UCU: Clear strategy needed to reignite pensions action

UCU – clear strategy needed to get industrial action back on track

Liam Curless, University of Manchester UCU branch committee member (personal capacity)

On 14 January the UCU lecturers’ union continued the suspension of the marking boycott to allow for a ballot of members on new proposals from the employers, which will run from 16 – 26 January.

The boycott, in opposition to pension cuts at pre-1992 universities, began after the highest ballot turnout in UCU history, with 78% voting to strike and 87% voting for action short of a strike.

The boycott lasted two weeks (6th – 20th November)until it was suspended so that no pay deductions would be made and until further talks with the employers.

This was at a time when the employers were clearly divided. Last autumn five universities – Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, Essex and SOAS – publicly declared that the original proposals were unworkable, unsustainable and unnecessary.

But some universities, including York, Liverpool and Bradford, threatened to dock 100% of pay for workers taking part in the boycott. York backed down following a national backlash from staff and students. Other pay docks resulted in local strike ballots.

Fighting leadership needed

The promise of a national strike if members were victimised never materialised. Following the strong ballot result, UCU promptly abandoned its opposition to moving from final salary to career average pensions – a red line for many members. UCU suspended the marking boycott until 15 January with just the promise of more negotiations. These have led to marginal improvements to the original offer but will in fact still lead to substantial cuts to the pension scheme for the majority of members (see http://defenduss.web.ucu.org.uk/2015/1539/).

The selling point is an improvement in conditions for members on the career average scheme from 2011. However these improvements could have been much higher with a stronger leadership and a clear strategy with industrial action.

This was a golden opportunity for the union to win a significant improvement to conditions for the new generation of workers, winning their loyalty and forming the next wave of activists. Instead it has dithered and weakened the union position resulting in a ballot of members on meagre improvements.

This lack of leadership shows how out of touch the UCU bureaucracy and Higher Education Committee is from the rank and file, which will lead to a loss of confidence and frustration. All this following a limp campaign to improve our pay and conditions.

Members should vote no on the offer. We must call for an emergency pensions conference to enable a clear strategy to get the industrial action back on track, involving all members from GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistants), fixed term contracts, academic and academic-related, to ensure that the most effective coordinated action is taken.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 19 January 2015 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.