UCU pay and pensions strike set to escalate

UCU pickets in good spirits at Imperial College in west London yesterday morning

UNIVERSITY staff completed their first two days of strike action yesterday at 74 universities across the country and their strike was solid, winning 100% support from the students union the NUS, which fully endorsed the strike.

They are back out on strike Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, four days the following week, and then a complete working week in the third week of strike, escalating their struggle.
The UCU have called for a march at 12 noon on Wednesday February 26 assembling at Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9EU, outside the UUK Headquarters.
There were three lively picket lines at Queen Mary University at Mile End yesterday morning. It is a big university with many departments including engineering, physics, English, drama history, languages, geography, law and a medical school.
Jan Harvey, professor of drama said: ‘We feel really strongly about the issues we are fighting for.
‘First, it is about pensions, for which we have been taking strike action since 2018. Second, it is about the other “four fights one voice campaign,” pay, job insecurity, and workload.
‘It’s all related to marketisation of the universities. Staff who are black or from ethnic minorities earn 22% less that white people.
‘Women are paid 13% less than men. This includes teaching and support workers.
‘50% of the workforce is casualised.
‘In the past you would find staff lecturers on three-year contracts, then there were more and more one-year contracts, and now so often lecturers are hired for just one semester of 12 weeks.
‘They are paid by the hour for teaching, preparation and marking. Pay rates vary between faculties and there is no holiday or sick pay.
‘There has been a real-terms cut in pay in the last decade.
‘As for workload, academics usually work a six-day week.
‘What is happening to universities is privatisation. It all began in 1998 under Tony Blair.
‘It’s difficult for us to strike. I don’t like not delivering my teaching, but these are causes which need addressing. They affect the quality of teaching and the future of our students.’
One of the casualised drama lecturers explained that although she is now on a two-year contract, she started out working for five different universities in London at the same time, all hourly paid, but not enough money to put in for a pension.
There was small holiday pay and no sick pay. And absolutely no security. She did not know if she would have employment for the next year.
Mark, a UCU lecturer, said: ‘Marketisation of education is decimating people’s lives; the workplace stress, the inequality, the low pay and casualisation.
‘Only the UCU is resisting the competitive drive. A win in the universities will give confidence to other unions.
‘The universities are a big employer. In smaller cities, they form a major source of employment and income for other businesses.
‘A win here, will affect everyone. We need to learn a few lessons from France. It’s a more polarised version of what’s happening here.
‘We cannot look to parliament to address our situation. The struggle is now outside parliament. It is the right time and seriousness. This is the longest strike we’ve ever done and matches the scale of the problem.’
Jack, working in the library, said: ‘This is the biggest strike I have been on in 11 years. The energy is the biggest I’ve ever seen.
‘It’s a perfect storm. The four causes have come together. We have to fight them now or we won’t get a better chance.
‘They’re trying to turn universities into a business and students into customers and the staff into more compliant service workers.
‘There is constant deskilling, restructuring and cuts to resources and staff.’
Norman McBreen, education manager, said: ‘I see the devaluation of education in society from the reduction in the funding and support from government, down to the lower respect and reverence afforded to teachers.
‘They are trying to demean us from primary school level right up to postgraduate education.
‘The underfunding drives down wages and casualisation, shows they are not investing in us and the young people we teach.
‘No one goes into education to make money, but to support and develop the skills of young people. It’s society as a whole which is being affected.’
UCU pickets at Imperial College were also out in force determined to win their struggle.
Lecturer Robbie Murray told News Line: ‘We are defending our future and our students’ future.
‘The college management here are trying to split us up by giving an increase in pay of £1,080 to all grades which will effectively be a pay cut for anyone over £30,000 a year, while simultaneously cutting our pensions.’
UCU striker Carmel Howe said: ‘We are out for 14 days and if we haven’t got our demands we should strike until we win them.
‘Our chancellor is one of the highest paid, yet care workers, regarded as being unskilled, work so hard and are so low paid.’
Another striker, Jeffrey Vernon, a teaching fellow in medicine said: ‘The important thing is after the last strikes in 2018 a Joint Expert Panel was set up which made recommendations that the employer took no notice of.
‘Since all the official channels haven’t worked, the only option we had was to withdraw our labour.’
First-time striker Matt Windsor said: ‘I am on a fixed-term contract for only two and a half years so I thought the flat rate increase offered was not too bad.
‘Then I realised the management are deliberately trying to split the workforce by imposing their pay package in bad faith.’
More than 30 UCU strikers picketed the SOAS building and the Senate House of UCL university in central London.
Johnny Darlington, secretary of UCU at SOAS said: ‘We demand fair pensions and our full rights. The issues we are striking over are pay, casualisation equalities, workload and the defence of education.
‘The strike is very positive, with a large number of pickets and amazing support from students.
‘Yesterday, they joined a “teach out” class outside SOAS in support of the strike.’
Deborah, a UCU member at SOAS, on strike outside Senate House, said: ‘Following our last strike two years ago, we unfortunately now find ourselves as employees with the same pension system, with identical issues and now having to take industrial action to force Universities UK (UUK) and university management to return to the table for talks.
‘Over the last twenty five years there is evidence of an increase in middle management, which has resulted in more casualisation and rationalisation which are threats to the quality and integrity of education.’
UCU striker in ICT at Imperial, Elmy Thompson gave a detailed account of the issues behind the strike:
‘Why are we striking?

