Report from Special Higher Education Sector Conferences
by Alan Barker
On 7th November two special sector conferences took place in Manchester. The first was to discuss strategy on the Pay campaign and the second was to discuss the USS dispute. Below are short reports on both.
It will be remembered that there was a recent ballot of members on the issue of pay. Specifically, members were asked if they were willing to take part in Industrial Action to help the union negotiate a better pay award. This took place in the context of a draconian policy introduced by the government requiring all institutions to achieve at least a 50% turnout. Naturally, the union is campaigning for this law to be overturned since it one of the most restrictive anywhere in Europe and is democratically unfair since a failure to vote counts in effect the same as a vote of ‘no’.
As was publicised at the time, only a minority of institutions achieved this artificially introduced 50% figure. I’m please to say that we were one of them. However, it is clear that we cannot proceed with national action when most of our branches are not legally able to take it. So, a new strategy is called for. There were 8 motions discussed at this conference which called for different approaches. After a very complex debate a position has emerged.
We will continue the arguments with the employer’s side and attempt to resolve the pay dispute through collective national bargaining. In other words, we will not attempt to bargain as individual branches with our own employer.
The union will complete a nationally aggregated ballot of all members by the end of March with a view to entering the 2019/20 negotiations with a legal mandate for industrial action.
This has been an astonishing success for the union. After a very long period of strike action, both sides agreed to the setting up of a panel of experts who would consider the re-valuation of the USS pension scheme. This panel has concluded that there was no valid reason for USS to value the pension fund as it did and has completely vindicated the position that UCU held throughout the dispute. Our next steps are to be determined by the Higher Education Committee (HEC) as advised by this conference.
It should be noted that, due in large part to a peculiarity in UCU’s rules, this conference was not considered quorate. However, the chair did indicate that decisions taken would be carried through by the HEC.
It was the very clear feeling of the meeting that UCU should not accept any detriment in the next valuation of the pension scheme and there should be no increases in employee contributions above those recommended by the panel. In addition, we will be campaigning for universities to reimburse staff who lost wages during the strike. The University of Nottingham motion was combined with similar motions from UCL and Royal Holloway, and this joint motion was proposed by the UoN Branch President. The motion was taken in parts and the substantive portion of the motion, included below, passed overwhelmingly.
While, as indicated above, this has been one of the most successful campaigns in the union’s history, we have definitely not won yet and work still needs to be done to make sure that the conclusions reached by the expert panel and listened to by all sides.
In conclusion, the day was complicated but useful and UCU has good and hopefully effective policy on both of these matters in the short to medium term.
Composite Motion: Strike action, the JEP report and negotiations
University of Nottingham, University College London, Royal Holloway University of London
1. the historic 14 days of strike action and the threat of further action that forced the employers and USS managers to abandon their plans to replace a Defined Benefit scheme with Defined Contribution pensions and led to the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) report
2. since 2011 UUK has sought to degrade the USS pension and was halted only after this prolonged strike action
3. the contents of the first JEP report, that revealed the scheme was not at imminent risk of default and it was UUK’s attempt to reduce the Employers’ Covenant that triggered de-risking, and which vindicates, as realistic and desirable, the retention of a DB pension with no detriment to benefits
4. analysis by both JEP and Sam Marsh of Sheffield UCU which suggests errors led to both the apparent USS deficit and universities’ willingness to withdraw defined benefit pensions
5. six weeks have passed since the first JEP report and further delays could impede the effectiveness of future strike action.
Conference further notes:
a. the triggering of rule 76.4 imposing cost-sharing of 40%+ increased contributions
b. as an interim measure the JEP proposed that total contributions should rise from 26 to 29.2% of salary, an increase of more than 12% in contributions.
c. current plans for phased increases in contributions place too high a burden on employees and fail to take account of the historic underpayment by employers
d. the dispute is not yet resolved.
Conference calls on the HEC
i. to seek an immediate return to negotiations with UUK.
ii. to call on the employers to pick up the full cost of increased contributions page 2
iii. to generate confidence again amongst our members, by ensuring the National Disputes Committee guides future campaigns to save our DB pensions based on policy determined at Special Higher Education Conference (SHEC)
Iv. to undertake a ballot seeking a mandate for further strike action or ASOS if:
- the employers fail to accept the JEP report in full, or
- UUK seeks to postpone a return to negotiations, or
- an agreement between UCU and UUK retaining the current benefit package is not reached in a timely fashion, or
- the employers attempt to pass on costs they have generated onto employees.
Further, conference specifies that the agreement must not include a contribution increase exceeding the JEP recommendation.