University and College Union branches are furiously opposing a proposed ACAS settlement of the USS pensions strike.
After ten days of strike action employers finally offered a deal of sorts. But the deal is a bad one. Pension contributions will go up to 8.7% from 8%; the accrual rate will go down to 1/85 salary a year from 1/75, and pensions will only be guaranteed on salaries up to £42k (about the third point on the main lecturer scale) instead of the current £55k (roughly the top of the senior lecturer scale). Worse, the deal is a ‘transitional’ one for three years, with a dangerous prospect that after that the whole basis of defined benefit pensions could be lost. It sticks within highly conservative costings that have been widely challenged as ‘recklessly prudent’ by pensions experts.
Within a couple of hours of the proposed deal being announced, branches were already mobilising against it on social media. The inclusion of a clause that UCU should encourage members to reschedule teaching without any guarantee of no deductions attracted particular anger.
UCU had rightly refused to call off strike action while the talks continue, and had authorised a further fourteen days of action to hit exams and assessment after Easter if the dispute is not settled. Many members would rather stick it out. Thousands of staff have joined UCU over the course of the dispute. Targeted campaigns have forced a number of hard-line Vice-Chancellors to back down on punitive pay deductions for action short of strikes, and to promise that strike deductions will be spread over several months. It is clear that the employers are on the back foot: settling now will waste that momentum and disillusion new activists and thousands of new members.
The strikes have been highly revealing of university management’s real attitude towards workers. The Vice-Chancellor of St Andrew’s University sent round an email saying that paying higher pensions would put equality and diversity initiatives under threat. After a social media storm she issued an apology. At Oxford University management used a procedural motion to prevent academics voting on a pensions motion, only for staff to walk out of the meeting and hold the vote outside the building. The VC later accepted the result of the unofficial vote. Sheffield, Keele, Sussex, Southampton and Glasgow have all retreated under public pressure. Revelations in the press about the enormous pay packages and perks VCs enjoy by comparison to their counterparts in the NHS and local authorities have further put them in the spotlight.
Many staff are now saying they no longer feel any goodwill towards their institutions and will not be working unpaid overtime in future. A 2016 report by UCU found that academic staff worked an average of 50.9 hours a week (contracts typically give a guideline of 35 to 37.5). Two-thirds of staff reported unmanageable workloads at least half the time and 28.8% said workloads were unmanageable all or most of the time. If the strike makes staff more confident about refusing work that would take them over their basic hours that will be a very good thing.
Casualisation has also been a theme of discussion during the strike. Many strikers have no idea whether they will be able to stay in university jobs long enough for pensions to be relevant but have joined the picket lines in solidarity and because they know the outcome of this strike matters for working conditions across HE. At the University of Kent management have agreed not to deduct any pay from striking Graduate Teaching Assistants. The settlement as it stands includes only a weaselly promise from employers to consider not penalising GTAs. That is nowhere near good enough.