The Real Democratic Deficit in UCU

Adam Ozanne

This post – from NEC member and recent Congress delegate Adam Ozanne, gives a point of view, on how in Adam’s words “UCU in three days moved from being the most successful trade union in the UK – one that other UK trade unions look upon as leading the way in fighting back against the deliberate constraints placed on them by the Tory government’s 2017 anti-Trade Union Bill – to one whose Congress degenerated into chaos after its paid regional and national officials, who are members of Unite, walked out three times and declared a trade dispute with UCU as their employer, causing Congress to be suspended twice and then brought to a premature end with only a fraction of its business completed”.

UCU Agenda would welcome comments on this – e-mail to unionadmin@ucuagenda.com

Congress should have been a positive and reinforcing event celebrating the successes of the past year, the union’s reinvigoration and renewed strength. So how was it that UCU trade unionists have found themselves in dispute with fellow trade unionists in their employ? Why did Congress 2018 degenerate into chaos? How can victory have been turned so nearly into defeat? And what role did UCULeft, a faction dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Worker Party (SWP), and supporters of the Independent Broad Left (IBL) grouping play?

The post is set out in seven sections plus an appendix:

  1. The three contentious motions
  2. What happened at Congress – How Victory can be Turned into Defeat
  3. Analysis of the dispute
  4. A reminder of how the USS strikes came to an end
  5. The UCULeft faction and IBL network
  6. The real “democratic deficit” in UCU
  7. What is to be done?

Appendix: Branch tally for USS meeting on March 28th

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Coventry – help them on to victory

 

Coventry UCU have been at the cutting edge of defeating the union busting tactics of local university management.

This week, saw a second, significant demonstration demanding that the Coventry University scrap their ‘sweetheart union’ imposed on the university’s subsidiary organisation ‘CU Group’ – a company wholly owned by the university, but where staff are paid less, have no proper pension scheme, and inadequate time to prepare courses – not to mention to to give pastoral support to students.

This weeks demo, featured UCU President Joanna de Groot, with Douglas Chalmers, UCU VP speaking for the second time at Coventry and also backed up this time by VP elect Nita Sanghera. An outstanding speech was once again given by branch chair Stephen Cowden, who had previously given a video interview to UCUAgenda on the fight for recognition

Speakers from Coventry TUC who have also been outstanding in their support spoke again, demanding that the Board of Governors, who were meeting that day – tell management they need to sit down and talk to the UCU, on the basis of granting the full recognition that the staff have repeated shown they have demanded.

The branch have consistently worked closely with the local community, the media, the wider labour movement and UCU regional and UK officials to build up the type of unstoppable campaign that will undoubtedly ensure victory in this campaign. They’ve also been heartened by the widespread support from UCU branches throughout the UK.

It’s a template that other branches can learn from.

The USS Joint Expert Panel and more:

Report on UCU Higher Education Committee on 27 April 2018

Adam Ozanne, an elected member of UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC), its Superannuation Working Group and the USS Advisory Committee, has written the following account of the discussions regarding  the setting up by UCU and UUK of a Joint Expert Panel that took place in HEC on 27 April together with some observations about UCULeft.

Paul Bridge, UCU’s Head of HE, presented a report summarising the following:

  • the result of the consultative e-ballot: 64% of pre-1992 members voted on a 64% turnout (the highest in the union’s history) to accept the UUK offer of March 23rdand set up a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) that will assess the validity of the 2017 valuation and investigate alternatives to the current DB/DC scheme;
  • subsequent discussions within UCU’s Superannuation Working Group (SWG) and with UUK; and,
  • the response of Bill Galvin, the USS CEO, to the agreement by UUK and UCU to set up the JEP.

The report noted that there was a meeting of the JNC at 3.00pm and made a number of recommendations that were accepted by HEC and can be summarised as follows:

  1. HEC approved the setting up of the JEP with three members nominated by UUK and three by UCU, as well as its Terms of Reference, operational timelines and reporting mechanisms.
  2. HEC delegated to the SWG the endorsement of an ACAS recommended Chair of JEP.
  3. HEC agreed that anyone interested in being one of UCU’s three JEP members may nominate themselves by submitting their CV and a 500 word statement, and that the SWG (minus the three USS Trustee Directors) would act as the selection and appointment panel and, in consultation with the HEC officers, take all other actions necessary to set up the JEP. SWG will seek recognised subject leaders with expertise in and knowledge of pensions, finance, the HE sector and the legal and regulatory context.
  4. HEC directed the USS negotiators, in the JNC meeting that afternoon, to vote to revoke the DC-only resolution reached at its meeting on January 23rd, and against any move by USS to trigger a consultation of USS members on Rule 76.4 before the JEP has time to complete its work on the 2017 valuation (Rule 76.4 says that if JNC does not agree reach agreement on how to deal with the results of a triennial valuation USS may seek to raise employer/member contributions on a 65:35 basis).
  5. The Chair of HEC and Head of HE will liaise with the Congress Business Committee with a view to providing time at HE Sector Conference for a report of the first meeting of the JEP and related matters.

All the above had been discussed and unanimously agreed by the Superannuation Working Group, which includes the four elected USS negotiators, the two alternate negotiators from the USS Advisory Committee (including myself) and the three UCU nominated Directors on the USS Trustee Board.

