The university workers’ strike, including not only lecturers but also researchers, admin staff and more, and backed by 88 percent of the balloted votes, was called by the UCU (University and College Union) in protest against the threatened imposition by employers of a new set of ‘defined contribution’ pension arrangements that would expose retirement pay to all the ups and downs of the market and slash an estimated £10,000 per year off the pension of a typical lecturer.
The initial programme of rolling strikes, which began on 22 February and ended on 16 March, roused the support of many students as well as lecturers, with mass attendance at rallies and marches, and student occupations notched up at Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Leicester, Liverpool, Reading, Southampton and Sussex.
Some vice-chancellors themselves voiced disquiet at the obstinate stance being adopted by UUK (the universities’ negotiating body).
Then, on 12 March, after a week of talks under the dubious aegis of the ‘independent’ conciliation body Acas, the two sides came up with a deal. When the real nature of this deal became apparent, however, local branches of the union voted it down in disgust, with angry protests outside UCU headquarters and a Twitter storm on #NoCapitulation.
This noxious deal strips out the existing defined benefit arrangements (guaranteeing a level of retirement income linked to salary) and substitutes the deliberately vague suggestion of “a meaningful level of defined benefits”. It is anybody’s guess what level might qualify as ‘meaningful’, but in any case the new regime is only proposed as a temporary measure, to be renegotiated in three years’ time!
Meanwhile, under the deal, lecturers’ pension contributions would rise from 8 percent to 8.7 percent come April, making them pay more for a worse reward. In an arrogant aside, the deal also requires lecturers to reschedule all the classes they missed during the strike!
The transparent intention of this deal was to get the universities off the hook, fudge the issue and kick the can down the road long enough for the strikers’ resolve to be dissipated. But, thanks to the determination of striking staff, their union leaders have been shamed into calling another 14 days of action to coincide with the exam period.
The collapsed deal also makes provision for an “independent expert panel” to look again at the valuation of the pensions scheme.
Much has been made of the real size of the pensions deficit, with some estimating it at £12.5bn and others suggesting a much lower figure. But so far as the university workers’ right to a decent pension is concerned, the exact method by which the deficit figures are cooked is a bit of a red herring.
Above all, lecturers and others should not be browbeaten into believing that pension deficits (real or imagined) are something for which they bear any responsibility.
In any job, it is up to the employer to decide how he is to discharge his responsibility towards his employees and pay them that portion of their wages which have previously been deferred to cover their retirement years.
Because that is what pensions in essence are: not a pat on the head for services rendered or a bonus for good behaviour, but simply the belated payment of deferred wages.
No amount of handwringing by employers pleading demographic shifts, straitened circumstances or an unlucky throw of the dice in their pension fund investments can hide this basic fact.
It is up to Universities UK to decide how not to defraud the average university lecturer of £10,000 a year, not up to the lecturers to decide whether to tighten their belts by one hole or three so as to ‘share the pain’ of austerity and marketisation.
Meanwhile, the dodgy deal struck between the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Royal Mail should give workers everywhere pause for thought. On the outcome of this fight may rest more than just the pensions of university staff. (See Why lecturers need to remain steadfast in defence of their pensions, CPGB-ML, 11 March 2018)