An important one this. If you have contacted Cambridge UCU of late for assistance with a problem at work, you may have noticed that our team of caseworkers is quite hard-pressed. With the branch having nearly doubled in size, the number of members coming to us with issues is increasing. So we need your help! Next Thursday lunchtime we’re holding a short Taster session for you to get a glimpse of what casework might involve, and decide if it’s something you might want to do.
Our caseworkers are highly-valued union members who provide support on a voluntary basis to fellow members facing problems at work. This advice and support is one of the most important and basic forms of solidarity that the union provides, and offering it can be hugely rewarding. Casework also gives us a sense of what’s going wrong in a workplace and how we can change it. So it’s an important starting point for collective action to improve working conditions at our university.
This Taster session, open to all, is a chance to find out more about casework, with no obligations. Come see if you’d like to join our team.
Should you decide casework is for you, we’ll be running a further training session, after which you can take on a case. There’s absolutely no pressure to do so, and you’ll be supported all the way by us, shadowing or being shadowed until you feel comfortable. There are also further training sessions run by national UCU you can go on.
Please contact usas soon as possible if you’re interested in attending next week (this will help us sort catering out too).
Last Friday, April 27, there were two important meetings for the future of the USS dispute. The first was a meeting of the Higher Education Committee (HEC) of UCU, at which were presented the draft Terms of Reference (ToR) for the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) convened to consider the USS valuation. The second was a meeting of the Joint Negotiating Committee of USS, which the trustee had required to confirm immediate instructions for the future of the scheme. Several of the same people from UCU were at both meetings.
It is clear that the HEC meeting was fractious. Rachel Cohen has reported that the ToR were only received by the members of HEC at the start of the meeting, and that only twenty minutes were made available to study them. Moreover, the Chair of HEC, Douglas Chalmers, ruled that the Report containing the ToR would be voted on before the numerous motions which had been proposed, and that if it was passed the majority of those motions would fall by default. As Adam Ozanne has described the meeting, these rulings were challenged at length, leaving little time to discuss the Report or the ToR themselves. These challenges failed, and eventually the Report was passed. Also passed were motions committing the JEP to robustly challenge the methodology of the current USS valuation; committing HEC to pursue changes in UK pension regulations; and demanding that the equality and diversity implications of any USS changes be adequately recognised.
How far do the ToR for the JEP offer encouragement that UCU members were right to vote to suspend strike action, and to place hope in the proposed Panel? There are some grounds for optimism. The six members of the JEP will only be able to reach conclusions by consensus, with no casting vote for the Panel chair. This ensures that the (5+1)/11 majority at the JNC, which has been so damaging to USS member interests the past, cannot be repeated at the JEP. It is also good to see it confirmed that the JEP will have access to a proper range of expert witnesses, from the Scheme actuary to the Pensions Regulator, so that it can do its work in a properly informed and authoritative way.
But the grounds for pessimism about the panel are more substantial. There is a lack of transparency in both the appointments process to the JEP and the proposed workings of the Panel. All matters concerning the JEP are to be delegated from HEC to the Superannuation Working Group (SWG) of UCU. SWG will select the three UCU members of the Panel at a meeting on 16 May, on the basis of submitted CVs and 500-word supporting statements from self-nominated applicants. This process offers little openness or democratic oversight, and the selection criteria, while reasonable, offer little scope for objectively determining the most appointable candidates.The whole approach seems recklessly casual, given the enormous influence the three appointees will have on the future of the USS scheme.
Equally serious is the near-complete secrecy which will surround the deliberations of the Panel itself. Both the contents of panel meetings and all the material provided to the panel will be confidential – available not even to the UCU leadership – and only “agreed action points” resulting from meetings will be published. It is very hard to see what the justification for this must be: the underlying data on USS members should be straightforward to anonymise, and none of the major participants has obviously legitimate commercial secrets. It is possible that the valuation work of the actuarial companies involved uses proprietary technical tools, but it seems extraordinary that such sweeping confidentiality has been agreed without a clear rationale. The purpose of the Panel is not only to produce a set of results, but to produce results in which USS and UCU members can feel confident. It is hard to see that the extreme degree of confidentiality proposed about evidence and reasoning is compatible with that. The UCU leadership owe members a better explanation of why they have agreed to it than either they or UUK have offered so far.
