The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott – Part IV: The Betrayal

The farce of UCU’s “resistance” to universities’ attack on employees’ pensions is now reaching its inevitable climax (see Part I, Part II and Part III for background). Readers may recall that the crisis has been provoked by the employers’ association, UUK, seeking to impose dramatic cuts on the basis of a supposed massive deficit in the USS pension scheme – a position exposed as spurious by many academic statisticians and UCU’s actuaries. In previous posts, I have been savagely critical of UCU’s response. In summary, I argued:

the UCU leadership is using the membership as a stage army while seeking to mediate between an increasingly angry membership and the employers. It initiated the marking boycott without first consulting its members on what an acceptable negotiating outcome would be, rushed out its proposals in secret and put them to the employers without first seeking members’ approval, and now seeks to lock down the parameters of the debate by ending the industrial action, closeting its negotiators with UUK’s in the JNC, and presenting a fait accompli in January in the same manner as the pay settlement, with demoralised and confused members left with little alternative but to endorse the outcome.

Predictably, this outcome is now unfolding. Following UCU-UUK talks, the UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) has decided to put a “revised offer” from the employers to the membership via an e-ballot. This offer involves virtually no improvement on UUK’s initial position.

Recall that this initial position was to close the final salary (FS) scheme and transfer all USS members (75% of whom are in the FS scheme) onto a revised, but still vastly inferior, Career Reevaluated Benefits (CRB) scheme. Unlike in FS, CRB pensions are based on an average of one’s pay over one’s career, rather than the salary at the point of retirement. However, for anyone on over £40k, beyond this threshold, all contributions would go into a Defined Contribution (DC) scheme; in DC, funds are invested in the stock market. Unlike “defined benefit” schemes, where employees can predict the value of their pension, DC schemes are unpredictable; for many private-sector workers these have been disastrous. Moreover, employers will reduce their contributions to the DC scheme from 18% to 12%.

The “revised” offer makes only very minor tweaks to this disgraceful attack. First, employee contributions would rise from 7.5% to 8% of salary. Second, the threshold for the DC scheme is increased to £55k. Third, the accrual rate is increased slightly from 1/80th to 1/75th, which is still below the rate on the Teachers Pension Scheme in which staff at post-1992 HEIs are enrolled.

According to UCU, staff on the current CRB scheme would see the value of their pensions rise 6%, but pay 1.5% more of their salary for this. FS members in mid-career would lose over 10% of their pension but pay 0.5% more. Although the proportion of staff forced into the DC part of the scheme would fall from 61% to 25%, this still means a quarter of members are exposed to the vicissitudes of the investment market, which could result in further cuts to their pensions. Moreover, any “improvements” result entirely from employees paying more.

It ought to be obvious that, if the employer’s opening gambit was outrageous and unacceptable, this is virtually no different. UCU’s counterproposals, feeble though they were, vastly exceed what UUK are now offering. Clearly, then, the negotiations have failed miserably.

Yet what is the UCU leadership doing? It is presenting this revised offer to the membership to vote upon in a snap e-ballot over 10 days, devoid of any campaigning and in the absence of any alternative strategy for defending USS. This is a straightforward repeat of their approach to the pay dispute: “negotiate”; emerge with an appalling offer from the employers that does not resolve any of the justifiable reasons why members voted for strike action in the first place; put it to the members, offering no alternative in the event that it is rejected (but hinting darkly that the employers may simply impose their original plans); and thereby, by providing no real choice, create a fait accompli, allowing the leadership to present a crushing defeat as a victory.

Let’s call this what it is: a treacherous betrayal of the members of UCU by an incompetent and mendacious executive, bureaucracy and secretary-general – notwithstanding the men and women of goodwill who have opposed this approach every step of the way. These people have simply given up serving the membership’s interests. They have absolutely no idea of how to conduct a political campaign or how to run a trade union.

The only sensible response to this situation is to reject the offer overwhelmingly in order to compel those behind this betrayal to go back to the drawing board. As I argued before, an HE Sector Conference is urgently required to develop a proper strategy and discipline the leadership. In the longer term, much of the HEC, the secretary-general, and the union bureaucrats in charge of national negotiations must all be replaced.

If the offer is accepted, it is not only USS that takes a gargantuan blow; UCU’s utility as a collective mechanism for the defence of HE workers’ most basic interests will essentially be exhausted. Members have already suffered huge demoralisation in the pay dispute, which is set to be repeated. Activist members are hit hardest by this, robbing the union of the people who really sustain it. Ordinary rank and file lose what little faith they have in collective action. The employers see how weak UCU has been over pensions in 2011, over pay in 2012/13, over their bullying of striking members in 2014, and now over pensions again. They will increasingly see little need to bargain with UCU; their paltry “concessions” over USS display a deep – but entirely appropriate – contempt for the union, in the knowledge that the current leadership has nothing in their arsenal to respond. We can reasonably anticipate that employers will launch further attacks on USS when it takes their fancy (notably, their revised offer pledges to maintain their contributions level for only five years), and intensify their efforts to lure UCU branches into local pay settlements, terminating national-level bargaining. The future may well look similar to Australia’s thoroughly neoliberalised HE sector, where enfeebled unions can only engage in enterprise-level bargaining. UCU stands at a crossroads. Where will it go?

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3 thoughts on “The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott – Part IV: The Betrayal

  1. If the result of the USS ballot is overwhelming in favour of accepting the proposals, will you concede that the leadership aren’t as out of touch as you make out?

    One thing should be made crystal clear: in the ballot to accept the derisory pay offer last year, I think the split was something like 80/20 in favour of accepting (amongst those who voted). If the UCU leadership are aware of this, and of course they are, can they really be expected to correspond to the ideal put forward in this piece?

    Leaders or leaderships cannot be expected to be all things to all women and men, but within UCU it seems they are fair game to blame for all our woes. There’s a sort of chicken and egg thing going on here, and instead of a more nuanced account of union dynamics, everything and I mean everything is being blamed on the chicken!

    “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

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    • There is obviously a dialectical relationship between leaders and the led, but I have taken this into account throughout my coverage of the industrial action. I noted the membership’s general timidity and passivity in my first post. But I have also shown that the membership is more radical than its leadership, through both the initial strike vote itself and the survey in the THE mentioned in my second or third post. That 80/20 vote proves absolutely nothing because, as I have repeatedly highlighted, if a leadership botches industrial action, leaves members exposed, then presents a very weak outcome as a fait accompli, with no alternative offered, it is not surprising that a demoralised and directionless membership will reluctantly vote to accept the outcome. This does not mean in the slightest that the timid membership has compelled the leadership into a weak settlement. It means that the timid leadership has led the membership into a corner, and effectively forced it to accept the outcome as the best that can be achieved. This is quite obviously what is happening here, yet again.

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