UCU to reballot 24 universities in row over pay and pensions

UCU is threatening walkouts at 36 universities in the new year

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) are being reballoted for strike action just weeks after an eight-day stoppage led to disruption at 60 universities.

Strike ballots will open at 24 universities in early January on top of the 12 universities UCU has already begun reballoting. The ballots will close on Tuesday 28 January, potentially paving the way for large-scale walkouts at 36 universities in February 2020.

UCU warned it could take the decision to reballot even more universities after Christmas. The union’s general secretary, Jo Grady, said: “Members are prepared to take serious and sustained action to defend their pay and conditions, as well as their pensions.”

Members are prepared to take serious and sustained action to defend their pay and conditions, as well as their pensions
– Jo Grady, UCU

Lecturers and university staff went on strike from Monday 25 November to Wednesday 4 December over two separate disputes. UCU, which represents around 120,000 university employees, ran two concurrent ballots on industrial action: the first on changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), and the second on pay, casualisation, equality and workloads.

In total, members from 41 of the 69 universities balloted in the pensions dispute backed strike action and members from 55 of the 147 universities balloted on the pay and working conditions dispute backed stoppages – 43 universities backed strike action in both disputes.

The union has now chosen to reballot members in some of its branches who did not vote for strike action last time, the majority of which are part of the second dispute. Universities founded after 1992 are only part of the pay and working conditions dispute because their employees are part of a different pension scheme. Universities founded before 1992 are part of both disputes.

This latest announcement means staff at Manchester Metropolitan, Nottingham Trent and Oxford universities will join those at Imperial, Kent, Leeds Beckett and Surrey in being reballoted this January. UCU has published a full list of affected universities on its website.

UCU says more staff are eligible to vote after it registered 3,500 new members following the first bout of strikes in early December.

Pay and conditions

At a meeting in November, representatives from the UCU met the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), which represents institutions involved in the pay and conditions dispute.

Following the meeting, a spokesperson for UCEA confirmed: “The 147 universities are giving no collective mandate to improve further on the above-inflation final pay offer that was made in April of this year (effective from 1 August). We had indicated prior to the meeting that we hoped that we might have fruitful dialogue on the other three issues and found it informative to hear UCU colleagues articulate some of their aspirations and concerns.”

The association hoped it could offer improvement on the three other issues raised by the UCU ballot, including reducing workloads, closing the gender and ethnicity pay gaps and tackling casual employment.

The UCU’s decision to reballot a further raft of universities is an attempt to force the UCEA to concede and negotiate larger pay rises for staff.

Pensions

The union has been in talks with Universities UK (UUK), which represents universities involved in the USS pension dispute, following the publication of the second report of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP), a body made up of pension representatives from UCU and UUK.

In its conclusion, the JEP said “the mutuality of the scheme remains a great strength and that moving away from this could damage its future”.

The JEP recommended the adoption of a “dual discount rate”, which would distinguish between past and future service and reflect “the demographics of the scheme”. Dual discount rates are used in half of other defined benefit schemes in the UK. Members already in retirement would receive a low discount rate with their contributions “designed to deliver close to self-sufficiency”. Members who had just joined, and would not expect to receive benefits for many years, would receive a higher discount rate until retirement.

Responding to the publication of the second report of the JEP on behalf of UUK, which represents the views of 340 scheme employers, Prof Julia Buckingham, president of U UK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London,  said: “We will shortly seek employers’ views on the issues and options suggested by the panel to inform our joint working with the University and College Union and USS trustee to reform the scheme. We know that employers want to progress discussions as quickly as possible.

“Priorities include: jointly agreeing a refreshed scheme purpose and valuation principles; reforming the governance; and exploring different approaches to the valuation methodology for 2020.”

Commenting after the publication from the JEP, Ms Grady said: “This second report looks at key issues around the governance of the scheme and makes some strong recommendations that, if implemented, should give scheme members greater confidence about how the scheme is run. We are particularly pleased that the report highlights the importance of mutuality.

“This report sets out a path which may provide an opportunity for lower contributions than USS has scheduled. We need all parties to now engage with the report in order to secure members’ pension benefits in an affordable way and to ensure the scheme’s long-term sustainability.”

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