The panel aims to report on the 2017 valuation in September 2018, and some time thereafter on the USS valuation process generally. As we reported last week, this means that its recommendations are unlikely to be implemented until considerably later than April 2019. In light of that, we should welcome the fact that the JNC on Friday withdrew the January 23 proposal for a 100% Defined Contribution scheme to be imposed from that date. No alternative proposal was tabled, which means that as things stand there is no JNC decision for benefits and contributions for the three-year period beginning April 2019.
USS has now released a statement to say that (in line with its earlier statements) it will nonetheless begin completing the current valuation, simultaneously with the deliberations of the JEP. In practice this means preparing to increase both employee and employer contributions from April 2019 to the degree necessary to maintain current benefits under the November valuation. The additional costs implied will be shared between employers and employees in a 65:35 ratio, and it seems likely that the increases will be introduced progressively over a period of time. (See Mike Otsuka’s Twitter thread on this point.) The 1% employer “Match” of voluntary DC contributions will be removed from April 1 2019, to cover part of the increased cost of benefits since 2014, and there will likely be a reduction in the employer contribution to DC pots for those earning above the salary threshold for DB of £55,550. The balance between that reduction and increases in the overall contribution rate will be decided in due course by the JNC.
In the view of the CUCU branch committee, the move to cost-sharing from April 2019 remains the least bad of the possible short-term arrangements, for the reasons we gave in our report on the papers for last Friday’s JNC, and it is also appropriate to make some savings from employer DC contributions before increasing contribution rates. The worst short-term possibilities have therefore been avoided. But we remain a long way from an acceptable lasting settlement for the future of USS. We hope therefore that the cloak of secrecy planned around the JEP will not prevent it from coming up with a much better long-term solution.
Cambridge UCU stands in solidarity with Cambridge McDonald’s branch of BFAWU and their historic strike. Read about their last strike action here. Our letter:
Dear Cambridge McDonald’s branch of BFAWU,
Congratulations on your courageous and historic strike. Cambridge UCU, the trade union of academic and academic-related staff at the University of Cambridge, stands with you in your inspiring action in order to win simple demands which should be the right of every worker: Union recognition, a fair wage and an end to zero-hour contracts.
You have been subjected to the worst excesses of the rise of the so-called ‘gig economy’ and you have shown that this treatment is unacceptable.
Your fight for decent working rights is for the rights of all workers. You are at the forefront of a movement nationwide which is starting to reject widespread acceptance of these practices, demonstrating the power of workers who stand together to demand a basic standard of living and treatment at work.
It is all the more impressive that you have done this on very low and precarious income, with long hours and bad working conditions and in the face of appalling treatment by managers both against individuals at work, and against your union.
You will win, and force your employers to recognise your union, stopping the maltreatment of yourselves and your colleagues. By doing so, you will show the vital importance and urgency of unionisation in every workplace.
Thank you for your brave strike, your fight is our fight and we will stand with you until your demands are met.
In the CUCU briefings on the consultative ballot on the March 23 UUK proposal, we advised members that regardless of the panel, both the Pensions Regulator and the USS trustee would likely require some changes to benefits and contributions to be agreed by the end of June, and that it would not be possible for the JEP to complete its work by then. We have now seen the papers for the USS JNC meeting happening today (April 27), which confirm that this is the case.
The JNC papers make clear the “surprise and disappointment” of the USS trustee at UUK’s failure formally to withdraw the January 23 proposal, despite Alastair Jarvis publicly saying several weeks ago that they “did not intend” to proceed with it. The papers also indicate an expectation shared by all parties that the JEP will not report until September or October, too late to affect the completion of the current valuation and probably too late for its recommendations to be implemented before April 2020. The valuation will therefore be completed on the basis of the November technical provisions, with proposed changes to benefits and contributions going out to statutory consultation by late June, well before the expected reporting date of the JEP, for implementation in April 2019.
So what happens at today’s JNC is important. The USS trustee has made clear that it will not proceed with the January 23 resolution for 100% DC without a further explicit instruction from the JNC to do so. If it receives no further instructions before the close of business on 30 April it will proceed to implement the contribution increases it deems necessary to fund status quo benefits under the November valuation (‘cost sharing’). So there are three possible outcome from the JNC:
(i) The JNC decides to go ahead with the January all DC plan, if the independent chair votes with UUK to issue a fresh instruction to USS to that effect. All now seem agreed, however, that these proposals would — in the words of the chairman of the USS — be “significantly damaging for the sector”, so this seems an unlikely step.
