Sheffield support staff may strike over pensions

December 9, 2010

The University of Sheffield's lowest-paid, mainly female, workers may ballot for strike action over plans to shut down their final-salary pensions.

Sheffield wants to go further than other universities that have ended final-salary pensions for support staff, closing its scheme to new entrants and ending future accruals for current members.

Figures dating from July 2009, the most recent available, show the scheme had a £68 million deficit - but that is likely to have shrunk thanks to a healthier stock market.

About 500 staff at a recent meeting held by three campus unions - Unison, Unite and the University and College Union - decided unofficially to ballot for industrial action.

The proposals affect those earning less than £23,000 a year and will, Unison said, disproportionately affect women, who account for 70 per cent of support staff nationally.

Ben Thomas, national education officer for Unison, said: "Sheffield is proposing to destroy the pension promises made to staff. To close a scheme to future accrual represents a sea change in...employers' attitude to staff pension rights."

Sheffield's vice-chancellor, Keith Burnett, is chairman of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, which handles national negotiations with the unions on pay and conditions.

Mike Robinson, national education officer for Unite, said no other university has pursued the option Sheffield wants for its support staff, a cash-balance scheme.

Cash balance is seen as a hybrid of defined-benefit schemes, in which employees are assured of their pension's value and employers bear the risk, and defined-contribution schemes, in which pension values rely on stock market investments and employees bear the risk. Between 1999 and 2006, the US government banned firms from transferring defined-benefit pensions to cash-balance schemes amid concerns over the impact on older staff.

A Sheffield spokeswoman said communications with staff over an "attractive, affordable and sustainable" scheme started in November 2009. Consultations will begin this month before a final decision in April 2011, she added.

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