UK union calls three-day strike next month over pay and pensions

Staff at 58 universities set to walk out

November 16, 2021
UCU strike at Goldsmiths, University of London
Source: Eleanor Bentall

Three days of strike action affecting dozens of UK universities next month have been announced by the University and College Union.

UCU said that staff at 58 campuses would walk out from 1 to 3 December in the ongoing disputes over pay, pensions and working conditions.

The move comes after ballots in which union members overwhelmingly backed industrial action but in which less than half of the 152 branches polled passed the 50 per cent turnout threshold which is a legal requirement in much of the UK: 21 over this year’s pay offer from employers, 33 over pay and reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, and four over pensions only.

UCU said that it planned to reballot members at “a number of branches” which fell short of the threshold and that further industrial action was “likely to continue into the spring” if managers fail to negotiate.

Staff at 64 universities have a mandate for action short of a strike, including working to contract and refusing additional duties. This is set to begin on 1 December and will continue indefinitely, UCU said.

“UCU has repeatedly asked employers to meet with us to try to resolve these disputes,” said general secretary Jo Grady. “But while we set out pragmatic solutions that could halt widespread disruption to UK campuses, university bosses refuse to revoke unnecessary, swingeing pension cuts or even to negotiate on issues like casualisation and the unbearably high workloads that blight higher education.

“A resolution to this dispute is simple. But if employers remain intent on slashing pensions and exploiting staff who have kept this sector afloat during a pandemic then campuses will face strike action before Christmas, which will escalate into spring with reballots and further industrial action.”

The latest round of the pensions dispute focuses on Universities UK’s plan to reduce the benefits provided by the USS in a bid to stave off increases in contributions that it describes as unaffordable.

The UCU has estimated that the reforms could cut employees’ guaranteed benefits by as much as 35 per cent, costing members thousands of pounds annually in retirement, but UUK’s figures suggest that the reduction is between 10 per cent and 18 per cent.

At the heart of the pay dispute was employers’ offer of a 1.5 per cent minimum rise for 2021-22, with unions demanding a £2,500 uplift instead, as well as action on inequality, casualisation and workload issues.

Some academics raised concerns about the possible impact of a fourth round of widespread walkouts in little over three years, further disrupting the education of undergraduates who have also seen their on-campus learning significantly interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the National Union of Students backed UCU’s announcement, releasing polling of members which showed that 73 per cent of respondents backed university staff joining industrial action, with only 9 per cent opposed. “The onus for minimising disruption for students lies with university bosses: they must come back to the table to address the clear issues in how higher education is currently run,” said president Larissa Kennedy.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, described the strike announcement as “disappointing”.

“UCU members need to understand that any industrial action aimed at harming students is an unrealistic attempt to try to force all 146 employers to reopen the concluded 2021-22 national pay round and improve on an outcome that is for most of these institutions already at the very limit of what is affordable. It has been 10 days since the ballot results and not one of the [institutions] has indicated to Ucea any form of reconsideration,” Mr Jethwa said.

“We note UCU’s campaign focuses on casual contracts and workload. We have made repeated offers of joint work in these areas for two years but UCU has rejected them. Ucea genuinely wishes to engage on these matters as far as we can at a national level, noting that they are ultimately for local negotiations.”

UUK said that strike action would “not address the urgent need for reform to keep the [USS] scheme affordable”.

“Universities will put in place measures to minimise the impact on students, other staff and the wider university community and will ensure that students can continue to learn and receive support,” the organisation said.

“We have repeatedly stated willingness to consult employers on any viable, affordable and implementable alternative proposal from the UCU and we remain fully committed to continuing talks to develop a joint approach to the future of the pension scheme.”

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