(ii) The JNC makes an alternative proposal, costed to the November valuation, before April 30. This is a real possibility, since the March 12 Acas proposal would fit the bill from the UUK and USS perspective, and might well be supported by the JNC chair. An improvement on the March 12 Acas offer would depend upon the willingness of employers to increase contributions further, so is unlikely. It is also possible that Cubie might allow UUK to put through something worse than Acas so as to keep their contributions below even the 19.3% of the Acas agreement.
(iii) The JNC does nothing, and the USS trustee implements cost sharing. In our view, this would be the best outcome for USS members. The loss of c. 3-4% of pre-tax salary from take-home pay would be very unwelcome, but employer contributions would increase by nearly double that figure, giving cost-sharing the best ratio between member contributions and benefit levels than any other possibility. The size of the employer contribution involved would also give UUK a very strong incentive to negotiate seriously with us to make the JEP work effectively, in order to agree something to replace cost-sharing at the earliest possible date.
Which of these options is pursued will determine not only the likely shape of our USS pension arrangements in 2019-2020, but also the leverage which UUK and UCU respectively have at the JEP. So we should be watching what happens over the next few days (including what the USS trustee does around April 30) very closely.
Cambridge UCU member Jana Bacevic is running a #NoCapitulation: using social media session at UCU in transformation: UK-wide activists’ day school, taking place in London this Saturday, UCL, Roberts Engineering Building, Torrington Place (short walk from Kings Cross/Euston). This blog post is a short reflection on the topics concerning the role of social media in union organizing raised by the strike action, and a set of basic questions to guide members and activists in using social media beyond industrial action; it’s meant to kick-off discussion, not cover exhaustively the content of the session.
The comments box is open, so please let us know any questions, comments, or specific aspects you would like to learn more about, or tweet at us with #UCUtransformed. We will also be live-tweeting from the session, so follow the hashtag if you can’t attend in person – and we hope you will!
USS strike and social media: how did we get here?
This snippet from the thread of Direct Messages that started between UCU branches on Twitter sometime during the strike reflects well, I think, some of the dominant characteristics that shaped both the strike itself and the use of social media within it:
(1) It all happened very quickly;
(2) Quite a bit involved coordination ‘on the run’, frequently between people who had no previous experience in doing similar things;
(3) The existing union (or branch) procedures were insufficient to offer guidance, especially given the speed of events;
(4) Results were often outstanding and surprised even those involved from the beginning.
Though technically an ECR, I was lucky enough not to have social media duties foisted upon me: I volunteered, together with a bunch of other people. This may seem strange, as I am not a social media expert (neither am I sure what a social media expert is, but some organisations pay a lot of money to people to advise on this): I am a sociologist and social theorist, and my work has, for a while now, been on how people act together politically – including in universities. In this sense, I am interested less in what technology can do, as much as how we can use technology (including digital technologies) to harness the power to act together, as a collective.
A lot of the writing on the role of social media in political mobilisation and social movements emphasises its transformative potential, especially when it comes to democracy and horizontal decision-making. However, as the history of science and technology suggests, technology does not do that alone: it equally has the potential to be transformative and to perpetuate the status quo; to subvert existing relations of power as well as to amplify them. The question, therefore, is how we can use social media to support and further develop those elements of the strike we’d like to see more of – solidarity, comradeship, swift coordination between branches – and not perpetuate others, including top-down power relationships, different forms of exclusion, etc.
One of the reasons why branches’ social media strategies often boiled down to that proverbial ECR is that social media fall neatly in the crevice between usual union communications. On one side of this crevice are traditional ways of reaching out to current and prospective members: meetings, leaflets, regular emails distributed via branch or departmental mailing lists or reps. On the other side are ways in which unions communicate with the ‘general public’, including traditional media: press releases, communiqués, and interviews. Add to this the fact that local branches usually have limited resources; even if there is a designated ‘comms person’, social media – with few exceptions – was not very high on the list of their priorities. It’s probably not an overstatement to say that before the strike, social media was not seen as central part of union communications, let alone its strategy.
So what can social media do?
The best and the worst characteristic of social media is that it spans both worlds: it can, at the same time, reach members (current and prospective), as well as the general public. However, distinguishing between the two is more complex than in ‘traditional’ union comms; while some platforms (e.g. Facebook) offer limited possibilities of ‘selecting’ audiences, it makes sense to assume that, in principle, all activity on social media is (or can be) visible to anyone. This is particularly the case with privacy issues related to platforms such as Google or Facebook. The solution, of course, is not not to use social media at all, but rather to match the platform to the type of message and audience you are trying to reach. If done well, social media can engage existing members, attract new ones, and communicate the union/branch political message in ways that are more efficient and potentially farther-reaching than those through classical union channels. If done badly, however, it can alienate existing members and present the organisation in a less-than-favourable light (anyone need reminding of UUK’s ‘we’ll meet you tomorrow’ Twitter moment ;)?).