Several motions relating to the setting up of the JEP had been tabled by HEC members. One, that committed the JEP to robustly challenging the current USS valuation and methodology and HEC to pursuing changes in pensions’ regulations, was passed; and an amendment to the Head of HE’s report to include recognition of the equality and diversity implications of any changes in USS was accepted.

The proposers of the other motions were all allowed to speak to them, with no contrary speeches against,  but, after the main USS report was passed, fell either (as “consequentials”) because they were incompatible with the above recommendations or because they involved constitutional changes to UCU’s decision making processes that can only be made by Congress.

This, it has to be said, caused a good deal of acrimony with many formal challenges to the Chair by the proposers of the motions which had the unfortunate effect of reducing the time available for discussion of the main report and its recommendations – especially as the SWG members of HEC had to leave the five hour meeting after three hours to prepare for and attend the JNC meeting. With the benefit of hindsight, it might have been better if all the motions had been withdrawn and if debate had concentrated on the main report together with, perhaps, additional amendments to its recommendations being proposed and considered; however, nobody suggested this and much time was wasted in unproductive argument and formal challenges to the chair..

Nevertheless, my personal view is that, despite claims made subsequently on the Activists list by some of those who disagreed with the above recommendations, the motions had to fall once the main report was accepted. This is because – despite claims that they “complemented” the main report – they all contained elements that were incompatible with the main report and/or UCU’s established democratic decision making processes.

For example, three of the motions sought to replace the elected HEC as the relevant decision-making body of the HE part of UCU with an ad hoc national strike committee or a branch delegate meeting with voting powers. Others would have delayed the setting up of the JEP until after HESC at the end of May, which would be too late given the time pressures we are under, or only allowed UCU members to be JEP members, which would unnecessarily exclude leading experts who do not work in HE. All these points were either incompatible with the recommendations in the main report, which had already been voted upon and accepted, or would have undermined UCU’s established decision making bodies. Logically and procedurally, it was not sensible to consider them any further.

In my opinion, therefore, the outcome of Friday’s HEC and the manner in which decisions were reached were appropriate. This is not, however, what you might think from reading some of the reports on Twitter etc. which seem to suggest that those who take a different view must be acting undemocratically or, even worse, are a “powerful right wing faction” in UCU that “believes in the deficit”. (Full disclosure: I first joined the Labour Party in 1976, and have never been a member of any other political party, though I have on occasion voted Green, Communist Party (for a friend was standing in a local election) and LibDem (after the Iraq invasion)).

I am afraid it is also the case that the conduct of some in the HEC meeting – disrespecting the Chair’s efforts to limit speeches in order to allow others time, shouting or speaking unnecessarily loudly into the microphone, showing obvious irritation with having to use a microphone and calling a point of order even after it had been called to an end, made the meeting unnecessarily drawn out and acrimonious and limited the time available for proper debate.

The chair had already had to draw attention at the start of the meeting to incorrect reports of the previous HEC on the activists list, which erroneously claimed he had not allowed discussion (13 colleagues had in fact taken part in discussion), and that he had ruled motions out of order (simply did not happen).

I find all of this deeply disappointing, and will go further by stating the following. UCULeft’s claims to being for a democratic and member-led union are inconsistent with its efforts on 27 April to undermine HEC as the legitimate decision-making body in the USS dispute, its opposition at the end of March to the e-ballot of all post-1992 members on the UUK offer, not to mention its opposition to local and national e-ballots and GTVO (Get The Vote Out) were when they were first introduced.

Just as there are good, democratic reasons for rules stating quotas and minimum numbers of days for giving notice of AGM and EGMs, so there are good reasons for using modern technology to enable timely member participation in decision making and for limiting the ability of meetings to change decision making processes and structures on the hoof (as in replacing HEC with ad hocstrike committees and “branch meetings with voting rights”).

Such rules prevent small unrepresentative but well organised factions from taking control of political organisations and leading them in directions the majority of members (who may be unaware of what is happening or too busy to attend in numbers at short notice) would not agree with. Similarly, insistence on the use of microphones when speaking is not a bureaucratic obsession but an equality principle that enables the hard of hearing to participate fully while rules prohibiting angry outbursts, repeated interruptions and shouting limit intimidatory behaviour and promotes free debate. Such rules and conventions are profoundly important for the well-being of the union.

What every member of HEC, regardless of whether they are a paid up member of UCULeft or not, recognises is the huge success of the USS industrial action. From GTVO trouncing the statutory ballot 50% turnout requirement to vast numbers of new members and the mobilisation of tens of thousands on strike, on picket lines and in vibrant meetings, UCU is leading the UK trade union movement in opposing the Tory government’s anti-trade union legislation. We are showing the way in reinvigorating trade unionism in opposition to the marketisation of the public sector and the erosion of traditional values of collegiality and public service that are the bedrock of the success of UK universities.

The setting up of the JEP is the next step in the defence of decent pensions in universities – and, indeed, elsewhere, because a successful JEP could well influence what happens to other pensions schemes, so we must get it right. The plan is for it to report in two stages: first, on the 2017 valuation in the Autumn, in time to forestall the USS making changes in 2019 based upon a disputed deficit; the second on alternative risk sharing mechanisms to the current hybrid DB/DC scheme. Friday’s HEC and the JNC the same afternoon set that process in motion and I for one am more than a little content with it and relieved that arrangements for setting up the JEP can commence immediately.

After the ballot – where are we now with our USS dispute?

