Lecturers man picket lines for pensions

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Members of the University and College Union (UCU) at Lancaster walked out in two days of strike action in Week Ten, in disputes over pensions, job security and pay. This was in conjunction with members of the Union, which represents academic staff, in 63 UK universities taking action recently.

Photo by Elliot Westacott

Tuesday’s strike was in protest against proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a final-salary pension scheme for academics and related staff. On Thursday, USS members were joined by protesters defending their job security and pay. Approximately 50% of Lancaster academics are UCU members, which equates to 745 people. 72% of Lancaster UCU members voted for strike action over the USS issue, with 83% voting for action short of a strike, which could cause further disruption next term.

The dispute between the UCU and the Higher Education Employers’ Pension Forum (EPF) continues, with each side accusing the other of refusing to negotiate. The strikes caused disruption to classes, potentially inconveniencing one million students nationwide. Despite this, students at Lancaster have been largely supportive of the academics, with whom the University has taken a harsh stance, docking a higher-than-expected amount of pay and freezing pension contributions.

UCU have stressed that strike action was a last resort. “None of us want[ed] to go on strike – we’ll all be losing a significant amount of pay as a result, and this will cause real hardship for many of us” said Lancaster’s UCU Press Liaison James Groves.

Groves said: “The responsibility for this mess lies with the employers. We accept students will be inconvenienced but hope they’ll understand why we’ve been forced to take action”. He added that the UCU blame the EPF for refusing to meet them for talks through the conciliation service ACAS; “unfortunately for students, the Chair of the EPF has declined UCU’s offer [to meet].”

However, the EPF dispute this. An article on their website, with a statement from their Chair Brian Cantor, reads: “UCU claims that it is striking because the employers refuse to negotiate on pension changes. In fact there have been three years of negotiations between the university employers and the UCU”. The article also accuses the UCU itself of “refus[ing] to engage with employers in the proper forum for negotiating scheme change, the JNC [Joint Negotiating Committee].”

In the past the University has contributed the money it has not paid striking staff into the Student Hardship Fund. It has not yet been confirmed that this was the case with last week’s strike.

The dispute at Lancaster took an additional turn ahead of the strikes when the University announced that staff involved would lose a higher-than-expected amount of pay, equivalent to 1/260th of annual salary. 1/365th is the standard amount lost in such circumstances. On top of this, the University suspended their contributions to the USS for the days in question, which meant that staff members were not then covered for death in service. Had a staff member been killed on those days, their loved ones would not have been compensated.

UCU spokesperson Groves said that “the University is within its rights to suspend pension contributions, but we’re saddened that they have taken such a hard and uncaring line”. Staff were still able to maintain their cover, but this was at their own expense as they had to pay both their own and the employers’ USS contributions.

The UCU argues that changes to be made to the USS would be extremely costly to academics, especially new members. They are particularly opposed to the EPF’s proposal to introduce a two-tier pension scheme, which would see existing USS members retain their final salary pension and new entrants to the scheme receive a pension calculated on ‘career average revalued earnings’ (CARE).

Photo by Elliot Westacott

Although benefits for existing members would be protected, their contributions to the scheme would increase under the proposals from 6.35% to 7.5% of annual salary. Employers’ contributions, by contrast, would be frozen at their current level of 16%.

UCU’s research into the prospects of new USS members suggests that a lecturer retiring now, having worked for 35 years, would on the CARE scheme receive only 70% of the pension a final salary scheme would have provided. “If the lecturer then lived in retirement for 18 years, they would lose at least £127,000 over that time,” the UCU website states.

The EPF article defends their proposals. It reads that “the retention of a final salary pension for all existing USS members is an exceptionally good benefit and the CARE scheme for future employees is in line with what looks to [becoming] the norm in all sectors”.

A statement from Lancaster University states that the University “regrets” the action of UCU members relating both to job security and USS. “While job security issues are a serious concern for many people at the moment, Lancaster University is in a strong position to face the financial changes”. The statement, in line with EPF statements, also argues that changes to USS are necessary to ensure its long-term financial sustainability, despite the UCU arguing that the scheme is in “robust health”.

Despite the inconvenience of cancelled classes, students have been on the whole supportive of the strikes. Ahead of the strikes, LUSU President Robbie Pickles told SCAN that Pro-Vice Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) Amanda Chetwynd had assured him that missed lectures would be rescheduled, and that “as such, LUSU is now in full support of the strike” and wished “the best of luck to all the staff involved”.

Staff were also joined on the picket line by students, particularly members of Lancaster University Against Cuts (LUAC), who had run a solidarity campaign throughout Week Ten. “Students and staff must continue to stand together [against University management]. Attacks on staff are attacks on students and their education and wellbeing” argued LUAC member Chris Witter.

This sentiment was echoed by members of Lancaster Labour Club showing their support on the picket line. “Students have shown their support even if it has meant disturbances to their education” said Jonathan Dixon and Paul Aitchison.

Second year Management School student James Birtles told SCAN that he hadn’t been affected by the strikes but was able to sympathise with the academics’ cause. He did add however, that “I personally can’t see how the fairly minimal protests they have held will have any real effect”.

UCU members speaking on the second day of action were happy with the way the strikes have gone. “I think it’s gone very well. The students know that there’s a strike on, so that’s job done on the first thing, every department’s had some disruption, so that’s job done on the second thing, and I think the employer has been inconvenienced somewhat” said Groves.

 

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