Ideally, obviously, a branch social media account should aim to do more of the former, and less of the latter. However, there are bound to be mistakes and backfires: after all, as one of the contributors to the branch Twitter DM channel said, “behind these handles are real people”. No social media ‘guide’ or strategy can fully insulate from it: at the end of the day, like any other political message, social media is about knowing and listening to your members. Here, however, are a few questions I think can help orient social media use in ways that help build solidarity within the union.
 What is the nature of the message you are trying to communicate?
Some platforms are better suited to specific forms of communication – for instance, Twitter works well for relaying information as well as short political positioning statements – e.g. “We encourage the University to avoid pay docking” or “Solidarity with XYZ workers on strike to defend their pensions!”. However, given the character limit, a more detailed elaboration of political position will require a link to a longer document – for this, you need to rely on a website/blog, or Google docs.
Similarly, Facebook works well for events – but so does Eventbrite. One of the challenges is to avoid using too many channels for the same thing: it multiplies labour needed to provide content and creates potential confusion (what if the event on Facebook says it starts half an hour earlier than the event on Eventbrite?). The only rule of thumb is to use the platform with the broadest possible public access – so, make sure that even those not registered can get information about the event.
That being said, obviously, if you need to communicate something strictly confidential, best is to stay off social media completely.
 Who is the audience you are trying to reach?
Three obvious groups are members, prospective members, and the general public. In addition to this, there are specific groups you may already be working or liaising with – other unions, local activist groups, campaigns, etc. In principle, social media can be used to communicate with all of them – but, sometimes, you need to adjust the message and medium to specific audiences. For instance, when reaching out to graduate students, it makes sense to focus on Facebook; when focusing on other organisations and institutions, it makes sense to prioritise Twitter, perhaps, depending on the context and suitability, adding their handles.
Following and liaising with other members and groups on social media is a good idea – it makes coordinating campaigns easier and reduces the amount of labour needed to keep the feed populated.
 Do you really have time to engage?
Most people build the impression of social media from their own – or other people’s – patterns of use. From this perspective, social media can seem like a wonderful opportunity to connect with and engage in discussion with other people. The reality for a branch account, however, is that this can become very time-consuming, not to mention a potential source of conflict. The question, therefore, is: what kind of engagement is best served by social media?
This will obviously vary in relation to branch, but here are some of the guidelines we apply at Cambridge UCU: engage to provide information – always; support – if and when appropriate (don’t forget that branch officers and case-workers exist precisely for this purpose – social media can be a first point of contact but is not a replacement); discussion – if and only if there is a clearly defined branch position (remember – you are posting as branch, not as individual); argument – never. The latter may seem a bit contentious, and at times makes the branch seem ‘aloof’ or disconnected, but the truth of the matter is that no-one benefits from prolonged shouty conversations. Do not feed the trolls. If you are being trolled on the basis of a misunderstanding, provide clarification – once (don’t be the UUK); then let go.
Also: never, ever post after coming home from the pub.
 What’s the best way to integrate social media into union working patterns?
Here it is, the elephant in the room: working for the union is, for the most part, voluntary. This means that we should by all means strive to avoid it becoming someone’s full-time job (unless they are paid for it, of course). This is particularly important as social media is still often treated as a ‘lighter’ part of comms and/or something that doesn’t involve a high degree of political judgment (neither is true, of course); as a consequence, it is frequently foisted upon ECRs, women, minorities, tech people, or whoever else is seen as ‘naturally’ good at it.
One good way of resisting this is always having a social media team – that is, multiple union members who can use different accounts. However, it is also important to have a clear schedule, rota, and a delineated set of duties – for instance, a ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ person for each platform, and someone in charge (and with overall responsibility) for the strategy. You also need a quick and efficient conduit between the exec and comms – we use WhatsApp groups, which also allow for quick sharing and distributing of content, but Slack and other platforms are also available.
Last, but not least, this is where technology can really help: apps such as Tweetdeck, Buffer, and Hootsuite offer the possibility of planning ahead and scheduling social media content – there are free versions for single users, or paid-for but still affordable versions that allow for combining teams. Hey, maybe it’s not fully automated luxury communism, but we’re getting there.