What a fantastic and enthusiastic campaign this has been for our union. We have shown by our sheer determination, organisation and hard work, our ability to force the employers back to the drawing board, and to withdraw their decision to scrap Defined Benefit and impose Defined Contribution on us. Where do we go to from here? Below you will find some thoughts that we hope will be helpful. 

We got to where we are by combining the enthusiasm, commitment, and creativity of thousands of activists with the hard work of UCU staff,  the policy framework established by our lead elected committees, the persistent efforts of branch committees, and the seen and unseen work of negotiators.

While there has been plenty of friction between the different players ( not surprising in a complex dispute ) it is a fact that all have contributed to getting us to a point so different from where we were when the employers looked like getting away with imposing a DC version of the USS scheme.

Students were key supporters of our struggle

It’s important to remember that the proposal which a massive majority of members have accepted was shaped by the priorities made very clear by the branch representatives who rejected an earlier set of proposals emerging from ACAS.

Rather than seeking to add to or alter those earlier proposals  they wanted to focus negotiations on the key objectives of a full review of USS procedures and the defence of a guaranteed pension. Those priorities were taken into negotiations and are embedded in the outcome.

Of course the independent review is just the start of the next stage of our struggle for a better USS.

Support was widespread and enthusiastic

In accepting it members have shown not confidence in their employers (which is not great) but in our own ability to keep up the pressure for members’ interests, including future use of the industrial strength which we (and of course the employers ) now know we have.

Full involvement in the review will need to matched by unremitting vigilance by our branches, our elected committees and our industrial negotiators.

It seems odd and unhelpful that so much of the visible debate about the proposal and the ballot focussed on who said or did what inside UCU, rather than on our dispute with our employers or the interests of members.  In any dispute the participants will have such concerns but do let’s remember that we launched this dispute for a big industrial reason –  to challenge the employers’ outrageous and damaging attack on our pensions scheme which both threatened the size and security of our pensions and also pulled the rug out from under the co-stakeholder structure of USS.

SO – members took action because their wellbeing was threatened but also because this threat was just the latest step in the employers’ wrecking of the collegial and professional respect and co-working which should shape our workplaces, and they did this in the name of managerial authoritarianism and credit ratings. Many activists have said that the attack on their pensions was the last straw on top of a burden of managerialism, disempowerment, precarious wok, and excessive hours. Now they are energised to start organising challenges to this burden in  their institutions. Real issues to take up, not internal wrangles and sectarianism.

We balloted over 53 thousand members, over 33 thousand of whom voted on the proposal The dispute and the ballot involved members: it was about members. and the outcome allows members to continue to pursue the issues which they have said mattered to them.

Together we have achieved something for ALL members in USS whether or not they agreed with every particular view, whether or not they were at rallies as well as striking. There is a crucial link between these two because activists have used  both their power and their responsibility to use their commitment time and energy on behalf of our growing wider membership.

Lots to celebrate, lots to digest, lots to get on with. . .

The USS dispute – some debate on our article

The blog and our article had several thousand hits in the 24 hours following its publication, and since it was published we have received a number of critiques. This is a pleasing sign of a vibrant and democratic union.

Alex Gunz and Adam Ozanne write:

We unfortunately do not have the time to respond to many of these, but dialogue is important so we felt it important to give at least some kind of response.

Several of the critiques have been about typos, run-on sentences, moments of non-clarity and the like. We are aware of these, and apologize for them, but this is something we put together in non-existent spare time to a tight deadline, so one will have to live with them.

Other critiques were more substantive. For the sake of response we’ve chosen the most detailed one we are aware of to engage with. Take a bow Sam Dolan of Sheffield (who has graciously agreed to let us reply back here, and who we have invited to post a response of his own in the next few days).

Most of the points below are from a twitter thread, so bear with us here:

DOLAN: Point 1. O&G say the IDC proposal “would be dead”. But AJ says only that “UUK does not intend to return to the Jan JNC proposal …”

(QUOTES text from the offer saying): “UUK does not intend to return to the January joint negotiating committee proposal to consult on moving to a DC scheme”

REPLY: Nothing in negotiations is ever certain till the ink dries, but our understanding is that DC is not currently being discussed as a live viable option. Maybe tomorrow the economy crashes, interest rates spike, the government slashes university spending, and abolishes tuition, and we are back in a DC world. Maybe if we reject the offer the UUK hawks take over, declare that we aren’t interested in negotiating and roll backwards on us (or maybe not  – anybody pretending to know exactly what would happen for sure, is appealing to facts not in evidence). But we are content that this is a reasonably accurate description of where the negotiations are at right now.

DOLAN: Point 2. O&G write “the 2017 valuation would effectively, be put on hold while an independent expert panel reviews USS’s valuation methodology and its claims that there is a deficit.” But UUK just say this:

QUOTES: “maintenance of the status quo… until at least April 2019” and “we are committed to maintaining a meaningful DB pension offer at this valuation. Longer term we would like to work jointly with UCU to consider other risk sharing alternatives”

REPLY: People seem to think nothing is allowed to happen before April 2019 but that’s not strictly true, the USS Board can make changes whenever it likes. Realistically these changes get made by the tax year for obvious reasons. Still, it was nice to have this deadline codified.