  • This action is to do with both pay and pensions. Who else is striking?

  • 74 institutions in the UK with up to 50,000 staff are taking part in the industrial action beginning on 20th February.

‘Does anyone else support this?

  • The Imperial Student Union Council has voted overwhelmingly in support of the strike.

  • Unite and Unison at Imperial have issued statements of support.

  • National trade unions such as Unison officially support the strike and the NEU teacher’s union has already donated £5,000 to our strike fund.

‘Why are we unhappy with our pensions?

  • Employers want employees to pay more into their pensions (now 9.6%, 2018 was 8%, 2011 was 6.5%) and then pay even more in 2021 (11%).

  • With those changes, the average employee would now pay an additional £40,000 into the fund and receive £200,000 less in retirement compared average employee in 2011.

  • We (UCU) want employers to pay the increase in contributions.

‘But aren’t negotiations still ongoing?

  • Yes, after the strikes in 2018, a joint panel (JEP) was set up to look at a resolution, but USS (the pension provider) has rejected all substantial recommendations from that panel.

  • UUK (employers) did not push back when that happened and chose to pay higher contributions to the fund. UCU feels that employers should then take on the full financial burden and not pass it on to employees.

  • Meetings between UCU and UUK (employers) have been ongoing but have not been successful in reaching any form of outcome satisfactory to both sides of the dispute.

‘But Imperial management doesn’t directly control the pensions, so why strike?

  • We want Imperial management to exert pressure on USS (the pension provider) via UUK.

  • College management (particularly those at influential institutions and especially wealthy ones such as ours) were able to exert influence on the wider employer discussions in 2018.

  • If they support the wishes of their colleagues for a fair pension scheme for current and future generations, they should make a public statement and plan to find the money to support this as a key commitment to staff.’

Elmy then explained in detail the issues behind their pension scheme:
‘We are taking action to support and defend the USS pension scheme in order to allow it to continue as a valued defined benefit (guaranteed pension) scheme.
‘The previous USS valuation (periodic statutory requirement) resulted in a nominal technical deficit (an exact amount of a deficit cannot be easily known as it depends on many unknown factors such as demographics, gilt rates and the type of valuation method used).
‘The macroeconomic backdrop of low interest rates which are good for mortgage holders are unhelpful for gilt yields which are relevant for defined benefit pension schemes such as USS.
‘As a relatively immature scheme in pension terms (more younger members paying in than retired members being paid out it is argued that facets of the previously used valuation method by USS known as Test 1 to value the scheme is unsuitable for such a scheme with more younger than older members.
‘In addition, the complex methods and the lack of transparency of their figures used by USS have contributed to a wide distrust and dispute over both the figures themselves, mistakes made and the methods used.
‘After successful industrial action in 2018 to avoid implementation of the USS trustee’s unwelcome recommendations and consultation that the scheme be either closed or payments including those to close the deficit increased dramatically under the existing 1/3 employee 2/3 employer cost sharing arrangements.
‘The suggestion was to also simultaneously move more speedily towards so called “de-risking”. De-risking has been widely criticised as a misnomer in that switching investments into less risky assets, while it nominally does reduce the risk of one type of loss capital loss (to the underlying scheme not the specific individual), it increases other arguably more important risks such as inflation, affordability and shortfall risk.
‘In layman’s terms this is similar to keeping your savings in your current account at cash interest rates. This is fine for a short-term savings plan (that car you plan to buy next year) but if your retirement savings are saved or invested as cautiously over the longer term you will certainly face either consistently unaffordable high financial input or inflation risk or both.
‘In addition to the precarity of the pension situation, the ballot on action at this institution also includes member dissatisfaction with the outcome of the local pay offer of £1,080 for all and the Employer rejection of UCU’s request for 2.35% with a minimum of £1,080.
‘In this organisation, this offer resulted in a below- inflation uplift for many staff against grade boundaries beyond those at the lowest pay levels.’