On 31 January 2012, the pre-1992 Higher Education section of the University and College Union (UCU) held a special conference in London to decide on the way forward in the dispute over the imposition of changes to the USS pension scheme. After heated discussions a majority of roughly 60 to 40 votes decided in favour of the recommendation by the national leadership to suspend industrial action in exchange for the right to an unreduced pension on redundancy for colleagues of 55 years or older to be extended until October 2014 and a joint review with the employers of the new scheme imposed last October. What are the chances of a successful conclusion to the pensions campaign on the basis of this strategy?
Speaker after speaker supporting the recommendation by the national UCU reiterated the same argument: we are too weak on the ground to escalate action, if we do not suspend industrial action and the employers withdraw their offer to talk as a consequence. Our members are simply not willing to take the necessary action, it was argued. And yes, this may well be the case at some institutions. However, the situation is rather uneven across the Higher Education sector. Weak local branches are confronted with others, which have been able to mobilise members more widely in constant struggles over recent years.
The offer of a review by the employers is, of course, a success. For months, they had insisted that negotiations were over and that the imposed scheme was here to stay. Nevertheless, we also need to remember why the employers made these limited concessions. It was clearly not the result of them having suddenly seen reason. The changes are about saving money at the expense of members of staff and this goal remains. It was clearly not that the UCU negotiators had suddenly become much better at convincing the employers that there is an alternative. UCU negotiators have been excellent throughout the dispute. There was no change in this respect. Instead, it was industrial action taken by UCU members including the possibility of an assessment boycott in June 2012 if there was no progress, which focused employers’ mind. Second, UCU had joined up with 29 other trade unions and participated in the largest strike in the UK for decades on 30 November 2011. In response to the strike the ConDem government started to make concessions over pensions to the public sector unions. As a result it suddenly became increasingly difficult for the employers to deny in Higher Education what seemed to be possible elsewhere. Having decided now to suspend industrial action deprives UCU of both weapons. There is no further direct pressure on employers and the UCU campaign has been delinked from the struggles for pension justice by our sister trade unions.
By going it alone, UCU has also decided to focus solely on the narrow issue of pensions. The understanding that the attack on pensions is ultimately linked to a wider attack on Higher Education, including the increase in tuition fees, the increase in workload for members of staff and the discussed plans towards privatisation, has been rejected. Even if there are some concessions by the employers as a result of these talks, this will not divert the major onslaught on the working conditions in Higher Education and the further commodification of education.
Ultimately, the UCU strategy can be related to what Asbjørn Wahl has called the ‘social partnership ideology’. It is the idea that negotiations by themselves can result in positive change, because a situation of consensual discussions would facilitate progress. What is completely overlooked in such an assessment is the fact that social partnership, when it did result in progress in the past, was always based on a balance of power, in which trade unions could match the strength of employers.
The decision by UCU to delink from the other unions and to suspend industrial action deprives the union’s negotiators of powerful backup. They are left to negotiate from a position of weakness. The first report of the joint review working party is due in July later this year. By that time, the exams are over and the most important moment of potential industrial strength of academics, an assessment boycott, has gone. Why should the employers even think about making any serious concessions in this situation?
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://www.andreasbieler.net
3 February 2012