UCU pensions dispute energised by strikes, protests and occupations

The University and College (UCU) has seen a massive groundswell of support for it’s 14 day strike action over a changes being imposed on its members pension provision. Universities UK (UUK) who administer the scheme claim that the changes are necessary to bring down a large deficit in their finances. Lecturers dispute both the size of the deficit and also the new proposals which will see many of them over 10k a year worse off in retirement and their pensions at the mercy of the financial markets rather than secure as they are at present. Over 42,000 members were balloted with an overwhelming 88% of those who responded backing strike action. A total of 65 universities are closed and a further 8,300 people have joined the UCU since the first ballots went out. Claims by UUK that the disruption is “minimal” are nothing short of laughable. The picket lines have been lively well attended and also supported by other trade unions.

Many spontaneous lunchtime protests and rallies have occurred in city centres and also outside the offices of both UUK and also the government ‘Office for Students’ in central London. There have also been very many angry protests outside the offices of university Vice Chancellors. Their insanely high pay (average salary £268,000) has been an increasing source of bitterness as courses and facilities get cut with austerity being the excuse. Demos have been noisy disruptive and often characterised by the use of large amounts of coloured smoke. Students have played a leading role in ensuring that the public are kept informed about the reasons for the strike. Often joining their striking lecturers both on the picket lines and protests and leafletting the surrounding areas. SOAS University in Central London saw an incident this week where over 50 students blocked the main entrance to the building housing the library and scuffled with 3 or 4 individuals whom tried and failed to cross the picket line.

Despite the extreme disruption to their education the overwhelming majority of students remain in full support of their lecturers. Many of them remain bitter at the decision by successive governments to hike up their tuition fees. A statement by the National Union of Students (NUS) was issued jointly with the UCU in support of the action makes their position clear: “NUS and UCU are sister organisations committed to promoting the interests of our members and to defending education. We are proud of our work together in calling for a better deal for students and staff and in challenging the marketisation of education. We believe that fairly rewarded staff are the cornerstone of the university experience and that the proposal by Universities UK to substantially cut the pensions of members of the USS pension scheme will be hugely damaging if implemented. As representatives of students, NUS is worried that the imposition of these cuts in the face of sector wide opposition will lead to a demotivated and unhappy workforce and consequent recruitment and retention problems as staff vote with their feet and move elsewhere. As representatives of staff, UCU is concerned that alongside recent cuts in the real terms value of pay and the very high rates of casualisation, these proposals are seen as yet another kick in the teeth for hard working staff. We believe that the current policy of paying ever higher salaries for VCs and Principals while cutting pensions for those who do the work sends a hugely damaging signal to both students and staff.”

Although lectures have been cancelled many students have attended ‘teach outs’ organised by the NUS and its supporters which have seen big names like Paul Mason, Gary Younge, Owen Jones, Low Key and shadow chancellor John McDonnell giving their time for free. In support of the action.

On Monday March 12th a rumour began to circulate that the UCU and UUK had reached some kind of deal and that it would be put to members the following morning with a view to suspending any further strike action. It also emerged that the UCU would be encouraging its members to ‘reschedule’ lectures affected by the strike action. When the deal emerged it very quickly became clear that negotiations had failed but that UUK were panicking about the effectiveness of the action. The deal was considerably better than the original proposals by UUK but made a number of concessions that workers who been on the picket lines for 10 days were in no mood for. The deal accepted the bosses claim of a serious deficit which the strikers dispute. It would also mean contributing more to their pensions while getting less and most worrying of all it would have paved the way for a worse deal after a review in three years time. It was instantly considered by workers across the union with mass meetings taking place and rejecting it unanimously. Hundreds gathered outside the UCU headquarters in Camden to lobby the union against the deal. By the end of the day it was clear that the present round of strikes would continue and the next round (another 14 days after Easter) would go ahead as planned.

Another feature of the strike has been unofficial action taken by students in support of their lecturers by occupying university buildings. Reel News visited the occupation at Queen Mary’s University in East London. It is typical of actions up and down the UK. They have occupied the historic Octogan building and have been camped there for over a week with meetings, teach outs and meals being served in the occupied space. On the first day the campus security made several failed attempts at forcing their way in. They also tried locking the students inside for hours on end with no access to food water or toilets. Management were bombarded by angry emails from staff and threats of embarrassing publicity so an uneasy truce is now in place.

Nadia one of the occupiers told Reel News how the support of striking UCU members had been key to the success of the occupation. Food has been brought in for the occupiers and much has been done to help publicise the action which has forced the security to behave themselves and even help facilitate the protest. There is little doubt that the occupation is costing Queen Mary’s a fortune. Extra security has been drafted in from a private company to cover nights and the building itself is regularly hired out for private events which remained cancelled until further notice. Like many other occupations the students are making demands of management which go beyond the UCU dispute. As well as demanding that the Vice Chancellor releases a statement in support of the UCU strikers they are also insisting that recent cuts to bursaries are reversed. Similar occupations have occurred at UCL, Kings College London, Bristol, York, Sheffield, Nottingham, Sussex, Dundee, Reading, Exeter and Cambridge. Many more student groups are rumoured to be considering similar action.

There is little doubt that this first run of 14 day strikes has been seen as a huge success by both the UCU and their student supporters. No one has returned to work in any of the establishments affected by the action and the strikers are looking more confident as a result of the action. Outside of academia the general public as a whole remain sympathetic to the strikers with the usual tabloid lies having little or no effect on the mood of support. It is clear that UUK are going to have to table a considerably better offer to the strikers or more action will follow and massive disruption will start encroaching on exams. Ultimately the blame will fall on UUK for not listening to their employees whose anger revolves around the general marketisation of education as a whole. The enforced changes to pensions have become a catalyst for a range of grievances that are yet another headache for an already weak government.

Slideshow of the London marches in support of the UCU strikers: