War of words worsens as pension strikes loom

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the USS members she represents feel ‘defiant’

The uproar over pension strikes this autumn has escalated as the two sides trade accusations over an upcoming ballot.

Relations between the University and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK (UUK) have worsened as the groups debate employee contributions to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

In a press conference this week, the new general secretary of the UCU, Jo Grady, described the mood of USS members as “defiant”.

The current bout of unrest was caused by a USS Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC), held in August 2019, which resulted in increased contributions for employees and employers from October 2019. The union wants employee contributions to be at 8% but the recent increases have pushed that figure. higher to 9.6%.

Read more: UCU vows to strike over USS pension deal in autumn 2019

After the JNC, UUK offered a revised lower rate of 9.1% if UCU agreed to drop strike plans.

UUK’s original offer was dependent on a two-year moratorium on strike plans, until October 2021. In a document seen by University Business, UUK originally stipulated: “UCU agrees not to proceed with the planned ballot for strike action on pensions and hold a moratorium on any pensions industrial balloting or strike action in relation to USS for the period to 1 October 2021.”

Four days later, on August 27, UUK released a statement clarifying the moratorium clause, insisting UCU only need drop plans for the 2019 strike. UCU have not recognised this revision.

UUK said UCU statements “peddle misinformation on negotiations”. At a press conference this week, Jo Grady described UUK accounts as “disingenuous”.

A spokesperson for UUK said: “We would prefer not to have to negotiate in public like this, but UCU is completely misrepresenting the employer position to union members.

“At the JNC, UCU negotiators indicated they were unwilling to compromise, refused to consult their members over the alternative offer, and consequently rejected it. Our offer would result in a lower member contribution rate of 9.1% – exactly aligned with the rate proposed by the Joint Expert Panel in its first report, which employers and the union support.

“The USS Trustee is open to considering whether the current split in contributions can be changed, so we would urge the union to engage constructively with this offer.”

Jo Grady describes the idea of a two-year moratorium on UCU strike action as “absurd”

Grady argued a moratorium would weaken the union’s hand in the run-up to the 2020 valuation.

“There have been disputes every valuation. For UUK to try and tie our hands in the run-up to the 2020 valuation, the very idea we would tolerate that is absurd. It suggests that UUK do intend to come for pensions again, because otherwise, why would they want to tie our hands if they intend to be nice and reasonable employers,” she said.

Though tensions are running high over the most recent increase, Grady made clear this week her frustration over what she sees as a lack of action on a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) report, released in September last year.

The JEP was established in response to strikes last year but Grady said the lack of progress towards implementing its recommendations has been a “betrayal of members’ good faith”.

Grady said: “I really can’t stress enough that the JEP was completely favourable to UCU, it really vindicated the strike action that members took, and heavily criticised various aspects of USS governance and the way deficits are calculated.

“Members are really, really distraught about the management of their scheme and the extent to which UUK seem to completely back USS in the face of allegations from one of our appointed trustees of poor governance, and have not stood up to USS to call for the implementation of the joint panel – a panel UUK asked to be established, which UUK nominated their own experts for, which they co-authored, and which UUK endorsed.”

UUK has balloted 69 universities over the pension dispute. A concurrent ballot has been sent to 147 universities over pay and working conditions. Both ballots close on October 30.

During the press conference, Jo Grady questioned the processes of the UUK. “From my perspective and from the interactions I have with the UUK, it’s unclear just how representative of the various and divergent interests of vice-chancellors they represent,” she said.

Header image credit: Duncan, Flickr. 

Got a news story for UB? Contact James Higgins on 0117 300 5526

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