The strike action over the past month by UCU members has been a magnificent example of how to fight against cuts and defend working conditions. A new generation has been brought into the union and, alongside existing branch activists, has shown a determination to stand-up and fight. The willingness not to be intimidated and not to accept anything less than the continuation of a defined benefit pension scheme has shocked the employers and has inspired the trade union movement.
Real progress has been made in defending existing pension rights, through taking this action. Before the strikes commenced the employers insisted that a defined contribution scheme was the only way forward. The poor deal of 12th March gave some indication of the impact our action was having. But it was the rejection of that deal which drove the dispute to another level. That rejection came from the members and the branches – the national leadership thought at the time it was the best deal they could get.
The new offer made by UUK on Friday 23 March shows that the Union members were right to reject the earlier deal. UUK has made concessions but there remains a lack of key guarantees – for example, whether workers will continue to have a Defined Benefits scheme after 2019. This is important as the strike action could be deferring until some point in the near future; in the interim, giving time to the employers to organise.
Now is not the time to compromise
An example of the perils of such action was in Scotland in 2016/17. The EIS union appeared to have won common pay and conditions for all lecturers in FE colleges, following a short strike. However, almost immediately after the deal was agreed Scottish FE employers started to backtrack. EIS has now had the May 2016 deal implemented but only after having to go on strike again during 2017.
Revise and resubmit
The new offer from UUK could easily lead to the same experience as the EIS in Scotland. Therefore we call on all UCU members to urge the union’s leadership to go back to the employers and seek a no detriment clause. This would ensure that whatever the outcome of the expert panel workers will still have a defined benefit pension scheme.
Another HE is possible
Finally the dispute may have been sparked by pension cuts but during the course of the action a whole range of issues have been raised by UCU members, students and politicians – including, where does the money from student fees actually go; the obscene pay and perks for VCs and senior managers; turning education into an investment opportunity and degrees into commodities; the appalling job insecurity that so many staff at universities now experience.
To fight all these issues we will need to campaign after the current dispute is settled. This will mean organising within our union but will also mean challenging the political policies that has enabled these issues to develop. We need a strong grass-roots led UCU and a strong campaigning political party who will support such trade union action.