A mess, but not a stitch-up: Wednesday’s national UCU branch meeting

On Wednesday, I was the Cambridge UCU delegate at the branch briefing at UCU headquarters in London. I brought three motions from the Emergency General Meeting our branch had held the day before. The first welcomed Friday’s UUK proposal for a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) to review the 2017 USS valuation, but supported maintaining strike action to secure further assurances on benefits and contributions. The second instructed me to vote against an immediate e-ballot on the UUK proposal. And the third required that the proposal be interpreted such that there could be no detrimental changes to USS pensions in advance of review by the panel. A full set of notes on what took place at the meeting – though not a verbatim transcript – has been released by UCL UCU. What follows is my own impression of what took place at the meeting, and what I think it means.

The meeting began with Sally Hunt outlining the informal negotiations which produced the new UUK proposal. It transpires that since the March 12 Acas offer was rejected, Sally and Paul Bridge from UCU had been engaged in discussions with Alastair Jarvis, Mary Lambe, and Philip Harding from UUK in an attempt to reach a mutually acceptable resolution to the dispute. The UUK proposal was the product of these discussions rather than an unsolicited UUK offer, although it is true that UUK wrote the text.

Early in the meeting, branch delegates were given two new pieces of information. The first was a letter from Alastair Jarvis stating that UUK “does not intend to return to the January JNC proposal” for a 100% DC scheme at this valuation. The second was Sally’s report of reassurance from the Pensions Regulator that it would not intervene in the operation of the panel. TPR has apparently advised that since the USS trustee already has the unilateral option of increasing contributions from both employers and employees (massively) in order to cover current benefits after April 2019, the Regulator will not block the work of the proposed JEP.

Sally concluded by noting that the USS board meets on 11 April, and that if we want the proposed JEP, it needs to be on the agenda for that meeting. She thus advocated an immediate ballot on the proposal, in light of the reassurances received from UUK and tPR. She made clear that this course of action was incompatible with a “no detriment” position, but that she believes such a position cannot win. Paul Bridge then stressed the significance of the concession implied in the employers’ willingness to support the JEP. The floor was then opened to questions and discussion.

The discussion among branch representatives was very different from in the meeting on March 13th. Whereas the earlier meeting had seen near unanimous agreement that the Acas offer was unacceptable and should not be taken to ballot – despite the steer given by Paul Bridge that the deal was a considerable achievement – Wednesday’s discussion was both more technical and more complex. Questions were asked about the precise remit of the panel and the timing of decisions and reports, especially in the light of the Wednesday USS statements that the trustee considers the November valuation to be robust and the June 30th deadline for completion of the valuation inflexible. Many branch representatives were concerned about the precise meaning of “broadly comparable” pensions in the UUK proposal and both “does not intend” and “meaningful Defined Benefit” in the Jarvis letter. And considerable frustration was expressed from branch representatives that the new information from UUK and tPR had not been available to members in advance of the meetings and e-consultations which determined branch positions. It was clear that a number of branch representatives felt that given the new information they no longer had a mandate to vote either way on the fitness of the proposal to be put to ballot.

In the event, no vote was taken, despite the yellow voting cards that had been distributed at the start of the meeting. In the light of the above, this seems to me to have been a justifiable decision. The branch representatives’ meeting ran over time by nearly half an hour, and a full range of views were expressed, from support for accepting the offer as written, to demands for no detriment from the status quo before 2022. Moreover, many of the views expressed were complicated. Several branches had received different results in meetings than from e-consultations (a fact which could be interpreted in multiple ways), and a number of delegates felt that the new information received in the briefing would have altered the majority view in their branch. It is not at all clear to me that under these circumstances to have had branch representatives vote on whether to ballot would have been the democratic thing to do.

This is not to say that I support the decision by a narrow majority of the UCU Higher Education Committee to call a ballot, or condone the process by which it did so, which by all accounts seems to have been pretty messy. It remains my view that there are too many uncertainties about what we are agreeing to for the JEP proposal alone to be a basis for considering ending industrial action, and I think to send it to ballot as things stand risks leaving members underinformed about both what it promises and what they are committing themselves to.

But a ballot has been called. What therefore matters now is that our leadership presses UUK to remove the uncertainties surrounding the proposal before we vote. I no longer think the necessary assurances will be forthcoming from tPR or USS, both because they seem unwilling and because their legal obligations may prevent them from making such advance commitments. Assurance must thus come in the form of a better deal than either the January JNC decision or the no-deal default being passed through the JNC, either through cooperation between UUK and UCU members or using the vote of the independent chair. We should be clear to UUK that without such an acceptable fallback on the table, the current proposal cannot prudently be accepted as an end to the dispute, and that the UCU leadership will not argue that it should be.

A further point needs to be made about process, however. Having been at Wednesday’s meeting and studied the UCL notes on the discussion since, I reject the idea that the decision of the HEC was an affront to the expressed views of branch representatives. It is true that in the meeting it felt as if there was majority support for “revise and resubmit”, in part because the stylish ring of the phrase meant it was often repeated word-for-word. (It appears 17 times in the UCL notes.) But it is important to realise that the neatness of the expression obscures a huge range of positions, from requiring every term in the proposal to be altered fundamentally to simply asking for encouraging noises from tPR before we go forward. Not all of these translate straightforwardly into opposition to a ballot of members.

On the question of whether to take the proposal to ballot, my rough count of views from the UCL notes indicates pretty much equal numbers of branches (as distinguished from numbers of words spoken) on each side. A clear majority being against balloting is produced only if e-consultations are ignored, “seek clarification before balloting” is equated with “revise and resubmit”, and those representatives who changed their mind in light of Wednesday’s new information are ignored. Equally, a clear majority is produced for balloting only if smaller meetings which conflicted with larger e-consultations are treated as irrelevant, and “accept subject to clarification” is taken to mean support for balloting. It’s a murky picture, and I don’t envy the HEC members who had to decide how to proceed.

If we could accept the proposal without suspending our action, I would have advocated both a ballot and a yes vote, since we could still have pressed effectively for further UUK commitments. But if accepting the proposal means suspending action I could have supported neither balloting nor voting in favour of acceptance. We do not yet know what will be on the ballot paper, and I still support the UUK proposal for the convening of a JEP. But in my view it remains essential to secure a better range of possibilities for what may still be decided on or around June 30th this year before we consider standing down our industrial action. It may be that the UCU leadership has more information than it feels able to share with the wider membership, but what we do have from Jarvis, tPR, or USS as yet is not nearly sufficiently reassuring. I am watching and waiting for something better, and I hope our leadership are trying to get it.

— Sam James (Cambridge UCU Vice President)

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