One front not enough: let's fight a total war

Delegates vote for a summer of discontent over pay and pensions. John Morgan reports

June 2, 2011

No left turn: Sally Hunt said that she would fight 'any group that seeks to assert its own political agenda' on the union

Universities face a summer of industrial action, including disrupted admissions, after members of the sector's biggest union stepped up their fight over pensions and pay, expressing growing anger with their employers and the government.

Delegates at the University and College Union's annual congress, held in Harrogate last weekend, hardened the union's stance by voting for action on several fronts.

The union will hold a fresh ballot of members in traditional universities for sustained industrial action over cuts to their pensions under the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

A series of one-day stoppages was held earlier this year, but vice-chancellors dismissed them as having little impact.

UCU delegates passed a motion committing the union to a re-ballot and "a major programme of sustained and disruptive industrial action targeting such areas as admissions, assessments and examinations for the next academic year".

Some union members argued that induction weeks should be targeted, hitting universities as they welcome new students. Action would be taken against individual pre-1992 universities and would be likely to start in August.

Delegates also agreed that UCU members in post-1992 universities, whose pensions are provided by the public Teachers' Pension Scheme, should join with public sector unions in a strike on 30 June.

Some delegates said the strike against the government's plans to cut the scheme's benefits could involve 1 million people.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers are currently balloting members on the strike, while the UCU already has a mandate to take action.

Linking up with other unions such as the NUT would be a major development for the UCU.

Members in traditional universities will not strike on 30 June, but are likely to take "demonstrative action" in support.

Following the higher education employers' pay offer of a £100 rise for 2011-12 - described as "pathetic" and "insulting" by delegates - there will be another ballot for industrial action if members reject the final offer.

Delegates also carried a motion committing the UCU to "consider the most effective way for our members to withdraw from participation in the research excellence framework, a divisive exercise with injurious work-intensification consequences for our members".

Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, told the congress: "The truth is that this coalition government presents a fundamental threat to everything we stand for as educators.

"Its cuts undermine the transformative work we do in colleges and universities every day. But they also undermine our professional standing and our pay and pensions, too."

On the USS, Ms Hunt said the coalition was "supporting the employers while they perform a smash-and-grab raid on our pensions".

The UCU held its debate on whether to re-ballot for industrial action on the USS in a private session, from which the press was excluded.

One key element of the debate was to decide the UCU's demands for the industrial action. The union's leadership won support for its negotiating position, but on a close vote in the wake of criticism from the UCU Left group.

The employers' changes to the USS introduce a two-tier system, where current members will retain final-salary pensions but new entrants will be placed on lower-value career-average deals.

The UCU Left had wanted the union to demand the retention of final-salary pensions for all and to oppose a switch from the retail prices index to the lower consumer prices index measure of inflation for calculating increases for pensions in payment and deferment.

But delegates decided that industrial action would be in support of the negotiating position set out by the UCU leadership in late counterproposals to the employers.

The proposals accept the switch to CPI and the introduction of career-average pensions for new entrants, while demanding that the employers improve the accrual rate (the proportion of salary awarded for each year of service) on the career-average section, from 1/80 to 1/65.

The union's leadership describes the strike plan as a bid to "close the gap" between the new scheme and the existing final-salary provision.

The £100 pay offer put forward by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association last week stirred anger among delegates, following the 0.4 per cent and 0.5 per cent rises in the past two years. Liz Lawrence, a member of the Sheffield Hallam University branch who is on the union's national executive committee, said the offer was "pathetic".

A motion in defence of national pay bargaining was carried, amended to commit the union to "put the employers' final offer for 2011-12 to a ballot of members" and "to ballot members for industrial action over pay in autumn 2011, if members reject the final offer".

Gavin Reid, secretary of the University of Leeds branch and an NEC member, said: "By putting pay to the back of the list, we've left ourselves with the worst deals in the public sector in the past couple of years."

Mark Campbell, chair of the London Metropolitan University branch and an NEC member, said: "When they come to fight us, we won't just fight on one front: we will fight (a) total war."

Goodbye Leninists: Hunt issues challenge to SWP

The University and College Union's general secretary warned the Socialist Workers Party to back away from alleged attempts to dictate the union's strategy.

Sally Hunt's speech to the union congress marked the start of her pitch to be re-elected as general secretary, with the election process beginning in the autumn.

The speech was her most overt public challenge yet to the SWP, which some accuse of trying to influence the union via the UCU Left group.

"I don't care whether it's UCU Left, UCU Right or UCU Centre," Ms Hunt said. "Or if it's the Socialist Workers Party, the Liberal Democrats - if there are any of them left - the Green Party, the Conservative Party or even the Monster Raving Loony Party.

"My point is that any group that seeks to assert its own political agenda on UCU in place of that of our members should think again."

Ms Hunt also appealed to members to support her proposals to cut the union's administrative spending by £150,000 a year.

Key to this would be cutting the size of the UCU's 68-strong national executive committee, which Ms Hunt described as "one of the largest in the trade union movement".

The UCU Left group says its members come from a variety of political backgrounds and accuses opponents of "red scare" tactics.

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