What is UCU demanding from employers on the USS pensions dispute?

UCU has made two key demands from employers in order to resolve the dispute, as detailed in the dispute letter sent to the Principal:

1. An agreement to revoke UUK’s proposed cuts to the Defined Benefit pension that were approved by JNC [Joint Negotiating Committee] resolution on the 31 August 2021, and not to replace them with any alternative set of changes to benefits and/or increases in member contributions, unless this replacement has the agreement of UCU. 

2. A public call on USS to issue an evidence-based, moderately prudent valuation of the financial health of the scheme as at 31 March 2021.

What alternative proposals would UCU accept? What does a win look like?

UCU put forward a set of counter-proposals in advance of the JNC meeting on 31st August 2021, which were intended as a short-term solution to the situation so that a new, more rigorous valuation of the pension scheme can be conducted. These would have required the same level of employer support as those put forward by UUK, but they were rejected. You can see an outline of the counter-proposals and how they compare with the UUK proposals here. You can also read about the key principles behind UCU’s negotiating position here

In brief, the principles are:

  • a good pension for members with a high level of security and an end to the cuts that have taken place at every valuation since 2011;
  • a mechanism that allows for lower paid staff to pay lower contributions, but keep the same level of security for their retirement benefits as everyone else;
  • an explicit commitment from employers to stay in the scheme for the long term and push for governance reforms that build trust in the way the scheme is run;
  • a solution that allows the scheme to invest in return-seeking, ethical investments;
  • we are willing to explore an approach known as ‘conditional benefits’, but only on terms acceptable to members.

What is UCU demanding in relation to pay, equality, casualisation, and workload?

Alongside other university unions, UCU has laid out a series of detailed proposals to improve pay and conditions in the sector. The key proposals include:

  • A pay uplift of £2,500 on all pay points;
  • A maximum sector wide pay ratio of 10:1;
  • Additional uplift at the lower end of the pay spine to address pay compression;
  • For the standard weekly full-time contract of employment to be 35 hours per week at all higher education institutions;
  • Ending pay injustice – meaningful, agreed action to tackle the ethnic, gender and disability pay gap;
  • Agreeing a framework to eliminate precarious employment practises and casualised contracts, including zero hours contracts, from higher education;
  • Meaningful, agreed action to address excessive workloads and unpaid work;
  • Workload models and planning which take into account COVID pandemic related changes in working practices.

How can this dispute be different from the outcomes of previous strikes?

Industrial action is the only proven method for defending pensions, pay, and conditions in the higher education sector. In the absence of this pressure, employers have shown time and again that they will continue to degrade our working conditions. 

Without the strikes of 2017-2018, there would be no defined benefits pensions left to defend today and the black box of the flawed USS valuation process would remain unchallenged. And while the dispute of 2019-2020 seemed to end without a decisive outcome, this was in large part due to the arrival of the Covid crisis. And those strikes were not without achievements either. They put pressure on employers to challenge the pensions valuation methodology, which they did publicly earlier this year. This has left employers in a weaker position to defend pension cuts. The strikes also forced the employers to enter national discussions for the first time on workload, casualisation, and pay equality – areas which they have previously refused to discuss at a national level. While the offers in these areas were insufficient, this provides a basis to build on in this dispute.

Of course, this time the campaign will need to achieve more. But the only way in which this dispute can be different is if participation is larger and stronger than before. A high ballot turnout can send a very strong signal to employers and force them to come back to the table. 

Is there an alternative to achieving these goals which doesn’t involve industrial action?

No. The employers are currently refusing to negotiate on any of the issues under dispute. And if the employers go unchallenged, the situation will only get worse. Your pension will be cut significantly and future reform will be harder to achieve. Meanwhile, on pay, employers are already consulting on abolishing national pay bargaining altogether, which could open the door to further deterioration.

There are two different legal challenges currently proceeding against USS. One is being organised by UCU, on the basis of a legal opinion received as a result of the 2017-2018 dispute. The other is a more recent grassroots action organised by UCU members across the country. This recently raised over £50,000 to support its action. You can read more here. However, legal action takes time to take its course and is most effective in combination with a range of other tactics, including industrial action, lobbying, and public campaigning. In the meantime, employers are forcing through cuts to your pension now which will take effect imminently, before the outcome of any court case is known. The priority has to be to take these off the table to make room for a wider challenge to how the pension scheme is run, including through legal action.

Shouldn’t we be striking over health and safety instead?

The timing and demands of industrial action campaigns are not always a matter of our choosing. In this case, the disputes have been triggered by a serious and imminent attack on your pensions and the crisis of pay and conditions brought to light by Covid. In response to these urgent attacks, UCU members at Queen Mary voted in a meeting to pursue industrial action over these claims, and so did a national conference of representatives from branches across the country. But these disputes don’t rule out further campaigning over health and safety. Your representatives continue to push hard on these issues through public campaigning and through university committees. Moreover, a strong showing in the disputes over pensions, pay and conditions will provide an important opportunity to show management that they can’t ignore the voices of their staff. 

How will we win the support of students?

Queen Mary students have previously shown strong support and solidarity to staff on strike. The issues raised by the disputes are important to them too: staff working conditions are student learning conditions. Students want to study in a university which is more equal, where staff are better paid, and where teachers and support staff have more manageable workloads. Even during the pandemic, students have shown strong support for local disputes, such as during the campaign against redundancies at Liverpool University. There is always more that can be done to help win over students, but experience shows that this is possible.

If a strike is called will there be a strike fund and how will it be administered?

  • If a strike is called there will be national and local strike funds. 
  • As with previous industrial action, funds will be awarded to those on lowest paid and most precarious contracts as a matter of priority. 
  • The branch can also set up a way for those least financially impacted to donate to the local strike fund. 
  • Decisions about local fund-raising and fund-allocation to be made collectively with all branch members.    

Further information

UCU has prepared a FAQ document for the USS dispute.

Pensions jargon buster by Leeds UCU – the ABC of USS.

Relevant analysis and articles on USS Briefs.

Migrant workers and taking industrial action: https://www.ucu.org.uk/heaction-migrantworkers