UCU strike ballot against vicious assault on members pensions

UCU picket line at Brunel University in west London
UCU picket line at Brunel University in west London

‘UCU (University and College Union) will be calling sustained strike action aimed at massively disrupting lectures, classes and the administrative life of your institution next year,’ General Secretary Sally Hunt has declared.

The UCU launched a strike ballot last Friday against a vicious onslaught on its members’ pensions which could see a typical staff member over £200,000 worse off in retirement. Strike for USS! declared the UCU as it launched its strike ballot last Friday.

Sally Hunt stated: ‘UCU’s higher education committee has agreed to launch an industrial action ballot in the dispute over the future of USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme). They have said serious and sustained industrial action is required in the face of damaging proposals from the employers which would effectively destroy the pension scheme.

• The employers want to end guaranteed pension benefits.

• They say your final pension should depend on how your ‘investments’ perform and not on your contributions.

• We say it’s wrong to risk our members’ futures.

Dear colleague,

Your Higher Education Committee is united in calling for you to vote YES to strike action and YES to action short of a strike

Pension cap down to zero

Currently, USS pension benefits are guaranteed for all your salary up to a cap of £55,000. Universities UK (UUK), acting on behalf of your employer, is proposing that this cap is reduced to zero, effectively removing guaranteed pension payments in retirement.

These hard-line proposals mean that your future pension benefits would be based only on any returns from the ‘investment’ of your and your employers’ contributions in stocks and shares.

Scheme benefits worse by 20-40%

Independent analysts First Actuarial estimate that on a like for like basis, UUK’s proposal would reduce retirement benefits paid by between 20% and 40%, depending upon grade and length of service.

While the employers say that past service benefits already accrued will be protected, this dangerous proposal will affect every member of staff who is a member of USS, or hopes to become one.

In short, your employers are proposing to transfer the risk of providing pension benefits from themselves – a sector with a combined income of £34bn a year – to you.

Worst pensions in the education sector

UCU believes that the UUK proposal would be hugely damaging if it were ever implemented:

• it would remove any certainty you have about your future pension income, creating stress and anxiety for you and your family

• it would mean that USS members would have by far the worst pension benefits in the education sector, far worse than those of both school teachers and academics in ‘new’ universities

• it would create a recruitment and retention crisis in our universities as staff seek the better financial security available elsewhere.

To defend pensions, we need your help

UCU has called for extended national negotiations with the employers. Our aim in these talks will be to protect your pension benefits in any way we can. We know they can afford to pay more and that there are alternatives to the hard-line approach they are currently taking. This will also mean challenging the flawed valuation methodology, supported by the employers, which threatens the future of what remains a strong and growing pension scheme.

But the truth is that protecting your benefits will be tough, and we will need your help. During this ballot, UCU will continue to press the employers to undertake serious negotiations aimed at protecting your pensions. However, there is complete unity within UCU about the need to be ready to take sustained industrial action to defeat these hard-line proposals from UUK.

Only the threat of sustained strike action will make a difference I want to be clear. Intermittent one-day strikes will not work to budge the employers. That is why if you vote in favour of action, and there is no settlement, UCU will be calling sustained strike action aimed at massively disrupting lectures, classes and the administrative life of your institution next year.

Your good will abused

However, I believe that in this situation your employer is cynically relying on your good will for their own ends. Our universities run on the extra hours you put in; they trade on your success and expertise; and they know you care deeply about your students.

And yet they repay your commitment with a hard-line proposal which will destroy USS as we know it and lead to stress and uncertainty for you and your family. Enough is enough. If we want to challenge this proposal, we must stand up and be counted. We built USS, now we must defend it

The current USS scheme did not land in our laps as a gift from benevolent employers. It was fought for by UCU’s predecessor trade union and its members. It established for the first time a common pension across all participating universities and has given a comfortable retirement to many tens of thousands over the years.

But unless we show we are prepared to fight again USS as we know it will be gone forever. Whether you are months away from retirement or have just taken up your first teaching role as part of your PHD; whether you have been in USS all your life or haven’t yet got around to joining; whether you are an academic or one of the thousands of academic related staff who help make our universities tick, this union needs your vote and your vote will really count.

On behalf of the Higher Education Committee, I urge you to stand up and be counted. Use your vote. Encourage others to vote too. Tell colleagues about the union.

Vote YES to strike action.

Vote YES to action short of a strike.

Sally Hunt

UCU general secretary

PS. Remember that under new trade union laws we need at least a 50% turnout so please vote – don’t leave it to others to defend your pension rights.’

A joint National Union of Students (NUS) and UCU statement issued on Tuesday said: ‘It is in the interests of both staff and students that we have a university sector in which staff are treated and remunerated fairly. This must also include ensuring that lecturers can be assured that they will receive a fair pension upon retirement.

‘University leaders have proposed significant detrimental changes to the agreed terms of the USS pension scheme – both to the staff contribution, and the subsequent pension that is received. UCU, negotiating on behalf of their members, estimate that a typical lecturer would be more than £200,000 worse off over the course of their retirement under the proposals.

‘NUS and UCU are united in calling for university leaders to engage in open, faithful and constructive negotiation for as long as it takes in order to resolve this dispute, as a matter of urgency. UCU is currently balloting members on the prospect of industrial action.

‘NUS and UCU share a significant concern that a failure to engage will risk industrial action being undertaken, which would entail considerable disruption for both students and staff. Fair, mutual resolution of this dispute is in the interest of our whole higher education sector. UCU will continue to seek good-faith engagement with university leaders, and NUS is fully supportive of this engagement.’

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner MP said she feared plans to slash staff pensions would lead to ‘a brain drain that the UK can ill afford’. Rayner said: ‘I am deeply concerned by the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which would leave hundreds of thousands of staff in many of our biggest universities significantly worse off in retirement.

‘Decent pay and working conditions for those who work in education are vital to the success of the National Education Service that Labour is planning. We want our brilliant university staff to stay in UK higher education and to continue working for the public good. A race to the bottom will only create a brain drain in this crucial sector that the UK can ill afford.

‘The last thing students and their parents need right now is a prolonged dispute in which they get caught in the middle. I would urge both sides, aided by USS and ACAS if necessary, to agree to sit down and negotiate for as long as it takes to agree an equitable solution.

‘USS is the largest private pension scheme in the UK and it is vital to our economy as well as to the education sector that it continues to enjoy the confidence of its current members and their employers, so I also urge the Pensions Regulator to provide the headroom if needed for negotiations to take place. A sensible solution which protects the scheme’s members and ensures that USS remains an attractive scheme for the future must be everyone’s priority.’

UCU general secretary Hunt said: ‘We welcome, and share, the shadow education secretary’s concerns over what UUK’s hardline proposals would do to staff pensions, and the damage they could cause to our universities and the UK economy.’