On the 30 June 2011 pensions strike, photo Paul Mattsson

On the 30 June 2011 pensions strike, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Sam Morecroft, Sheffield UCU anti-casualisation officer (personal capacity)

University and College Union (UCU) members in 61 universities will be taking up to 14 days of strike action in February and March if plans to completely scrap the defined benefit element of our pensions aren’t dropped.

We have a strong mandate for industrial action, with 88% of members voting in the ballot saying yes to strike action, on a turnout of 58%.

That’s the largest turnout UCU has ever recorded in a national ballot, and it’s a testament to the hard work of branch activists at local level, to secure what we needed to meet the thresholds introduced by the draconian Trade Union Act.

The turnout also represents the anger and disbelief at the scale of the attack on our pensions. Scrapping defined benefit will mean the average lecturer will be around £200,000 worse off in retirement. Most university workers will lose 50% or more of their pension.

Despite the clear rejection of the proposals that our ballot represents, the employers’ association Universities UK (UUK) has refused to budge from its hardline position, or even to consider alternative solutions. The pensions regulator has said that our pension fund is in deficit, and UUK says this means there is no other option.

But analysis commissioned by UCU shows the pension fund is in surplus and the employers refuse point blank to consider increasing their contributions!

Because of the need to meet the turnout threshold, we disaggregated our ballot by branch. This was perhaps a mistake as we easily met the turnout nationally but at seven universities we just missed out despite big votes for action – for example at the University of Swansea the branch missed the 50% threshold by just two votes. Those branches are being reballoted however, so that they can join the strikes.

This attack is so huge that we have no other choice but to take sustained action to push back the employers and we are building for this action right now.

The employers are already split on this issue, but so far their representatives UUK have not backed down. If there is no change in their position, we will take 14 days of escalating strike action, with the first two day strike likely to begin on 22 February. This will be the fight of our lives, and we ask for the full support of students and the labour movement.

UCU members in further education are also balloting at some colleges after just a 1% pay offer from employers.