformed his union branch.
Doris is a new UCU rep at Bangor university and was at conference for the first time. “I was a very passive member before the pension strike,” she told Socialist Worker. “But I met lots of people on the picket line and got more involved.
“We’ve got a brand new union committee since the strike.
“Nobody would have predicted the powerful effect of a threat to pensions.”
HE delegates passed a motion defending the “no detriment” position of the union - that USS members shouldn’t pay more or get less when they retire.
Workers also passed a motion saying the union has “no confidence in the valuation methodology or the USS executive”.
Megan told Socialist Worker, “All the rules are set up against us. The methodology should be a matter of negotiation because it is political.
“Laws and rules can be challenged.”
And HE delegates voted to back a fight over pay too. Bosses have offered a below-inflation rise of 1.8 percent for 2019-20.
A motion passed noted bosses’ refusal to take action over the gender pay gap and casualised contracts.
It resolved to “initiate a concerted campaign to win industrial action ballots for a fight over pay to commence in the autumn”.
Several workers argued that the ballots for action on pay and pensions should be run together.
“Pay and pensions are linked,” said Megan. “If we lose on pensions then our pay goes down - not just in the future but now because contributions rise.”
Workers stressed the urgency of beginning a campaign now to build the biggest possible yes vote and turnout in the ballots.
Continuing the fight in FE
Delegates celebrated the continuing pay fight in further education (FE).
Andrew Harden, head of FE, told the FE sector conference on Sunday, “Everywhere our members are taking action they are improving their lot.”
He added that the fight to defend education should be expanded. “The time to ask nicely is over,” he said.
“It’s now time to fight.” Delegates passed motions calling on the union to fully support branches where dispute are ongoing.
They also called for returning to branches that didn’t meet turnout thresholds “with the aim of revisiting balloting on pay”.
Sean Vernell, from the union’s national executive committee, said, “The pay campaign has been successful because we have united the issue of pay with conditions.”
Workers who have won pay rises after strikes spoke about their campaigns. Margot Hill from Croydon College said UCU members there beat turnout thresholds in ballots twice.
“I thought they had us over a barrel with the anti-union laws,” she said. “But that’s not the case.”
Lambeth College workers recently won a 3 percent rise after ten days of strikes. Julia Roberts, a UCU rep from the college, said, “As a cash-strapped college, if we can do it you can do it.”
Lambeth UCU rep Mandy Brown added, “This was a really big win from a college in deficit. And as the strike developed we increased our membership. The new members were the most militant.”
Another motion that passed called for a campaign to end incorporation.
This introduced the market into FE and moved colleges away from the control of councils.
UCU conference round-up
- One unanimously passed motion resolved for the union to organise a national tour with Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) and other anti-racist campaigns.
UCU members agreed that the union would back SUTR and its events, and send delegations
One motion agreed to send a £1,000 donation to the Stansted 15, a group of activists facing legal action after blocking a deportation.
- Delegates grappled with how to organise in the face of Tory laws that make it harder to strike. The Trade Union Act imposes turnout thresholds on ballots for action that mean education workers must get 50 percent of members to vote for action to be legal.
One motion, passed unanimously, said that the 50 percent threshold “can be exceeded on a national basis not just locally”.
- A motion condemned the victimisation of University College London UCU branch secretary Tony Brown.
Delegates also backed a late motion opposing the victimisation of Ruskin College UCU membership secretary Lee Humber.
- A motion instructing the union to “name and shame the worst employers” over casual contracts was passed unanimously.
Workers agreed to call a boycott of events at University of London’s central administration until workers there are brought in-house.
- UCU congress agreed to support “any broad-based protests” against the visit of US president Donald Trump.