For what it’s worth, our understanding of the current deal is “No Change until April 2019 and then only change justified by a valuation methodology sanctioned by the expert panel, establishing the size of the cake, and JNC, how to divide it up.” Now it’s true that’s not written in stone, but at this point the pressures are generally more political than they are legal. If UUK suddenly announced draconian cuts in April 2019 while the independent report was still pending, they would have to know that this would spark a wave of anger, and this would lead to more strikes of the exact kind they are now making all these offers to try to defuse.

DOLAN: Point 3. O&G write “That independent panel of experts would review USS’s valuation methodology in time to conduct a new valuation before April 2019“. But there is essentially nothing about timescale in the UUK text, or in Sally Hunt’s email, AFAICS (corrections welcome).

(QUOTES pt 5 of the agreement): “the panel will make an assessment of the valuation. If in the light of that contributions or benefits need to be adjusted in either direction, both parties are committed to agree to recommend to the JNC and the trustee, measures aimed at stabilising the fund to provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements.”

REPLY: Again, it will be up to UCU to make sure the panel completes it’s work by then, and if not to make sure UUK don’t try anything too silly in the interim.

It’s also worth noting that it’s not particularly clear what rule you could negotiate now to steer around this. For instance, let’s assume that the employers guaranteed not to change the pension plan until the independent committee completed its work. That would create an incentive for UCU to drag its feet and make sure the review took forever, so that we could keep the current deal alive for as long as possible. As much as we don’t trust UUK, they probably don’t trust us all that much either, and so are unlikely to agree to something which could create that dynamic.

Now maybe you could come up with something more elaborate to side step around all of these issues, but that would take time, and would probably STILL be open to future abuse by someone clever enough. So regardless of how many months of intricate negotiations you conducted now to get a perfectly clear wording, its implementation would still likely depend on the balance of power between our ability to strike, and their build-in powers as employers.

DOLAN: Point 4. O&G write that “any scheme implemented after April 2019 should be broadly comparable to the current DB scheme and to the Teachers Pension Scheme …”. But …

QUOTES: “4. UUK agree that any scheme implemented after April 2019 should be broadly comparable to the current DB sceme and to the Teachers Pension Scheme our colleagues in post-1992 universities and schools benefit from.”

DOLAN: From 1/85th to 1/57th? It is essentially impossible that the USS scheme will be “broadly comparable to” the TPS, unless there is some radical Deus Ex Machina from Government.

Here is what UUK actually say:

QUOTES: “6. … agree to continue discussion on the following areas: … role of government…”

REPLY: The TPS’s apparently fantastic accrual rate of 1/57 is not directly comparable to our rate of 1/85 because unlike the TPS, our plan grants us an additional lump sum payment when we retire that is 3 times the value of our annual pension. Calculating whether you are better with a slower accrual + a lump sum on retirement vs. a faster accrual with no lump sum is an exercise that we leave to the actuaries (though we suspect it depends heavily on interest rates and how long you live after retirement). But let us stipulate, for the moment, that overall the TPS plan is the better one. How is it a bad thing that a committee examining our pensions would use this as a comparison point? Even if it could never quite be reached, that would put upwards pressure on the value of our pensions instead of downwards pressure. This is why the union has been insisting for years that TPS should be considered as a comparison, and UUK has argued that it should not be. The concession that it should be is a good thing for us!

DOLAN: Point 5. “UUK and UCU would also agree to explore alternative ways of sharing risk.” But risk-sharing wasn’t mentioned at all in the UUK offer text? So point 5 looks like a backward step.

REPLY: When they talk about exploring other models, such as Collective DC, what they are talking about is ways of sharing risk (recall, CDC removes risk from institutions, but shares it among many members)..

DOLAN: “…In summary, this is unsatisfactory. I really don’t know what I am voting for – or against. Clarification is needed, from UCU central, from UUK, and from the USS trustees too. Key Q: What is the timescale for the JEP, and can/will it affect the valuation before Apr 2019? (End).

REPLY: Uncertainty is a feature either way. If we reject the proposal, then we hope that the employers interpret this as an invitation to make clarifications and improvements and send it back. And they might! Or the hawks among them might seize the argument that we are not able to come to agreements with them, and that if they can tough out strikes through the examination period, then our leverage drops off a cliff over the summer, as there is no use picketing empty buildings. That is possible too. We don’t pretend to be able to handicap the odds either way.

But if we accept the deal then, yes, we face uncertainty this way too. Partly that’s because this is an offer of PROCESS, not of OUTCOME. It makes no hard promises about future payments of any kind, past April 2019. Instead it focusses on addressing our core grievance that decisions were being made in an opaque way, based on opaque analyses, using opaque criteria, chosen for opaque reasons. A big part of our initial complaint that this was a process ripe for abuse, and, further, that we didn’t trust their numbers.

What this offer does is offer a process that allows sunlight and input into deciding what the rules and criteria should be, and how they are decided. And it offers that this will be done sharing our goals of a pension that is comparable to the one that we and the teachers have now.

Now, legally speaking, UUK could still turn around and welch on this deal. They could let the expert panel run, then ignore everything it says, and announce that they were putting us on the cat food retirement plan after all. But politically that would become a very difficult thing for them to do. The union membership would be incensed at this betrayal, and we would have a very sympathetic public and political system (not to mention regulator) behind us, angry that they agreed to tear up all the legal rules to allow the expert panel to run, only for its outputs to be ignored and overridden. Put yourself in the position of a 2019 VC. Is that something you would readily sign on to?

