On 22-23 February, campuses across the country will see the first of 14 days of strikes announced by the University and College Union (UCU).
These strikes follow the industrial action ballots results of 22 January, which saw an 88% vote for strike action, based on a turnout of 59% of eligible UCU members. These strikes will hit 61 universities, perhaps even more, with UCU members at seven institutions that failed to meet the 50% turnout requirement now being re-balloted. The strikes are over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for “pre-92” universities. The employers’ consortium Universities UK (UUK) wants to change the USS from a “defined benefits scheme” to a “defined contributions scheme”.
This would make final pensions depend on investment performance instead of workers’ contributions, effectively spelling the end of guaranteed pension benefits. We cannot overstate the importance of either the ballot result or the industrial action. Thousands of workers have overwhelmingly shown their willingness to defend their rights by withholding their labour despite the obstacles posed by the Tories’ draconian trade union legislation. Moreover, when one pension scheme is undermined, members of another scheme are soon told to accept cuts to their own because they are “unfairly” advantaged relative to the first.
Put bluntly, a defeat for UCU now could easily mean the decimation of pensions across and beyond the entire sector. For campuses to become bastions of resistance, students and workers must realise how their struggles connect intrinsically.
Attacks on employment security in academic institutions, such as casual contracts and pension cuts, have risen alongside fee hikes, course closures, and an increasingly consumerist conceptualisation of students, prominently exemplified by the National Student Survey. All this stems from the systematic effort to turn education into a commodity: in a word, marketisation.
This is why we call on students to stand with staff on picket lines. Pass supporting motions in your Students’ Unions. Make flyers, infographics, and videos to explain to students why, no matter the hardships they endure now, too much is at stake for UCU to lose the dispute. Organise occupations, sit-ins, and other disruptive actions demanding Vice-Chancellors to oppose the pension cuts. Raise money for UCU’s national Fighting Fund or branch-level hardship funds to reassure precariously employed staff that they can afford to strike. In short, “Students and workers of the world unite!”
Royal Mail deal put to members
The Communication Workers′ Union Postal Executive has endorsed the agreement reached between CWU negotiators and Royal Mail, which will now be put to a vote of the membership. The outline of the deal is: the creation of a new single pension scheme for all workers; extension of all current agreements and protections until 2022; two one-hour reductions in the working week (in October 2018 and October 2019) without loss of pay; a later last delivery, but not as late as Royal Mail wanted; a three year pay deal which the CWU claims equates to 12.33% (with two basic pay rises totalling 7% plus the reduction of the working week without loss of pay).
The devil will be in the detail of the pension scheme, and close examination of the deal has not yet happened. The new scheme would replace the two-tier system in place at the moment, which includes both a Defined Benefit scheme and a Defined Contribution scheme, with a scheme described as giving a “wage in retirement” based on a Collective Defined Benefit scheme.
Such schemes are not currently legislated for in the UK. Implementation requires secondary legislation to be added to the Pensions Schemes Act 2015 before the scheme can be launched. Initial reaction from members seems to indicate unhappiness over any change to the last delivery time and disappointment over lack of progress over job security and culture at work. The deal can be read in full here.
TfL “Transformation” threatens jobs
Transport unions are planning a fight back against Transport for London’s “Transformation” programme, a cuts project which threatens admin jobs in TfL and subsidiary companies such as London Underground. Workers who provide admin support to stations, train depots, and engineering and signalling projects within LU, as well as directly employed TfL admin staff, could see their jobs merged or deleted, leading to displacements and possible redundancies.
The cuts could have a huge knock-on effect for the workers who the admin staff support: for example, with fewer admin assistants, station staff will find it much harder to request and change annual leave, order uniform, and book training courses. Although there is currently no fixed timescale for the implementation of the “Transformation” plan, unions can not rely on a strategy of attempting to slow the bosses down.
The backdrop to the proposals is the Tories’ policy of reducing TfL’s central government subsidy to zero, making it the only major metropolitan transport system in the world which receives no subsidy. With the total reduction due to come into effect in 2019, TfL and LU bosses will be looking to move rapidly to claw back their budget deficit by making cuts. RMT and TSSA organisers addressed members at a joint meeting in London on 24 January.
Both unions are committed to resisting “Transformation”, but currently have no plans to ballot their members in the affected areas, where union density and organisation tends to be weaker than in operational and engineering grades.
Some rank-and-file activists are calling for a dispute that involves workers in other grades, mobilising them to oppose the cuts on the basis of the impact it will have on their own jobs.
Hackney school cleaners deal on pay and holidays
Cleaners at six schools in Hackney have called off strikes planned for 30 January to 2 February and on 5 February after reaching a deal with the employer. Workers were due to strike over the outsourcing company′s refusal of to pay the London Living Wage (LLW); proposals to cut pay with new term-time-only contracts; and refusal to pay holiday pay in line with legal obligations.
Strikes have been called off after Unite negotiated a deal with the cleaners current employer, OCS Group Ltd, and their new employer, Kier, who is taking over the branch. According to Unite the deal includes: all current staff will remain on year-round contracts and will not be forced onto term-time-only contracts. Staff who were recruited on term time only contracts will be allowed to express a preference for a change to year-round contracts. The company will consider the options once it is clear how many staff want to upgrade to a year-round contract.
Staff who were recruited on all year round contracts but who were later misled into signing a new term time only contract, will be given the choice to revert to an year-round contract. The uprated LLW, currently £10.20 an hour, will be applied from 10 February. Negotiations are still ongoing about exact details on contracts and ensuring those who want it get a year-round contract.
First Bus drivers 18th week of strikes
Bus drivers at the Rusholme depot of First Buses in Manchester are on their 18th week of strikes over pay parity. Drivers are now striking on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on alternate weeks. They are paid up to £4,500 less a year than drivers at other First Bus depots, including one just a few miles down the road.
Drivers are currently paid £9.05 an hour and are demanding an increase to £10.50 with a guarantee of pay parity with other depots (some paid over £12 an hour) soon. Passengers and members of the local Labour Party have been supporting the strike. On 25 January they blockaded a nearby depot which is not on strike, and stopped buses moving for an hour and a half.
FE colleges balloted over pay
UCU members in 16 FE colleges in London and two outside of London are being balloted for strikes over pay. The Association of Colleges has recommended a 1% pay rise for its member colleges for 2017-18. The UCU had submitted a claim in August 2017 for RPI plus 3% — equalling 6.9%, with a minimum uplift of £900 for the lowest paid workers. The negotiations with the Association of Colleges are not however binding on the member colleges, and UCU is balloting in colleges where workers want to push college management for higher pay.
UCU is hoping other branches will join the dispute as it progresses.