More about all this (and other things) tomorrow – meanwhile, feel free to post questions or comments below!
The two remarks below were made by Cambridge UCU members Dr. Iza Hussin (POLIS) and Prof. Sarah Colvin (MML) at the Discussion of the Universities Superannuation Scheme that took place on Tuesday 20 March at Lady Mitchell Hall. The Discussion was called following a campaign that gathered the signatures of more than 500 members of Regent House (the university governing body), many of which were collected by union members on the picket lines.
The statement read by Dr. Hussin was co-signed by a number of colleagues, including University Equality Champions, and the statement by Prof. Colvin signed by Gender Champion for the School of Arts and Humanities, Dr. Clare Chambers (Philosophy). The names of these co-signatories were left off the record of the Discussion published in the University Reporter. This repost, with their permission, is intended to set the record straight.
If you would like to help campaign on the issues raised below, come to our Gender Pay Gap, Pension and Equalities meeting on Tuesday 17 April, 2.30pm in the Outer Parlour, Pembroke College (map).
Dr I. R. B. M. Hussin (Department of Politics and International Studies and Pembroke College):
Deputy Vice Chancellor:
I am a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies, and I make these remarks in my personal capacity. I also make this statement on behalf of my colleagues, Dr Surabhi Ranganathan of the Faculty of Law, Dr Mónica Moreno Figueroa of the Department of Sociology, and Dr Kamal Munir of the Judge Business School, these last two University Race and Inclusion Champions, who could not be present today.
I wish to make three points, informed by my experiences as an early career academic, a supervisor of doctoral students, and a participant in University, School, Departmental and college efforts to improve equality and diversity, including through internal processes such as Athena Swan certification, and through the recruitment of new colleagues and students.
First: Proposed changes to USS undermine the University’s equality and diversity work. Efforts to support equality and diversity have emphasised the need to provide better opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and other groups historically under-represented in higher education. My colleagues and I, across the University, have worked to recruit students and colleagues whom we believe will make important contributions to their fields, and who will model a University that reflects values of equality and diversity. Proposed changes to the USS put the University as an employer at a profound disadvantage compared to post-1992 institutions whose employees are on the Teachers’ Pensions Scheme. More importantly, these changes to the USS constitute a pipeline to precarity across the sector, one which places historically under-represented groups in higher education at further disadvantage throughout their academic lives, and beyond. In this, we share common cause with higher education institutions across the UK, from which our students come, and to which they will turn for future employment.
Second: The shift to defined contributions exacerbates existing USS inequalities. It is important then, for us also to turn our attention to the question of possible inequalities within the USS pensions schemes. The shift from pension calculations based on final salaries, to those based on career averages, has already been demonstrated to structurally disadvantage women and other members of under-represented groups who share a protected characteristic such as race, age, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief, sexual orientation and disability. In the current scheme, these already constitute structural inequality along the lines of gender, minority ethnicity, and early career status. Research shows that in the current scheme, the use of career average salary as a basis for pensions is particularly problematic for early career researchers, for women and those who have caring responsibilities, and for those working in lower pay grades within our universities. The gender pay gap, for example, is already projected to become an even larger gender pension gap: the European Parliament reported in 2017 that while women in Europe earn an average of 16% less than men, women’s pensions are on average 40% lower, in Europe and in also the UK. Changes of the type proposed by the UUK, including the shift to defined contributions and a lowering of the salary cap, will have a further detrimental effect on these categories of university workers and further exacerbate these issues.
Third: Our commitment to equality and diversity requires thorough and transparent assessment of the differential impact of USS changes. Regardless of our position on the current unprecedented industrial action, I hope we can agree that they have sparked off a national conversation about university, and other, pension schemes. Moreover, I believe we are in common agreement that there needs to be greater transparency within these schemes, the UUK and the USS. Given these facts, I would like to call upon the university, firstly, to be more explicit about the presence, and workings, of such inequalities, and secondly, to press for their mitigation in its negotiations with the UUK on pensions.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: The University’s commitment, and its legislated duty, to uphold equality requires more clarity and transparency on the ways in which pension provision is an equal pay issue. Demonstrable change and improvement in our equality objectives requires clear commitments to systematically addressing inequalities in pay, opportunity, and treatment of students and staff.
Professor S. J. Colvin (Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and Jesus College):
I speak today in my role as University Gender Equality Champion for the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, and with fourteen years of experience in a professorial role at four UK universities.