The bigger risk for us is that we agree to a clear and transparent methodology, based on fair principles, and that this process ends up showing that the pension fund doesn’t have enough money in it, and the employers come to us in a stronger position to negotiate cuts to payments to balance the books. This is a possibility that many UCU analysts do not believe will come to pass, and let us hope that they are right. But even if they are not, at least we would be negotiating from a more honest place, with more of the cards out on the table. At least that would be a negotiation in which the truth got a fair shot, instead of us being easy marks to run over on the way to strengthening their books.

Whatever happens, it will, as ever, be down to us to continue to be engaged, to continue to defend our interests, and to use the momentum that this strike has generated to build up the union to be even stronger for the next fight. Because the only real certainty is that there will eventually be a next fight.

Why I have voted YES to accept UUK’s proposal

Amanda Williams is a member of the NEC and HEC, and also a member of the UCU’s Superannuation Working Group.

 

 

 

I’ve voted yes to accepting the UUK proposal because I think that is the route that is most likely to protect our pension. That doesn’t mean that I trust UUK. It means that I believe that the valuation panel provides the best mechanism for resolving both the current dispute and avoiding future attacks on our pension. If UUK lets us down I trust my friends and colleagues in UCU to be ready to take effective industrial action in future.

The main case against voting yes to the UUK proposal seems to be a lack of trust in UUK and the lack of certainty as to what might happen if the proposal is accepted. It has been claimed that to accept the proposal would be naïve.

I am not proposing that we naïvely accept the UUK proposal, I am suggesting that we should vote yes with our eyes wide-open. That is why the notices for further strike action have been issued even while the proposal from UUK has gone out to the wider membership.

If we vote no and turn down the proposal we don’t know what will happen next. Different people, with different experience and expertise are reaching different conclusions based on their judgement. If we reject the proposal we don’t know for certain how UUK will react. We also don’t know how USS or tPR (the Pensions Regulator) will react. Those of us who think that the most likely reaction from UUK, USS and tPR will be a hardening rather than a softening of position are making a judgement.

If we accept the proposal we still don’t have absolute certainty about what will happen next. However, we do know that the expert panel will need time to convene, look at the valuation and come to conclusions. During this time, of course, industrial action would be suspended. We know that tPR has indicatedits support for a process which allows the stakeholders to come together and avoid recurring disagreements. We know that if we vote yes UUK would have committed itself to make approaches to seek support from USS and tPR for the process of finding a solution.

One of the arguments for voting no has been that the UUK proposal contained a commitment to ‘maintenance of the status quo in respect of both contributions into USS and current pension benefits, until at least April 2019’. Those advocating for a no vote say that this statement is there just to look good and therefore is evidence of duplicity. I disagree. If you believe that it adds nothing to the proposal then ignore it as a neutral statement. However, there is nothing in the rules that specifies the date at which implementation takes place. A date of April 2019 for implementation of changes was part of the USS’s project management timeline for the current valuation. Other implementations have been earlier (2011) or later (2014). So, in my view, this commitment adds a level of certainty that was previously absent.

Some of the criticism of the proposal concerns the language used within it. Words and phrases like a ‘guaranteed pension’ have caused consternation, the precise meaning of ‘comparable’ has been picked apart and the idea of considering ‘affordability challenges for all parties’ has been held up as unreasonable.

Personally, I am content to see a ‘guaranteed pension’ used as a synonym for ‘Defined Benefit pension’. That’s because a guaranteed pension is a Defined Benefit pension scheme. The definitions of DC and DB under international accounting standards (maybe not the most salient definitions but the ones I am most familiar with) are:

‘Defined contribution plans are post-employment benefit plans under which an entity pays fixed contributions into a separate entity (a fund) and will have no legal or constructive obligation to pay further contributions if the fund does not hold sufficient assets to pay all employee benefits relating to employee service in the current and prior periods.’

‘Defined benefit plans are post-employment benefit plans other than defined contribution plans.’

(IFRS Foundation, (2013), IAS 19 Employee Benefits, section 8)

If the pension is guaranteed, then by definition it is a Defined Benefit pension.

Comparability has been widely interpreted to mean something capable of being compared to something else (for example, a melted, destroyed heater could be compared to a functioning heater), thereby dismissing this commitment as worthless. That is a rather pedantic way of using a word for which the synonyms are ‘similar, close, near, approximate, akin, equivalent, corresponding, commensurate, proportional, proportionate, parallel, analogous, related’ and which can be defined as meaning ‘of equivalent quality’. The 12 March offer, although rejected by UCU, was a better comparator than the full DC offer from 23 January. Both have been rejected, but nonetheless it should be acknowledged that the shift away from full DC and a return to a hybrid structure is a significant victory. And we should remind ourselves that we will be the final arbiters of what is considered sufficiently similar, close or near to our existing pensions.

I am somewhat more sympathetic to the points being made about appearing to accept that there are potential ‘affordability challenges’. Discourse around affordability has been used to undermine the position of Defined Benefit schemes as the preferred option of employers as they were in the 1980s. Those discourses are misconceived: evidence can be found that DB schemes, especially large DB schemes, are a cost-effective way of making provision for retirement from both the employee and employer’s perspective. The valuation and the future service cost are bound up with each other, so opening the one up to scrutiny of the valuation panel provides a chance to review the other and refute any claims that future DB accruals are not affordable.

