Your FAQs about the 4 Fights & USS dispute

Questions about our industrial action ballots – submitted by members, and anwered by your branch committee.

What is the ‘four fights’ dispute about?

The ‘four fights’ are about pay, the gender and ethnic pay gap, workload as well as casualisation in Higher Education. Staff in universities have experienced years of real terms pay cuts, combined with rising workloads. Structural inequalities and discrimination mean that those least able to pay the price bear the highest cost. Since the economic crisis in 2008 the real terms pay of university staff has declined by 20%. The gender pay gap across the sector is 15% while disabled and Black and Minority Ethnic staff continue to experience serious pay discrimination. In 2019-20 33% of academic staff were employed on fixed term-contracts. These were the workers who were ‘let go’ when the pandemic struck.

What is the USS dispute about?

USS members used to enjoy a final salary pension that provided a guaranteed payment based on final salary linked to length of service. The employers have been intent on cutting  our pensions. Only union action as protected what we have.  The employers’ preferred option is a pension with no defined benefit, but for now they are cutting existing provision incrementally. The latest proposed cut is substantial – see the UCU modeller to see what the employers’ plans will cost you. The USS dispute is simple – it is about protecting the pension provision we have now, but which employers want to slash. Our pensions have been cut enough – and we know that when they’re gone, they’re gone. Cuts will not be restored. This is a moment for USS members to draw and line in the sand and say ‘enough, and no more’. The employers’ cuts are unnecessary and unjust.

What is the union’s action strategy?

The union will not declare the nature and timing of industrial action as to do so risks limiting its effectiveness. The union branch is aware that members want to see a range of actions being taken and for the union to consider creative forms of action that have high impact.  Branch officers are part of national consultations and we feed members’ views to national officers regularly. We are confident these views will be taken into consideration when strategy is being finalised.

How is the union building support for the action?

As a local union branch we are working hard to ensure members are aware of all the issues, and we are also reaching out to colleagues who are not members. We want them to join the union and join the action.  We are also in close contact with the Students’ Union who have expressed support for our campaign. Additionally, our branch is working with other campus trade unions.  Local officers are working hard to win the widest possible support. Our local actions mirror the actions of the national union.

We did not win last time, can we win this time?

Yes we can! 

In 2018, the union did secure a significant victory in relation to proposed pension cuts. The benefits of this victory are far better pension payments in every year of retirement than would have been the case if we had not taken action. It is the case that the union was not able to make the same progress on the ‘four fights’. Local officers believe we can win this time – but only if we learn the lessons of the 2018 industrial action when we won huge support in the union and from students.  We need to deliver a huge ballot result – and be prepared to stand firm.  The sector can afford to tackle the issues we are balloting over, but they choose not to. 

The public will not be sympathetic and the press have been briefed against us: how can we win?

We believe that we will win when the employers realise what the dispute is costing them in terms of disruption to university activities and damage to reputation.  That will be achieved by strong action by UCU members and the support of students. Branch officers are working hard to secure both.

The last major victory was an assessment boycott in 2006: can we not do this again?

The union’s ballot includes strike action and ‘action short of strike action’.  By voting YES in both ballots the union keeps all its options open.  This includes an assessment boycott although we recognise this is a difficult strategy because employers can refuse to accept ‘partial fulfilment of contract’, and the result would be a lock-out. All industrial action plans need very careful consideration to ensure maximum impact.

There is currently less face to face teaching: will this undermine the action?

The union’s action strategy will need to take account of current circumstances.  By keeping all options open, and having flexibility about action options, we believe it will be possible to maximise the impact of our action, despite the current situation.

How much will strike action cost me and will it be worth it?

The strike will result in lost pay: we cannot pretend otherwise.  The national union will provide strike pay and the local union is establishing a £25,000 fighting fund to top up national payments where needed. Will it be worth it will obviously we depend on whether we win our demands – that is clearly uncertain. What IS 100% CERTAIN is that if we do nothing members will pay thousands in lost pensions and eroded real terms pay.  There are costs of going on strike – the costs of doing nothing are much, much higher.

What will it mean if we lose one or both ballots?