Two ideas are repeatedly invoked to defend the proposed changes to the USS pension scheme. The first is the ‘last man standing’. The metaphor of the lone male must be treated with caution because it distracts from the fact that this is about pro-market reforms that will affect women disproportionately. The second is that already accrued USS benefits are secure: this tells us that the longest-serving and highest-earning members of the scheme, predominantly men, will be least adversely affected. Most adversely affected are members on temporary, part-time, and precarious contracts, and those who take ‘career breaks’ such as maternity leave; predominantly women.
This University has a very significant gender pay gap. Women are paid far less than men over the course of their careers. They are disproportionately represented in the lowest pay quartile where men are disproportionately represented in the highest pay quartile.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this University has made a strategic commitment to reduce the gender pay gap. But the proposed pension changes exacerbate its effect.
The pension situation is already one of gender injustice. In 2011 the shift from final salary pensions to career average impacted hardest on women. Under the final salary scheme it was in theory possible for women to catch up with men by the end of their careers (even though in practice the gender pay gap is most shocking at professorial level; and it is worth noting that according to the organization Black British Academics, less than a quarter of one per cent of professors in the UK are black women).1
Under a career average scheme a woman who catches up by the end of her career will still have a smaller pension than her male counterpart. Women who are unable to contribute towards their pensions during maternity leave and carers’ leave, or who contribute less when working part-time, bring their career average earnings down still further.
A shift, as now proposed, from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution would make women disproportionately worse off yet again. The Changing University Cultures project has been working with UUK on sector-wide guidance for creating cultural change and has supported our own high-profile Breaking the Silence campaign. That project has now ended its work with UUK specifically because ‘pensions are a key equalities issue’. Changing University Cultures noted in its letter to UUK that:
while women have a smaller pension than men in any system, and BAME women are even more adversely affected, this is exacerbated in defined contribution schemes […]. DC schemes also fail to offer the maternity coverage that DB schemes do. Universities UK cannot claim to be working towards equality and diversity in the sector while pursuing pension reforms which are antithetical to that agenda and we cannot in good faith work with Universities UK on equality and diversity issues under these conditions.2 [emphasis added]
The shift from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution is part of what are called ‘pro-market pension reforms’. To quote from recent published research on pensions, the shift is:
likely to result in greater income inequality between older women and men, and between those who have had an intermittent or low paid employment history and those with an advantaged position in the labour market […] the emphasis on financialised provision in pensions is creating new forms of gender inequality, and new forms of gendered insecurity. The complexity of women’s life courses is not reflected in gendered retirement provision norms. […] Pension penalties arising from earlier caring roles will continue to be magnified, creating increasing income disparity among women in older age according to their employment, partnership status and care history.3 [emphasis added]
Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I call upon the University to clarify and consider as a matter of urgency how a shift to Defined Contribution, or any cuts to Defined Benefits, will affect women differently.
In a set of briefings circulated last week the Cambridge UCU branch committee explained its reservations about voting either Yes or No in the current ballot on the UUK proposal for the USS pension scheme.
Our committee has sought assurances from UUK about an acceptable fallback, to apply in the event that the proposed Joint Expert Panel fails to agree recommendations, or its recommendations are not followed by USS. It is now clear that these assurances will not be forthcoming.
The committee therefore recommends a No vote.
The proposed panel stands outside the formal valuation process for USS, and the 2017 process will in any case probably be completed before the panel reports. The UUK proposal therefore offers little assurance about the future of our pensions after April 2019. This strike has been about our pensions, not just the valuation process, and we believe it is too risky to call off our industrial action while we still have no guarantees about the future of our pensions.
In our view, a national No vote should not be taken as a mandate for a ‘no detriment’ negotiating position. Despite Sally Hunt’s framing of the ballot, we believe our union’s strategy should be directed solely towards winning the best settlement possible for USS members. This might involve seeking to add a ‘no detriment’ clause to the UUK proposal, but it might be equally appropriate to demand other assurances about the pensions terms on offer or the workings of any Joint Expert Panel. In the view of the committee, the decision on which strategy to pursue should be considered separately from the question of whether the current proposal is enough.
On Sunday 18 March, approximately 40 student activists from 13 different universities gathered at the Institute of Education at UCL. Some had travelled from campuses as distant as Glasgow, Strathclyde, and Edinburgh. During the first wave of the pensions strike, these activists went into occupation in solidarity with us in UCU. Several of these occupations were coordinated through the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), the education activist organisation formed during the 2010 student protests. NCAFC organised and hosted the summit along with the local groups.