Advocates for a no vote have said that ‘we know that the pension scheme is in surplus, we know that it’s got loads of assets’ and ‘there is no risk to this pension scheme’. Well some of that is true and some is not, but none of it is a reason for voting no to accepting the proposal from UUK. It’s fairer to say that we know that the scheme is cash flow positive for the foreseeable future as long as it remains open to DB accruals (I realise that is not as effective a rallying call as ‘the pensions scheme is in surplus’), and it’s true the scheme has a very large total of assets (with a market value of about £60bn according to the March 2017 audited accounts). Still, I would take issue with the statement that there is no risk to this pension scheme — if it’s not taking risks it won’t be earning returns!

But what we need now is time for the Joint Expert Panel to pick apart the valuation, examine the strengths inherent in the scheme, such as its scale, the strength of the employers’ covenant, the robustness of a multi-employer scheme, the fact that it is asset-rich, and the healthy returns that the investments have made historically. All that information can be used to craft a new, better proposal for this valuation cycle.

As an aside, the scale of the scheme has apparently been one of the main concerns of tPR, but the recently published government white paper on pensions, ‘Protecting Defined Benefit Pension Schemes’, proposes to put in place mechanisms to consolidate smaller schemes because of the significant advantages associated with the largest schemes. USS is the largest private DB scheme in the country.

I am optimistic that the valuation panel will start a process that allows the 2017 valuation to be revisited in such a way that a satisfactory resolution can be found. But I am not naïve. We have demonstrated that we can carry out effective industrial action. The credible threat of industrial action remains as a reminder to UUK to take the commitments it has made seriously. If we judge it has reneged on its commitment ‘to maintaining a meaningful defined benefit (DB) pension offer at this valuation’ we know we can muster on the picket lines again. More importantly, UUK now knows that too.

If we are looking for absolute certainty before we accept any proposals or suspend any action I think we will be waiting for ever and never be in a position to resolve this dispute, which in my view will then peter out without having crystallised the significant gains that have been made.

I have voted yes, not because I am daunted by more strike action — I’m not. If need be I’ll be there fighting for UCU’s interests, on the picket lines, as I have been in every dispute since I joined UCU. I have voted yes because I think that the most likely route to a getting a good pension deal currently lies through accepting UUK’s proposal.

Response to Consultative Ballot Results

Demo

Today we received the results of the consultative ballot on higher education pay. The results show that 65% of members who voted are willing to settle this year rather than taking industrial action this pay round and accept the pay offer of 1.7%. This does not mean that members have taken this decision lightly, nor that they do not understand that the offer is a real-terms pay cut.

The turn out for this ballot was surprisingly high, the best since 2006 with no recommendation, despite taking place in the summer, at 48.6%. This is close to the new threshold of 50% set by the Trade Union Act, and so undermines arguments that this is not an accurate representation of members’ views.

Clearly, activists across UCU had enough time to ‘get the vote out’, and we believe that this electronic ballot is a valid representation of what members want. Some will say leadership should have been shown, however leadership is also about listening carefully to what members want.

We interpret this result as saying members are more concerned with issues arising out of marketisation such as restructure, deprofessionalisation, redundancy, casualisation, as well as long standing concerns with equality (gender, disability, LGBT+, BME) and pensions.

We do not think this indicates the end of industrial action – far from it, the fact that almost half members voting indicated they would take action if the membership voted to reject suggests that there is still support for a pay campaign in the future. We think that members are tired of striking nationally year on year with diminishing results.

At a local level, branches have successfully cleared the 50% threshold and pushed back on redundancies. There have been inspirational campaigns across the UK around the gender pay gap, casualisation, outsourcing and governance.

While we develop this strategy we can still engage in regionally and nationally coordinated local actions that will unsettle the management lobby and give us greater national bargaining power in the next pay round. It’s time to think differently, creatively about industrial action and strategy, and this decision gives us the breathing space to be able to do this.

We look forward to discussing next steps with colleagues at local, regional and national executive levels and we hope that not too much time will be spent wrongly lamenting the lack of militancy or leadership which we think would be not just a distraction but also a misinterpretation of what members are saying.

Members of the UCU Independent Broad Left network (NEC/HEC)

A wrong move at Congress

The decision by UCU Congress to close down debate on, and then back the ‘organisation’ of women involved in prostitution rather than prioritise routes out of prostitution, is an example where those calling themselves the ‘UCU Left’ should be ashamed, says Michael McKrell, who has just retired from the NEC.

 

In 2009 the TUC Women’s Conference debated Motion 40 (The Commodification of Sex) – proposed by UCU – which demanded that Conference campaign to:

  1. i) expose the social causes of prostitution including women’s poverty;
    ii) review the residency status of trafficked women;
    iii) criminalise men’s purchase of sex rather than its sale; and
    iv) ensure that the commodification of sex and the objectification of women’s bodies is shown to be a contributory factor in violence against women.

The motion was carried.

Fast-forward to UCU Congress 2017. Motion 56 motion on ‘Education, sex worker safety and collective organising’ was passed – albeit with a curtailed debate – calling for ‘decriminalisation of sex work to allow collective working and improved safety for sex workers’.