At a practical level we will not be able to take lawful industrial action on the relevant issues. The problems we are seeking to tackle will not be addressed and the situation in regard to all the issues will continue to deteriorate.  Even more seriously, employers nationally and locally, will believe they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, because staff won’t stand up and say ‘enough is enough’.  Local branch officers, as much as national officials, need the strongest possible vote to make sure management at Nottingham take the views of union members seriously, on every single issue we discuss with them.

I reside in the UK on the basis of a work visa. Am I allowed to participate in industrial action?

Members have been raising the question of the right to strike of workers on a worker visa. Below we set out our understanding. We have been informed that UCU national office will publish their own FAQs shortly and we will link to those.

On one hand, the employer obligation is to report any absence of 10 consecutive days or more the employer has not given permission for. In the case of industrial action, they may consider this a non-permitted absence, but should not and have not in the past.

However, on the other, as the following document refers to in connection to the 20 day absence period, the immigration rules (see in section 5, provision 9.30.1 indicate that absence for ‘legally organised industrial action’ should not be counted as unauthorized absence and thus not be grounds for cancelling the sponsorship or for the Home Office to withdraw its permission to remain (same rules for Tier 2/5 and new skilled worker visa).  

In short, we are fully confident that members on a work visa can participate in industrial action!

The pandemic meant that last year was incredibly disruptive for students. How can you possibly expect me to strike now and make it even worse for them?

We do not want to go on strike. After a horrendous year, we are looking forward to return to some kind of normality and to do the things we enjoy, teaching students and carrying out research. If we do go on strike, then it is always a matter of last resort, because management leaves us with no alternative. Any industrial action and related damage to students’ education is management’s responsibility.

USS is becoming increasingly unattractive to younger people. What more can UCU do to ensure the scheme remains attractive and affordable in particular to newer members?

UCU has made practical suggestions to ensure the scheme is attractive to younger colleagues.  However, the best solution is to ensure all staff enjoy the pay and job security that make our pension affordable and attractive.  That is one reason why our two campaigns are inextricably linked.

It unclear what UCU is asking for in the pensions dispute? What would be considered an acceptable resolution?

Most importantly, we need an agreement on changing the valuation method. Additionally, the individual cuts envisaged in the UUK proposals around accrual rate, inflation protection and defined benefits level will have to be drastically reduced.

Given that USS/UUK are hiding behind an argument “the law says we have to do this”, how can they be convinced to budge from their position?

We believe the USS issue is political. There are choices to be made and the employers can make those choices. It is not right to suggest pensions regulations remove employers’ room for manoeuvre.  Their decisions are political choices and our political pressure must ensure their choices reflect employees’ priorities.

I’m an early career researcher. The current environment of low pay, unpaid overtime and ridiculous fixed term contracts is effectively pushing me out of the career, and if I can’t see a future at the university, why would I care about its pension?

We understand this point of view. It is entirely understandable in the context of an insecure and precarious labour market in which the concept of a ‘career’ seems unattainable.  That is why the four fights campaign on pay, equalities, workloads and job security is so important. What we would also say is that those with most to lose from the pension changes are those in the earlier stages of careers. The longer anyone works under the employers proposed pension changes the more they will lose – check the UCU pension modeller. And once the pension scheme has been dismantled it is hard to imagine circumstances in which it would ever be restored.

Why on earth have we coupled industrial action for USS and 4 fights? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the issue which could galvanise broadest support (both within and outside the union)?

It is the case that UoN UCU branch voted to support industrial action on the USS campaign, and to not take immediate action in relation to the ‘four fights’. This was clearly supported in the branch, but we would say that many members did not support this view. Younger members in particular felt that issues of pay and job security were their priorities. As it transpired, the union’s higher education sector conference took the decision to campaign on both issues. This was to reflect the interests of many of the union’s most vulnerable members in terms of pay and precarity, and also to ensure unity of action across the whole sector. UoN branch delegates attended that conference, represented the branch view and participated in the democratic decisions taken there.

We are clear that the branch stands with the democratically decided policy of the national union.  Union democracy is there to ensure the interests of all members are represented and our task now is to stand with all our fellow members and take action to demand decent pensions and pay, secure work, sustainable workloads and an end to discrimination. We hope that all branch members will make the same commitment. A union depends on taking democratic decisions, and then standing with each other to support them. This is a decisive moment when we must all stand together – we urge you to stand with us.