Members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) have voted in record numbers for strike action over attacks to the lecturers’ main pension scheme. In the ballot results announced earlier this week, 88 percent of eligible members voted YES to a strike, with 93 percent supporting action short of a strike.

The 58 percent turnout (a new high for the academics’ union) smashed the threshold established by the Tories’ draconian 2016 Trade Union Act. Just seven union branches out of 68 failed to achieve the required 50 percent turnout and these will be re-balloted.

The dispute began over an attempt by the university bosses’ organisation, Universities UK (UKK), to plug a £5 billion funding hole for university pensions by demanding an extra £500 million a year from workers. UKK proposed altering the sector’s major pension fund, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), from a guaranteed source of income for retirees to a far riskier plan, where pension income is subject to shifts in the stock market.

In effect, lecturers were being asked to trade in their pension for a stack of poker chips, with the average academic set to lose up to half of their pension.

This proposed cut comes on the back of a series of recent attacks on university academic staff: a 15 percent pay cut over the past eight years; a 60 percent casualisation of the workforce; working under grossly overpaid vice chancellors; and witnessing the hiring (and firing) of arch-reactionary Toby Young to the Office for Students. This latest move was a step too far.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said that, “UCU members have made it quite clear that they are prepared to take sustained strike action to defend their pensions.”

Management hypocrisy

The UUK bosses have complained that industrial action will “cause disruption to students”, and stressed that urgent action is required to plug the deficit in the USS.

“To retain the status quo would only serve interests in the short term,” a UUK statement asserted. “Without reform now, universities will likely be forced to divert funding allocated from research and teaching to fill a pensions funding gap. The option of no reform is a dangerous gamble. It is a risk that employers cannot take.”

So UUK expects lecturers to now gamble their pensions on the turbulent stock exchange in a period of economic crisis. Why?

The hypocrisy of the bosses – who have long grown fat on extortionate student fees – is truly astounding. Glynis Breakwell stepped down from her position as vice chancellor for Bath University last year after her £468,000-a-year salary provoked a public scandal. And she is not even the highest paid Vice-Chancellor! Moreover, she will continue to receive full pay.

These ladies and gentlemen talk about filling the pensions gap with research funding, having spent years cutting the wages of frontline staff, putting new academics on precarious contracts, and stuffing their own pockets!

Workers and students: unite and fight!

The UCU is currently in negotiations with UUK. Should talks fail, it proposes 14 days of escalating action, starting on or around 22nd February. The proposal is to start with two days a week of action, rising incrementally to five days a week over an initial four-week period. During this time, all members not being called out will be asked to work to contract and to refuse to cover teaching hours lost to strike action.

This is a very welcome development, as it targets the middle of term: always a busy time of year. In order for this strike to be successful, the union must head-off attempts by the bosses to stoke resentment from the student body. Workers will have to explain to students that the survival of the entire education sector depends on a concerted fightback against the university bosses and their Tory cronies.

Attacks on workers’ rights must be linked to the increasing marketisation of the university sector and rampant casualisation that places more pressure on academics, diminishing the quality of teaching they provide. This in turn must be linked to the scandal of the increases in student fees, which are being squandered on bosses’ salaries rather than being reinvested back into frontline teaching.

Furthermore, full-time members of the UCU should link up with non-academic staff who are also being squeezed – such as the cleaners, porters and security staff currently in dispute at the University of London and King’s College London.

Academics, students and non-academic staff should strike the bosses as one in the current academic term and send a clear message that enough is enough.

Beyond that, the major unions on campuses should build nationally for a general, public sector strike against austerity attacks on pay, pensions, and services. Together with nurses, doctors, teachers, firefighters and others, we can deal a devastating blow to this faltering Tory government.

by Joe Attard, KCL Marxists

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