I have no doubt that this will be regarded by organisations involved in the fight against domestic abuse and violence against women, such as Rape Crisis, Women’s Aid and anti-trafficking organisations with utter incredulity and dismay. How is it possible that a union which has until now sought to campaign against the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies has now come to adopt a policy which represents de facto collusion in the continuing wave of abuse against women forced into prostitution?

Rather than adopting the position of the TUC Women’s Congress, representing 3 million women, or the position of organisations who deal with the rape, deaths, and abuse of women involved in prostitution, Motion 56 – which was not taken to any of the Union’s Equality Committees before Congress – was pushed to a vote at Congress, debate having been guillotined. We are now stuck with a position that isolates us in the labour movement and effectively means we contribute nothing to the ending of the exploitation of women involved in prostitution.

It was good to see two men – Douglas Chalmers, President UCU Scotland, and Eurig Scandrett, a prominent member of the ‘white ribbon’ campaign in Scotland – speak against the motion. Douglas ably articulated the position of Rape Crisis and other groups opposed to legalizing prostitution. Eurig stated that if student poverty is driving students into prostitution then the answer is to end student poverty, not legalise prostitution!

But it was the deliberate and calculated move to close down the debate that shocked and angered me and which, in my view, brought discredit on the union.

For the only time during Congress the ‘move to the vote’ was called for before HE President Joanna De Groot and FE President-elect Vicky Knight (Chair of the TUC Women’s Committee) could voice their opposition to the Motion. And the manner in which it was done was shameful; it was galling to see a prominent member of the SWP/UCULeft go to the front of Congress where those waiting to speak sat, and say to those in favour of the motion ‘You should close down the debate, we’ve got the votes for it.’

Opponents of the motion had asked ‘where are the Pimps in this motion? Where are the men who buy women’s bodies?’ and had argued that prostitution was part of the cycle of exploitation and abuse women faced and should be worked against, not facilitated.

The answer in the debate, by one prominent member of UCULeft (and NEC member), was that ‘women do not sell their bodies, it’s just like work – which has unpleasant parts to it.’ This is an astonishing statement. Of course, all forms of labour are exploitative and alienating. But are we really expected to compare the everyday experience of workplace ‘unpleasantness’ with the situation in which, driven by economic desperation, women are compelled to endure the systematic use of physical force, threats and use of violence, psychological coercion, and in many cases crippling addiction?

One of the reasons I am angry at those promoting this policy is the callous ignorance of the brutal reality of prostitution, as outlined in The Independent some time ago ; a reality masked by the use of words like ‘collectivise’ and ‘organise’. A question for those who believe we can “support self-organised sex workers in their call for decriminalisation of sex work to allow collective working and improved safety for sex workers” is this. Just who are the ‘organised sex workers’ going to negotiate and bargain with? Answer: pimps and gangsters (not exactly renowned for their unimpeachable adherence to fair employment practices) – lumpen criminals who risk nothing themselves but make huge profits from the exploitation of women.  

Drawing on the Independent report on the effects of the legalisation of prostitution, Megan Murphy writing on the Feminist Current blog pointed out that; “the only thing the Dutch government’s 12 year experiment with legalization succeeded in doing was to increase the market. The illusory labour-based approach, put forth by confused lefties, wherein prostitution is imagined to be ‘a job like any other’ hasn’t worked either…Rather than be given rights in the ‘workplace’, the prostitutes have found the pimps are as brutal as ever. The government-funded union set up to protect them has been shunned by the vast majority of prostitutes, who remain too scared to complain. Under the “labour” model, assault and rape is no longer violence against women, but “an ‘occupational hazard’, like a stone dropped on a builder’s toe,”

There’s simply no reason for police to charge men for doing something they feel they are legally entitled to do. Talking about ‘sex work’ as ‘work’ doesn’t help women. It doesn’t help women leave the industry, it doesn’t create gender equality, it doesn’t stop the violence, and it doesn’t de-stigmatize prostitution. Reframing legalization as ending the ‘stigma’ has not only been shown to be untrue, but it distracts us from the reality that violence and inequality doesn’t happen because of stigmatization — it happens because of male power and systemic injustice.

Detective Superintendent Kajsa Wahlberg, Sweden’s national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings, is quoted as saying; ‘The problem is gender-specific. Men buy women.’ Which is why a feminist approach is needed’’.

Congress Motion 56 is tantamount to an endorsement of capitalism’s relentless drive to commodify every aspect of human relations and to condone the further alienation of the body from the self; the body and its most intimate functions are reduced to a means of production, a machine for producing a commodity in the form of a service – sex – the use value of which is appropriated by the (male) consumer, whilst the exchange value enriches the trafficker and the pimp. The way to tackle prostitution is by eliminating its material basis – the demand by men to pay for women’s bodies; exactly what UCU called for at the TUC Women’s Conference in 2009.

As trades unionists and progressives we should be seeking a way out of exploitative human relations, not facilitating their all-pervasiveness and entrenchment. UCU needs to move quickly to reverse the retrograde step it took at Congress this year, adopt an informed and gender-specific analysis of prostitution and drop this shockingly out of touch position.

Michael McKrell

Retiring NEC member

In the interests of debate, we would welcome any members of UCULeft or the SWP who proposed or backed this motion to write in and let us know what was in their mind when they did so. We’ll publish any contributions.

