University workers fight for their pensions

Starting on 22 February 2018, 61 universities across Britain have seen lecturers, researchers, teaching assistants and support staff strike over proposals to end guaranteed pensions. These proposals come from the national body of university vice chancellors, Universities UK (UUK). Prior to the strikes no sincere negotiation had been offered. Since the industrial action began university campuses have become divided. Individual vice chancellors have broken ranks with the UUK position. Students have overwhelmingly supported staff: standing on picket lines, occupying campus buildings and petitioning vice chancellors. The University and College Union (UCU) is also divided: its national leadership reached an agreement with UUK that would have sold out the strike. A rank and file rebellion rejected the leadership’s capitulation and voted to continue the strike. As we go to press, UUK has made a further offer of negotiations and postponed any changes until April 2019; UCU branches will vote on the proposals on 28 March.

Following a record turnout of 58% in a strike ballot, UCU announced its largest ever industrial action on 22 January. 14 days of strike action, spread over three weeks, marked the beginning of the union’s national fightback against an increasingly corporate university management. UUK want to remove the defined benefit – guaranteed income after retirement – section of the university pension scheme (USS). Staff in universities established after 1992 are not covered by USS and are not on strike. The reworked USS scheme would tie retirement benefit to the stock market. Individual staff members could lose up to £10,000 per annum in retirement. UUK claim that an end to defined benefit is necessary to increase investment return and avoid a ‘deficit’; their deficit predictions have varied wildly and are based on a valuation disputed by UCU and independent accountants.

The reaction to this attack, part of higher education ‘reform’ and cuts, has been wider and more radical than before. But nationally, UCU has not backed up its branches. The ‘deal’ brought to members on 12 March by UCU negotiators included acceptance of the flawed pension deficit valuation as well as a craven commitment to reschedule teaching cancelled because of the strike – without pay. The agreement was supported by UCU general secretary Sally Hunt. When proposed to its Higher Education Committee, 45 out of 64 branches rejected it, and not one supported it. London UCU branches turned on their leadership and members protested outside the union headquarters. National leadership miscalculated their ability to sell a betrayal and were forced to backtrack. However, Leeds University has said that it will dock 25% from academics’ pay if they refuse to catch up on the teaching backlog on their return to work.

The problems with higher education, however, will not be solved through this action alone – let alone through negotiation with UUK. Sally Hunt wrote in The Guardian that vice chancellors are ‘tone deaf’ in responding to any staff issues, but then contradicted herself: ‘Many do care sad that exactly the opposite impression has been allowed to take root.’ How can management ‘care’ for a university when it does not respond to problems that affect its students and workers? On 21 March, Liverpool University announced it was seeking 220 redundancies among teaching staff to put more investment in priority areas, undoubtedly those which attract high-paying overseas students, especially those from China of whom there are 5,000 in Liverpool.

Alarm has spread among university vice chancellors with several beginning to reject the hard-line UUK stance: Universities of Glasgow and Newcastle’s vice chancellors were among the first. Another 14-day action is likely following the end of the Easter break – a possible exam marking boycott – if agreement on the latest offer is not reached. It is vital to avoid falling for the political posturing of some university vice chancellors. Regardless of Sally Hunt’s emotion over the negative ‘impression’ of management, the fact is that higher education in general needs radical change to reverse the corporatisation of its structures and its increasing exclusivity. The rebellion against UCU leadership and the wavering of vice chancellors are signs of the strike’s potential power.

Students joining picket lines have primarily organised independently of the National Union of Students (NUS), which has offered nominal support to UCU. In Manchester, where workers from University of Manchester (UoM) and the neighbouring University of Salford are on strike, students from Save Our Staff Manchester (SOS MCR) have been demonstrating their support through marches, picketing and banner drops from university buildings. It has support from UoM student’s union but is an umbrella campaign of students from Manchester universities involving activists from a variety of political groups including the RCG. It rejects divisive calls for ‘compensation’ or ‘mitigation’ to students for lost teaching, and opposes all measures that entrench or increase marketisation in universities.

Students have escalated their actions to campus occupations and protests outside UUK’s offices in London. RCG supporters are involved in the continuing occupation of Queen Mary University of London’s (QMUL) Octagon building that began on 12 March and a temporary occupation in Nottingham University that has since ended (see http://revolutionarycommunist. org/branches/ london/ 5145-quo-140318).

The occupations have, however, been marred by the sectarianism of opportunist forces. In QMUL’s occupation Labour Party supporters and other forces have attempted to stop the selling of political literature – including Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! and Socialist Worker. RCG comrades have challenged this and continue to sell FRFI.

Up to the last scheduled strike day, there had been 17 student occupations, including QMUL, King’s College London, Universities of Sussex, Nottingham, Dundee and Edinburgh. Since then students at London universities involved in supporting the strike have begun an occupation of the central Senate House. The occupiers are supporting the largest strike against outsourcing in Britain; organised by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). Militant student occupiers – again including RCG supporters – have mobilised to maximise disruption. Actions include blocking entrances and stairwells; they have faced off against administration and finance staff attempting to break the occupation. Even security workers – also threatened with outsourcing – have shown support to the students, against the orders of university bosses!

Radical action is needed to defend and reverse the corporatisation of higher education. Political education is vital to the continuation and radicalisation of these mobilisations. Attempts to undermine the unity and radicalism of the student movement must be consistently opposed; there should be no room for careerism or censorship.

Victory to the UCU!

Nathan Williams

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 263 April/May 2018


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