The University and College Union leadership faces a “political reckoning” over its failure to strike a better academic pensions deal, critics have claimed.
Plans to end the final salary scheme offered by the Universities Superannuation Scheme to staff at pre-92 universities were adopted last week after UCU members voted two to one to accept a revised deal from employers.
But voices within UCU Left have questioned why union members came to accept the deal, which they say is only marginally better than the one rejected decisively in a ballot three months earlier.
They claim that the decision to stand down a marking boycott in November put union negotiators in a weak position with institutions, whose offer, they say, did not substantially improve despite strong backing for industrial action.
The low turnout of only 39.1 per cent in the final ballot was testament to disillusionment felt by staff who reluctantly accepted the “rotten deal” or declined to vote because they could not see the union winning a better package, said Sean Wallis, UCU branch president at University College London.
“Most members could not stomach voting ‘yes’ [to back the revised deal], but there was no plan B, no strategy [by UCU] and they were no longer mobilised in industrial action,” said Mr Wallis, a prominent UCU Left member.
Suspending the marking boycott from November meant that staff “missed” an opportunity to take action during exams due to take place in December and the start of January. This resulted in a failure to place any pressure on institutions to improve their pensions offer, he argued.
“There is now an anger with the national UCU that I cannot remember – no one believes it is serious about fighting national action,” he added.
Mr Wallis said that there was bound to be “political reckoning between branches and the national executive” given the union’s tactics in the pensions dispute.
His call comes as voting begins in elections for seats on the UCU’s national executive, which is now controlled by the left-of-centre Independent Broad Left group after several years of UCU Left domination.
However, Jimmy Donaghey, the lead negotiator in the pensions dispute and a member of the Independent Broad Left, believed that his team had “achieved a lot given the ridiculous restraints placed on us”, namely the need to agree a plan to cut the USS’ estimated £20 billion deficit.
The revised deal will result in higher annual pensions for staff than previously proposed, although employee contributions will also go up to 8 per cent compared with the previously mooted 6.5 per cent.
“No one is saying this is a glorious victory, but the majority recognise that the threat of industrial action achieved improvements,” he said.
The suspension of the marking boycott over Christmas had succeeded in gaining a “shift in negotiations”, which then continued until the improved deal was drawn up in mid-January, Dr Donaghey added.
He also pointed to the fact that some universities had threatened to dock the pay of those taking part in the marking boycott as a reason why such action may have been difficult to pursue.
“If the boycott had continued, members would have lost pay for two months and gained very little,” he said.