Contact: unionadmin@ucuagenda.com

Last day of UCU Congress features international solidarity

Congress demanded the truth about the disappearance and murder of Giulio Regeni

In addition to lots of discussion on taking the union forward domestically, the international flavour previously exhibited at Congress continued on the last day.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK addressed Congress, praising the union for the work we continue to untertake internationally, something further reinforced by a video from Huber Ballesteros from Colombia’s Labour Federation of Agricultural Workers who talked of the importance of international solidarity in Colombia’s peace process and in ensuring his freedom.

A photoshoot taken at Congress (see above),  again underlined our demands for a full enquiry into the death of Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni an Italian Cambridge University graduate who was abducted and tortured to death in Egypt. Giulio was a PhD student at Cambridge and had been researching Egypt’s independent trade unions, and the demand for an enquiry follows the belief that the Egyptian police were heavily implicated in his murder.

The morning had seen decisions taken on how to take forward the General Secretary’s suggestion of the day previously that a commission be set up to look at our industrial strategy in the aftermath of the anti-trade union act. An emergency motion was placed before congress and narrowly passed, which limited membership on the commission to those attending the current congress, and agreed to the calling of an additional special Congress to discuss the recommendations.

Traditional timeline of industrial action – but is this sufficient? Some of the issues for the commission to discuss

Congress delegates from the devolved nations had felt forced to raise the ‘devolved blindness’ of some of the resolutions over the period of Congress, including on the last day a recommendation to vote Labour, although this is of course impossible in Northern Ireland since Labour do not stand candidates, and a delegate from Scotland suggested it was totally inappropriate in the Scottish situation. Whether or not we should recommend support to any individual party at all is of course an even bigger question since we are unaffiliated. This followed on from other resolutions passed investigating the creation of ‘one UK Education union’ although the unions mentioned did not operate either in Scotland or Northern Ireland. In a similar vein, motions calling for ‘national’ demonstrations, made devolved nations delegates wonder where the movers had been since 1999. Clearly the disregard of our nature as a union operating over different education and legal systems in different nations within the UK is something that needs resolved in future years.

Towards the end of Congress, an important debate was closed down by movers of a controversial motion which proposed our support for ‘the decriminalisation of sex work to allow collective working’

This is of course against the position of the TUC women’s conference, and that of Rape Crisis, Women’s Aid, and all UK Anti-Trafficking organisations. Rather than all speakers being able to speak on this, the movers suggested in mid debate that ‘the vote be put’ (the only time this happened in Congress), resulting in a vote being taken (in support of this controversial motion) without the benefit of all those sitting ready and willing to speak being able to do so. Not the best moment for democracy, and a terrible signal to women trapped in prostitution and who are not looking to ‘collective working’ but to routes out of this dreadful exploitation.

Other key resolutions were passed which will help shape our work positively over the coming year and can be found here on the UCU website. These included:  on racist interference in elected roles;  developing our anti-casualisation campaign (including a road show); the future of TUC education; work related stress; bilingualism of documentation for use in Wales; Electronic meetings and tele and video conferencing; developing the equality agenda; the disability pay gap and abortion rights.

The union will have its hands full, (in a good way) over the next year, in helping implement these decisions, and we hope the UCUAgenda blog will help as part of a forum to discuss how best to do this.

To take part in this debate, or to add your voice – please send comments, or articles to: unionadmin@ucuagenda.com

The NEC will have its hands full implementing the decisions of Congress – a good position to be in

Vote for a strong team of Pension negotiators

Pensions are a crucial issue for all of us, and the USS pension continues to be under attack – which is why we need competent, and combative negotiators to work on our behalf, negotiating the best improved deal from the pension authorities.

We strongly urge delegates to vote for the following candidates, who can be relied on to negotiate effectively for our interests.

We ask delegates to vote for Renee Prendergast and Amanda Williams, for the USS negotiating team.

Renee Prendergast is chair of UCU in Northern Ireland. She is a member of Queens University Branch of UCU.

Renee’s message to delegates is:

I am a Reader in Economics at Queen’s, Belfast with over twenty years’ experience as a Local Association Officer in AUT/UCU. I am an experienced negotiator on the whole range of local issues including UCU Recognition and  Procedures, Framework, Charter & Statutes and Local Regulations as well as being elected twice as a UCU National Negotiator on Pay.

The role of USS negotiator is a specialist one involving a steep learning curve over complex issues for which my professional training as an economist is helpful. Currently, I am a UCU alternate on the USS JNC and have undergone training for this role. Being a negotiator on USS at this crucial time means putting knowledge before slogans and examining detail forensically. Our priority going forward must be maximising the retention of defined benefits within USS and making it as good, if not better, than TPS.

Amanda Williams is a member of the NEC and a member of the University of East Anglia branch.

Amanda’s message to delegates is:

We need a USS negotiating team whose members complement each other.  We need shared values but distinctive skills and expertise.  My values are a commitment to:

  • the basic principles of Defined Benefit schemes to counter the ideologically based attacks they suffer, and
  • ethical investment in line with the social values of a trade union.

I am currently a member of the NEC, of SWG and on the USS Advisory Committee. I am a Chartered Accountant and Chartered Tax Adviser.  I trained in audit (including work on pension scheme audits).  Now I’m a Lecturer in Accounting.  I bring an auditor’s professional scepticism linked to commercial awareness. As a local negotiator the most public success was the university’s reversal on 100% pay docking after we obtained a mandate for local strike action.  But the most important team successes are behind the scenes, getting policies on key issues like FTCs and redundancy avoidance.