Leaders of the UCU union have narrowly voted to ballot members on a new offer on pensions. Ten members of the union’s higher education committee (HEC) voted to put the offer to ballot, eight voted against and one abstained.
Outrageously the union says “members will be consulted next week” – during the holidays – and UCU will recommend that workers accept the offer.
It has not suspended plans to call a further 14 days of strikes, but union leaders hope that the deal will have been accepted before strikes re-start. Such an undemocratic process has rightly angered many UCU members.
It was a big mistake to put the motion out to ballot, and the deal now has to be rejected.
UCU members in over 60 universities have struck for 14 days to stop an attack on their USS pension scheme.
Many workers thought a new “offer” from Universities UK bosses was not enough to ballot on – and that more negotiations should have taken place. Around 35 UCU branches had met and voted to reject the offer.
Workers met outside UCU headquarters on Wednesday ahead of a branch delegates’ meeting and HEC.
Carlo Morelli, a UCU negotiator and national executive committee member, said, “My view is that we should reject this offer. We need more negotiations. But now the HEC has put it out to ballot, we need to campaign for a No vote.”
Within minutes of the announcement of the ballot, activists were organising the No campaign. On social media they are using the hashtag #RejectUUKdeal
UUK wants to change workers’ USS pension scheme from a defined benefit to a defined contribution one, slashing its value. The latest “deal” would instead set up an “expert panel” to look at how the scheme should function in the future.
But it gives no guarantees that workers would keep the scheme they’ve got now in the long term. Nor does it guarantee that they wouldn’t pay more in contributions or get less when they retire.
The strikes have unleashed a wave of anger among workers and pulled new people into the union.
Workers have the power to throw this deal out and fight for a settlement that properly protects their pension scheme.
Delegates outside UCU headquarters ahead of today’s meetings made clear that the deal isn’t good enough.
Jon was the delegate for York university. He told Socialist Worker, “My feeling is that the offer represents a victory in one battle in the war.
“But it’s not a victory in the war. The bosses are being vague in the offer because they want wriggle room – so they can back away from things in six months time. It’s not an accident.”
Josh, a UCU rep at University College London, agreed. “It’s positive that the offer was made because it shows we’ve got momentum,” he told Socialist Worker. “We’ve forced bosses to come to the table and they are taking us more seriously.
“But there’s nothing concrete in the deal. We need to firm it up. People want to revise this and resubmit it. We also want our elected negotiators to have some influence – they didn’t even get a say over this.”
Several workers said they hadn’t been given enough time to properly discuss the details of the offer. One delegate said her branch required three working days to call a general meeting. As the offer was only made public last Friday, the branch hadn’t been able to call a meeting.
One delegate summed up the mood at his university: “We have not been striking for what’s been presented.”
There was anger that the UCU’s elected negotiators were excluded from negotiating on the deal. Carlo said, “I saw this an hour before you saw it. There’s been no negotiation. It’s an offer from the employers.”
A discussion of how workers have organised so far shows how workers can beat the deal.
Carlo added, “In Dundee yesterday we voted to reject the offer by 47 to three. People said they’d come in with one view and they voted with a different view because they’d heard the discussion.
“Branches that haven’t had meetings encourage people to take the offer on face value and not question it. That’s why meetings and branch structures really do matter.”
Victoria from Goldsmiths agreed. “Our meeting voted to reject and backed motions saying we shouldn’t have a worse scheme,” she told Socialist Worker. “You really need to have meetings. There’s nothing like it – there’s a different chemistry. It’s not the same as e-ballots.”
Josh said over 100 people came to a meeting at UCL, despite many being away for the Easter holidays. He said the meeting showed a union “in transformation”.
Jon said the union branch at York organised a ballot which showed up the weakness of not having meetings.
“The ballot appeared to show acceptance,” he said. “But the vast majority said in comments that they accept this as a start of negotiations, not as a conclusion.
“We noted that, after a day or two, there was a move away from acceptance and people were starting to reject it. We shouldn’t be rushed into things.”
I think it’s possible to improve the scheme. It’s very healthy
Workers’ solid strikes have got bosses on the run. And they have organised brilliantly to make sure that their efforts don’t simply end with a shoddy deal.
The strength of the action has also boosted workers’ confidence to demand more.
Jon said, “I think it’s possible to improve the scheme. It’s very healthy and we should be looking at improving the accrual rate.”
Josh added, “We know that the money’s there. We know there’s no deficit. So in any future talks the employers should be clear that we’re not going to pay a penny more.”
The strength of feeling against this offer shows that workers have the potential to win a No vote. The danger is that individual workers will be presented with the deal in an isolated way.
Workers have to fight for union branches to contact members immediately urging a No vote.
And an activists’ meeting in London on 28 April will be key to helping push the fight forward in the longer term.
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