I spoke in the opening plenary alongside Swansea UCU activist Cath Fletcher, and NCAFC National Committee member and Arts SU Campaigns Officer Sahaya James. Fletcher provided a broad overview of both the union and the present pension dispute, placing the strike within the context of recent attacks on employment security in the education sector. Contrastingly, James, who is being targeted by management at the University of Arts London (UAL) for her central role in the anti-gentrification occupation at the London College of Communication, highlighted the significance of the occupations for the revival of the student movement.
I spoke from my perspective as a young activist in UCU, underscoring how many of us in the union who are now postgraduate students and Early Career Academics politically came of age in 2010. I acknowledged that we should not overly reify 2010. After all, for many student activists, 2010 is only a distant memory, if that. Nevertheless, I explained how the experience of staging demonstrations and occupations against the tripling of tuition fees allowed younger UCU members to see this latest wave of pension cuts within the larger picture of the marketisation of the education. Likewise, I conveyed how significant this wider picture was for bringing together staff and students on campus in a manner never seen before, from the student bolstering of picket lines to the 5-day occupation of the Old Schools.
After the opening speeches, the summit adopted a more roundtable style, with activists sharing their experiences of the strike. Most constructively, the summit broke into smaller groups to discuss what went did and didn’t go well in their occupations and other direct actions on campus. This was a valuable skill-sharing process for all those gathered, especially since it provided an opportunity for activists from very geographically distant campuses to discuss the tactical, strategic, and logistical issues they encountered, and learn how others were able to deal with them. This discussion provided the foundations for a forthcoming best practices document due for release on NCAFC’s website, anticuts.com.
The closing hours of the summit were spent on the grander politics of the occupations, bringing together a joint statement of demands around the UCU strike, as well as related struggles of students and workers. A final version of this statement is now viewable on anticuts. The demands include not docking pay for action short of a strike (ASOS) and not classing strike days as ‘mandatory attendance’ for students, especially international students. These demands sit alongside broader commitments to a democratic, accessible, and liberated education system, and calls for secure, in-house contracts for all campus workers.
The summit was a valuable experience in several respects. For activists, it provided some needed national coordination between different forces across the country supporting our struggle in UCU, laying the groundwork for closer cooperation between different local groups. In short, it demonstrated NCAFC’s ability to bring together new and experienced activists in a manner that draws from and adds to an institutional memory. In a domain as inherently transient as the student movement, such an institutional memory truly is invaluable.
For UCU members, seeing such a diverse gathering of students who went to incredible lengths to support the first wave of the strike brought home just how much of an awakening we have seen on our campuses these last few months. During my time as the Surrey UCU Secretary last year, I never imagined that a strike by our union would provide the largest mobilisation of students this country has seen in eight years. Indeed, I would say that such committed solidarity action between students and workers, rooted in the understanding that our struggles are shared, is precisely what distinguishes this year’s wave of campus activism from that of 2010-11. For these reasons, I am pleased that NCAFC intends to call a second occupations summit in May, but with a broader range of activists, including those involved in NUS.
With the decision made by our union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) on Wednesday 28 March to take UUK’s more recent proposal to a members’ ballot, the future of the pension dispute is far from certain. Should we find ourselves on the picket lines once more, the occupations summit has renewed my confidence that student activists will back us all the way.
On Friday, the Cambridge UCU Branch Committee, of which I am a member, published a set of briefing documents on the upcoming USS ballot. In them, we explained the reasons why we feel unable to recommend either calling off strike action on the basis of the latest UUK proposal alone, or the adoption of a”No Detriment” negotiating position.
Michael Otsuka has responded to our briefings on Twitter, and argued that we are too critical of the case for a Yes vote. In particular, he has argued that it is unreasonable to expect formal withdrawal of the January 23rd 100% Defined Contribution plan as a condition of suspending industrial action. Otsuka argues:
(i) that we cannot expect the employers to give up the power to impose this plan in advance of an agreement with UCU;
(ii) that in any case UUK cannot withdraw the plan unilaterally because they only have 5 of the 11 members of the USS Joint Negotiating Committee;
(iii) that it is unreasonable to expect UUK to open the door to the USS no-deal default of very large increases in employer and employee contributions when 100% DC is currently on the table and much more attractive to them.
