There has been an important breakthrough in the UCU pensions dispute. Thanks in part to recent concessions won by student activists and workers at King’s College London, the USS pension scheme will be left untouched for a year. In that period, there will be a new, independent valuation of USS, with involvement by the UCU. This is a big turnaround from the bosses’ position at the start of the strike. 

Following a tense meeting with workers and student occupiers on Monday, King’s management were pushed back on a number of key fronts relating to the on-going UCU strike, and the dispute around outsourced cleaning staff. These concessions at King’s have had an immediate knock-on effect nationally, with the UUK agreeing to re-evaluate the cost and risk of the USS pension scheme with union oversight.

The fight is far from over, but this partial retreat by the bosses proves that joint action between students and staff is the only effective way to achieve real change on our campuses. Now is not the time to pull back, but to push harder. Crucially: there can be no question of calling off planned strike action over the exam period.

Militant action gets results at KCL

As reported earlier in the week, King’s management acquiesced to an open meeting with students and workers following 14 days of strike action and a nine-day student occupation outside of the principal, Ed Byrne’s (palatial) office in the James Clerk Maxwell Building in Waterloo. Subsequently, a series of statements from management were circulated around King’s, in which the bosses made the following concessions over the UCU strike:

  • An admission that “the strikes themselves have not been the cause of the present crisis [in HE], but have revealed its depth for both staff and students. They have also been a catalyst for the recognition of a number of other legitimate concerns that we need to acknowledge are damaging our institutions” [my emphasis.]
  • A call for a new pension valuation, via an independent panel for which “UCU and UUK should jointly agree the composition and terms of reference”. No members of the formal review panel should be active members of the USS scheme or have any affiliation to bodies involved in its governance.
  • A suggestion that this review be conducted transparently, with the full involvement of the union. Its outcome should be be communicated to and reviewed by all members of the pension scheme.
  • An assurance from the principal to personally “support alternative approaches to considering higher levels of risk in the valuation process in future, that aim to maintain the status quo” (i.e. no pension cuts).
  • A promise that pay will not be docked for workers taking action short of a strike.
  • Assurance that lecturers and tutors will be paid for any rescheduled sessions with students.
  • A commitment that King’s will “soften the impact of pay deductions for strikers by spreading the loss over pay months.”

And regarding the cleaners…

  • King’s will “review the benefits” of bringing cleaning staff in-house, they will also “assess and consider [their] terms and conditions”.
  • A commitment from the principal to consult with unionists, workers and student representatives to review cleaners’ contracts, “with parity of core terms and conditions [with in-house staff] as a central requirement.”
  • And finally, the bosses will “commit to attending a regular meeting with Servest, UNISON and KCLSU to listen to and review concerns and issues, including health and safety.”

A lot of these commitments remain vague ‘promises’ at the moment, on which King’s could easily renege. Therefore, it will be essential to keep up the pressure in coming months. However, given that just days ago King’s was blaming lecturers for ‘disrupting’ students’ degrees, threatening severe pay cuts, endorsing the rotten ACAS-negotiated deal UCU members already threw out, and refusing to even discuss bringing cleaners in-house, these are noteworthy concessions for which the strikers and students should be congratulated. It clearly shows the bosses are rattled.

This was proved after Byrne attempted to sour the broth with a follow-up email to King’s staff, in which he “regrettably” refused to endorse the UCU’s ‘no cuts’ position, and slyly contradicted the first message by saying “the pension dispute is at the heart of much of the discontent we have seen over the past four weeks” (so it is the lecturers’ fault, after all!) After an immediate pushback from unionists and student activists, he sheepishly affirmed his support for the status quo “if workable”. We obviously have him on the run!

UUK on the run

The near-U-turn at the prestigious London university had an immediate effect on the stance of the UUK, who agreed on all the recommendations from King’s, committed to establishing an “expert panel” approved by both sides, and promised that the current pension scheme will be retained untouched for a year: at least until April 2019, while negotiations are ongoing (although this would have been the case in any event). The UCU has assured the membership that the objective of any further talks will be to achieve terms “broadly similar” to the current set-up: so hopefully, there will be no more sell-out deals.

We have gone from a situation in which the UUK was determined to impose a massive pension cut – no questions asked – to an agreement to reassess the USS pension scheme in partnership with the union. Importantly, full transparency has been agreed: UCU branches will be consulted on the current proposal on 28 March, and then all members will be balloted about any recommendations from the ‘expert panel.’

No ifs or buts: no cuts!

This is a significant accomplishment, but we must remain vigilant. We have not come this far through peaceable dialogue with the UUK, but through subjecting the bosses to joint pressure from striking staff and their student supporters. We can depend on nothing but our own strength, and should anticipate betrayal by the union bureaucracy. We should note and be wary of the speed with with the UUK accepted this truce, which will basically allow them to kick the can down the road for year.

Moreover, the new, ‘independent’ valuation, will doubtlessly still attack lecturers’ pensions. The UUK proposal guarantees “pension comparable with current provision whilst meeting the affordability challenges for all parties, within the current regulatory framework.” The meaning of this small-print could be (at best) defined benefit, with far higher contributions. It could mean a form of defined contributions. In fact, it could mean nearly anything!

Furthermore, based on the appalling deal the UCU’s bureaucrats cobbled together just weeks ago, UCU members can have no confidence in their leadership to fight for their interests. The recommendations of the ‘expert panel’ will be passed to the UCU’s Higher Education Committee: the same people who tried to sell us down the river with an insulting ‘compromise’ – consisting of a pension cut, rescheduling classes for free and defined contributions after three years.

Students and workers: don’t back down!

The unspoken implication of this new olive branch is that the UCU call-off planned action for next term. We should reject this flat out: it is imperative the strike continue to keep the pressure on both the UUK and UCU negotiators. We have not come this far to be betrayed at the last minute.

It is in the interests of all university workers and students that the struggle continue. Consider the King’s cleaners: even if they are brought in house at King’s, they will still earn very low wages; and face exploitation and abuse. And the epidemic of outsourcing will continue for millions of workers. The UCU is preparing for 14 further days of strike action after Easter. An upcoming strike across the University of London by outsourced workers will be the biggest of its kind in history. There is plenty of basis for joint action between support staff and academics next term. The NUS should also coordinate its members to hit university bosses with an unprecedented wave of student-and-staff action. A pair of motions sent by the Marxist Student Federation to the NUS will, if passed, commit the national students union to fighting outsourcing and continuing to support the UCU. If we demobilise now, we squander all this potential to fight for much more radical change.

Recently, the slogan ‘fight for the status quo’ has caught on among some UCU members – meaning retaining USS in its current form. But the fact is, the status quo is not good enough. Ultimately, the UUK’s attack on lecturers’ pensions, outsourcing of support staff, massive student fees and cuts to bursaries all reflect the same process: the marketisation of education – itself demanded by the organic crisis of the capitalist system, which in its state of senile decay is cannibalizing the public sector. That is the ‘status quo,’ and winning this or that dispute will not fundamentally change it.

Students and workers have shown that their collective strength is enough to make the bosses tremble. Let’s keep up the momentum, and take the fight to the Tory government – and the rotten economic system it represents, under which education will never be safe.

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