Build on what we achieved
Kevin Bean of Liverpool UCU looks back at the university pensions dispute
All sides in the university pensions dispute - employers, union leaders and ordinary members alike - are taking stock following the e-ballot vote by the University and College Union to accept proposals to set up a “joint expert panel” to “consider the future of the pension scheme” (the Universities Superannuation Scheme - USS), which has been at the heart of the dispute. In a record turnout for a UCU national ballot, the employers’ offer was accepted by 64% of those voting, with 36% opposed.1 As a result, the campaign of strikes and work-to-rule action, which had begun in February, was suspended on April 13, and university lecturers and professional services staff returned to normal working.
In the immediate aftermath of the ballot result there was naturally a sense of disappointment amongst the many active members of the union who had been the mainstay of organising, campaigning and picketing during the strike. A widely expressed view was that not only had the strike remained solid, but, as the crucial examination period in May and June approached, we were reaching our point of maximum pressure on the employers. Serious divisions were opening up within the employers’ body, Universities UK, and the advantage clearly lay with the union, as we began the summer term.2 At regional council and branch meetings held across the country following the vote, many UCU members argued that, far from calling off the strikes, stepping up the action could have yielded more concessions from the employers and provided a springboard for a wider campaign in defence of higher education.
A particular focus of debate and target of anger was the conduct of the UCU’s general secretary, Sally Hunt, and the rest of the so-called Independent Broad Left leadership of the union. The higher education committee (HEC), which was formally responsible for the conduct of the strike, made no recommendation on the employers’ latest offer when it was put out to the membership, but that did not stop the general secretary from putting her own positive spin on the proposals and sending four emails to the membership calling for a ‘yes’ vote. Individual members of the national executive and HEC, along with several branch committees and activists throughout the country, quickly countered the leadership’s attempt to influence the vote.3 At hastily convened, but well-attended branch meetings and on social media the case was strongly made to UCU members that they should reject the employers’ proposals and vote instead to continue the action. Despite some very effective arguments and an exposure of the vague promises made by the leadership about what we could gain from a review of the USS scheme by “independent experts”, the vote went in favour of the leadership.4 As initial preparations are being made for that review by the “joint expert panel”, the next stage in the battle now centres on the forthcoming UCU congress, which will take place from May 30 to June 1.
That congress will undoubtedly see sustained and organised criticism of the UCU leadership’s conduct of the strike, with a particular focus on the way that the views of the HEC and the branches were disregarded at key stages. Reports from regional meetings and individual branches suggest that in the elections for congress delegates, opponents of the current leadership and the left in general have done well. A number of branches have demanded a recalled HEC to discuss both the future direction of the dispute and the terms of our participation in the joint expert panel’s review.
This mood of opposition amongst the activists who have discussed the issues and taken part in well-attended meetings reflects the wider transformation that has gone on within the UCU since the beginning of the year. Membership has increased by 10,000 since January, with some branches in the north-west, like Liverpool, reporting growth of over 50% in that period. These new members were amongst the most enthusiastic and committed activists during the strike, taking their place on picket lines and making vocal contributions at the mass meetings. Many were drawn from the growing ranks of the academic precariat, often on hourly or short-term contracts; the important role of younger staff and women members was also a notable feature of the dispute on many campuses. In terms of the composition of the activists and their determination to fight on the pensions issue, the UCU was truly a union transformed at this level.5 As previously reported in the Weekly Worker, these 14 days of strikes represented a militant mobilisation that was unprecedented in the history of British universities.6
After all this energy and enthusiasm generated by the strike, many of these activists might feel deflated and demoralised by the leadership’s call to suspend the action and the eventual result of the ballot. They should not react in that way. Much has been gained and much has been learnt during the strike. Although it is not as great a move as Sally Hunt claimed in her messages during the ballot campaign, the employers have shifted their position from the beginning of the dispute.7 But these ‘commitments’ remain vague and untested, and our experience with both employers and union leaders during this strike shows that we need to keep up the pressure on both of them in the months ahead to ensure that our demands are met.
The strike has also taught us about the ways in which both new and older members of our union can be drawn into activity during a dispute and how they, in turn, can transform the union and the ways in which it functions as a collective force to defend and advance the interests of the membership. It has also shown us how a conservative and cautious leadership will attempt to blunt militancy and demobilise the rank and file. For many new members, as well as those who have been involved a little longer, the calling of the e-ballot - and Sally Hunt’s successful attempt to shape the outcome of the vote - has been a valuable lesson on the nature of union bureaucracy and on the ways that trade unions need to be democratised and transformed into fighting organisations from the bottom up.
The growth of the UCU left and initiatives like this weekend’s ‘UCU - a union transformed’ activists’ organising school, called by the union’s London region, and the following day’s Rank and File Revolt meeting, are significant. They are strong evidence of the potential that exists to develop a militant current capable of challenging the leadership of the union.8 However, these grassroots initiatives are only the beginning: they need to go beyond mere trade union militancy or creating a new layer of activists at branch or regional level. Perhaps the most important experience of the dispute was the way in which ordinary members began to draw wider, political conclusions about the nature of higher education. Increasingly UCU members were querying the way in which universities are run, how decisions are made about our working conditions, and the direction of our teaching, research and work in general. Demands for democratic control of the universities, for the freeing of education from the control of governments and the market, and for the development of institutions that really offered a truly liberating learning environment were raised in union branches, teach-outs and in solidarity meetings with students and others who supported our struggle.
Let us leave the last word to a Liverpool UCU member, speaking at a packed general meeting: “This strike began over the pensions, but it’s gone far beyond that. Now it’s about who controls our universities and who controls our working lives”.
1. UCU April 13: www.ucu.org.uk/article/9439/UCU-members-vote-in-record-numbers-to-accept-proposals-in-pensions-dispute.
2. See ‘Pensions strike “poisons relations” on UK campuses’ Times Higher Education March 8.
3. ‘Under pressure UCU leader urges members to accept pensions deal’ Times Higher Education April 4.
4. See, for example, a short video made by Carlo Morelli, a member of the HEC, on the reasons for voting ‘no’: https://twitter.com/carlomorelliUCU/status/983298662561435649.
5. The uproar that greeted an earlier attempt to end the strike and wave of opposition that swept through the branches was an illustration of the mood of these new layers of UCU members. See ‘University strikes to continue after staff reject pension deal’ The Guardian March 13.
6. K Bean, ‘Wave of militancy’ Weekly Worker March 1; ‘Taking stock at half time’ March 22 2018.
7. UCU April 13: www.ucu.org.uk/article/9439/UCU-members-vote-in-record-numbers-to-accept-proposals-in-pensions-dispute.
8. For details of the UCU London region event and the Rank and File Revolt meeting see www.facebook.com/events/454241951662888.