To begin with the second, procedural question, it is true that to vote through any changes through the USS JNC the five UUK members must be joined by either one of the five UCU members or (notoriously) by the independent chair. It may be that the chair, Sir Andrew Cubie, would not be prepared to vote to withdraw the January 23 proposal without replacing it with something other than the default contribution hikes (Rule 76.4). However, I think the UCU members would be very happy to provide the necessary votes, since Rule 76.4 (current benefits for employee contributions around 12% and employer contributions around 26%) is less unattractive to USS members than is the 100% DC proposal, and because making Rule 76.4 the default would give the employers the same large incentive that USS members already have to agree something better than the JNC decision by negotiation, either through or in advance of the work of any Joint Expert Panel.
Points (i) and (iii) are essentially similar. The former argues that it is unreasonable to expect UUK to withdraw their threat capacity before we have called off strikes, and the latter that it is unreasonable to expect them to expose themselves to the risk of large costs if the Joint Expert Panel for any reason does not result in new recommendations ready to take effect in April 2019. The important point here is that the risks in these respects are symmetrical for UUK and for USS members. If UCU call off strikes before something better than the January 23rd decision has been passed through the JNC, USS members lose their threat capacity to press for any improvements at all, and leave themselves exposed to the 100% DC plan if the Joint Expert Panel fails to result in implemented recommendations (as we think very possible, for reasons explained in the briefing). There would also be little incentive for UUK to make the Joint Expert Panel work, since its failure would result in minimal costs to them.
I therefore think that the removal of the January JNC decision, and its replacement with either Rule 76.4 — to ensure both sides have equal incentive to agree something better— or some other major advance on 100% DC, is both within UUK’s power, and a reasonable gesture to expect as a sign of good faith. Without that gesture, there are too many grounds to fear that the employers correctly regard the Joint Expert Panel as little more than a convenient distraction.
The branch committee of Cambridge UCU has prepared a set of briefings on the upcoming USS ballot. The full, nine-page briefing explaining the exec’s positions can be found here, and an abridged version of that briefing in four pages here. Below is a one-page summary of these briefings.
Every three years, the USS Trustee must conduct a valuation of the USS scheme. Last year’s valuation meant more money has to be found to cover the scheme’s future costs, through higher contributions or reduced benefits – partly because employers asked to share less of the risk.
In January, negotiators did this by changing USS to a 100% Defined Contribution scheme, abolishing guaranteed pensions, and cutting predicted benefits.
We went on strike because it was unfair for employees alone to bear the costs of a valuation on which they were not consulted.
After 4 weeks of strikes, the March 12 Acas alternative was suggested, which keeps guaranteed pensions but with 25-50% smaller benefits. UCU rejected these much worse benefits.
More talks resulted in the latest proposal: a panel to review the valuation. The UCU leadership chose to ballot members on the choice between ‘Yes’: accept the panel and cancel all further strike action or ‘No’: continue the strike action and insist on no detrimental changes to USS pensions.
The dispute is tightly constrained because a solution to fund the scheme according to the current valuation must be in place before June 30th or within a “reasonable timeframe”.
Why to vote Yes: The valuation would be reviewed by an equal UCU-UUK panel. They might find new evidence and call for a new valuation. This might result in much better changes in April 2019 as well as improving the process for future scheme valuations.
Why not to vote yes: The new proposal offers no definite improvement to the changes in benefits and contributions required to meet the 2017 valuation. Currently the June 30th demands will be met via the January 100% Defined Contribution proposal, since nothing has yet replaced this at USS. We also don’t know anything about the panel’s appointments, precise remit, framework or timescale, and the USS Trustee has no obligation to listen to it.
Why to vote No: We maintain our industrial action and therefore exert pressure for a better offer from UUK. We take a firm line on the pensions we want, not just on the technicalities of the valuation.
Why not to vote No: “No detriment” would be so expensive for employers that it might be an impossible goal. UUK, the Trustee, and the Pensions Regulator might conclude that negotiation is pointless, ignore the industrial action and impose changes to USS anyway. And we’d have lost the power to influence the future of the scheme through the panel.
We cannot recommend voting No in this ballot: if we commit our negotiators to an unachievable goal, we risk taking UCU out of the negotiating process altogether.
Equally we cannot recommend voting Yes, because the panel offers no assurance that a decision on heavy benefit cuts in April 2019 will not be made before the panel reports.
Instead, we call on UUK this week to propose an acceptable schedule of benefits and contributions for the 2017 valuation, which can provide us with the necessary assurance while we wait for the panel to complete its work.