Aberystwyth Universty pension cuts: unions must fight back

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Aberystwyth University management has again taken the offensive against the workers, this time over the issue of pensions, as the management proposes to close the current pension scheme, and replace it with a second rate scheme. The management is seeking to replace the current defined benefit scheme and replace it with a defined contribution scheme for staff on grade 5 and below. This amounts to nothing less than a huge attack upon workers’ living standards. The proposal will see a 45% cut in employer contribution to the pension scheme. UNISON branch chair Dic Griffiths warned that members could see “their pensions cut by as much as 65%” once they retire. This has led the three campus Unions, UNITE, UNISON and UCU to ballot their members for proposed strike action on the 13th June.

This ‘proposal’ on behalf of the management comes directly after the end of the recent Higher Education pay dispute, which saw members accept a miserly 2% pay increase, which in reality, by 2015 shall amount to a 15% pay decrease, once inflation has been taken into account. The combined effect of this and the pension attacks are massive. The attack itself represents the biggest assault on pensions of any University within Wales, and will create a system whereby those above grade 5 (higher paid staff) will have decent pensions, while those below grade 5, who make up at least half of all staff, will have to survive during retirement on poverty pensions. By the measure of the University’s own pension calculator, it is estimated that an electrician aged 50 could face a 63% cut in pension when retiring in 15 years time, while a cleaner aged 44 faces a cut of 60% in pension when retiring in 21 years time.

It is said that weakness invites aggression. That these proposals first came to light in March, at a time when strike action was being de-escalated from one-day strike action too two-hour walkouts is not an accident. The result was increasingly demoralised members. Numbers of staff at picket lines on both Penglais and Llanbadarn campus visibly dropped over time. The absolute lack of strategy and tactics by the UCU leadership was clearly illustrated. Aberystwyth University management has a reputation for being particularly rabid, earning itself the reputation of ‘being run like a dictatorship’, according to UCU members. Therefore, the management astutely saw an opportunity in the strike weakness to further sink their teeth in, and launch this current assault on workers’ pensions.

All this is in light of the recent pay increase for senior management, with vice-chancellor April McMahon now earning an eye-watering £252,000 per year. There is simmering discontent on campus, as a consequence of the general malaise affecting the university. Student applications to the University have dropped by 21.5% since 2011. Petitions have been made calling for the resignation of April McMahon, mustering the support of over 500 people, before management had them taken down. The sentiment illustrated by such petitions is clearly reflective of such discontent. However, it must be recognised that the resignation of April McMahon as individual will not solve the problems facing both workers and students, as the problem is with the capitalist system itself. Anyone who replaced April McMahon would carry out the same attacks and cuts as the current management. This is because of the ongoing crisis of capitalism, which sees its expression in austerity. Capitalism can no longer afford the reforms of the past. The pensions granting retired workers a semi-civilised existence can no longer be granted by the bourgeoisie, and are therefore being slashed, reflected in this latest assault by Aberystwyth management.

Campus Unions must co-ordinate support with the Students’ Union, and conduct co-ordinated action against the University management, fully rejecting their proposals. However, this also means that the need for a clear socialist programme must be recognised, because as long as capitalism exists, it will mean continued attacks upon living standards and the gains of the past. The solution is to fight for socialism, a system whereby austerity will be resigned to a barbaric past, and everybody enjoy civilised conditions of existence.

by James Baird, Aberystwyth Marxists