British university staff launch largest academic strike in recent history against pension cuts

Demonstration by academic staff and supporters against the propsed pension cuts in London on February 28. Photo via the UCU.

In what has proven to be the largest industrial action in the higher education sector in recent history, the University and College Union (UCU) launched the first day of strike action across Britain on February 22.

Striking against planned cuts to the pension schemes of academic staff, staff and students took collective action on 61 different universities across the country.

Since then, university staff, lecturers and students have organised picket lines, occupations and demonstrations in their bid to defend pensions and bring university administration back to the negotiating table. Further industrial action has been called for the next two weeks, with nine more days of strikes and work stoppages planned.

Pension cuts

The dispute began with the proposal by Universities UK (UUK) to transform the defined benefit element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). According to a report by the union, the proposed scheme would eliminate from pensions measures that guarantee retired members a certain level of income. It would effectively leave teaching staff and lecturers on average £10,000 worse off each year in retirement, with a total potential loss of over £200,000.

The report further indicated that lecturers with 10 years of past experience who started in 2007 would see their retirement funds slashed by £6,000 per year in retirement, with a total potential loss of £129,000.

The stated reason for the cuts is the need to tackle the existing superannuation scheme’s financial deficit of more than £6.1 billion. However, both the size and valuation of this debt has been disputed by the UCU and individual academics. They note several problems with using estimates for salary rises and life expectancy from 2011. The claim has been considered even more outrageous in light of USS’ chief executive Bill Gavin securing a pay rise of £82,000 this year.

The UUK’s attacks on pensions has thus been viewed as an attempt to further deregulate the future livelihoods of the workers in the tertiary sector by tying new pension schemes to the performance of short-term oriented financial markets.

The proposed cuts to pensions also come on the back of a series of cuts to wages and job security that the tertiary education sector has experienced over nearly a decade of austerity and privatisation.

The National Union of Students (NUS) has also backed the strike. In a statement of solidarity, NUS president Shakira Martin called on local NUS branches across universities to support the striking teachers and join them on picket lines and rallies. She also called on the university management to return to negotiations.

A campaign demanding compensation from university administrations for the loss in teaching hours due to industrial action was also launched ahead of the strike. More than 70,000 people signed the call for reimbursement by February 20.

In a notable development, a growing number of individual university administrations across the country have begun to break ranks with the UUK over the pension reforms, instead backing a negotiations-based approach with the striking staff. University of Newcastle Vice-Chancellor Chris Day came out in support of the academic staff’s decision to strike, while Glasgow University Vice-Chancellor Anton Muscatelli joined staff on the picket lines on February 27.

Even the Conservative Minister for Universities Sam Gyimah expressed support for further negotiations between the UCU and UUK, without indicating support for UUK’s proposed pension reforms.

This climate of indecision and disunity within the UUK, as well as uncertainty in the Conservative Party minority government over its policy towards higher education stands in contrast with the unity shown by teaching staff and students.

For its part, the Labour opposition has publicly supported the strike action. In comparison to the neoliberal policies previously pushed by New Labour, a growing number of Labour MPs have joined the teachers on the picket lines. A notable example was Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, a veteran socialist and close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He joined the strikers at Goldsmiths University on February 22.

In London, a mass demonstration was organised on February 28 by branches of the UCU from all major universities situated in the capital city. These included University College London, London School of Economics, King’s College London and Goldsmiths, among others. The rally culminated in a mass meeting at the Westminster City Hall, featuring speeches by trade union leaders and politicians, to discuss the next steps in the campaign.

At the mass meeting, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt highlighted the fact that the scale of the strike was placing pressure on the UUK. She cited the increasing division among university administrations and the fact the UUK had agreed to another round of negotiations. Hunt congratulated the rank-and-file members of the UCU for the level of organisation on the ground, noting that since the start of the dispute, the union has recruited 4000 new members.

Labour support

McDonnell also expressed solidarity with striking teachers and students, as well as passing on a message of support from Corbyn. He repeated the pledge previously made by the Labour Party in its election manifesto to scrap the Trade Union Act that was designed to make it harder for unions to organise strikes and pickets on the worksites.

“You will have absolute solidarity from the Labour Party,” McDonnell told the protesting staff and students. “Whether it’s on the picket line or in parliament, we will be with you until you win!”

Shadow Secretary of State for Education Angela Rayner also reiterated Labour’s support for ongoing strike action, placing the blame on the university employer’s organisation for its failure to hold meaningful negotiations.

“What you are doing and what you are trying to do is much broader than the pension cuts,” Rayner said. “Your defined benefits scheme is important not just for you, but for future generations.”

A victory for the UCU in this struggle would not only help to safeguard the guaranteed benefit scheme for the future, it would also greatly strengthen the momentum and morale of Britain’s trade union movement. It could also assist in halting further funding cuts or reforms currently planned by the Conservative government – and bring the Labour Party that supports the campaign closer to power.

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