Five things I learned from the USS strikes

 

This is turning out to be a hard, long strike but there are some important lessons emerging from picket lines, teach-outs and social media. Twitter has been invaluable for me as all of us learn from each other, one tweet at a time. So, thank you Twitter colleagues, here are a few more things I have learned from you today:

1.Universities feel absolutely entitled to the free labour of academic staff. They make veiled threats about job security if you even have the temerity to defend your right to a weekend at home, and not donate your free time to student recruitment activities. There’s no credit in the favour bank though. Heavens no. Several universities (Leeds, Kent, Keele) are going much further than just withholding pay for days on strike, they are also telling staff they will withhold 100% of pay unless all classes cancelled due to strike action are rescheduled within 5 days. Effectively, this means strikers will be penalised financially twice. And if they comply with the demand, they will be working for free. Action Short of a Strike (ASOS), otherwise known as working to contract is also being heavily punished and treated just like full strike action at some universities. In other words your contract means nothing. In a world where any management demand is seen as ‘reasonable’, you can be asked to do double, triple, quadruple duty. Management have been trying to normalise that for years. They are now on the verge of having it codified as custom and practice.

2.Management’s discourse around pensions is carefully chosen to construct them as exorbitantly risky perks. The whole idea that they are unaffordable is a contradiction in terms if we recognise that pensions are deferred earnings invested collectively on our behalf. The notion of ‘risk’ is deliberately unattributed, because management have been coached to fear any financial risk that might attach to them, or the charge that they have mismanaged the fund.

3.There has been some very peculiar accounting going on in order to assess the value of the pension scheme. The 2017 valuation was apparently modelled on the scenario of all pre-1992 universities going bust at once. That made Oxford and Cambridge wary of being left holding the bag and they used their disproportionate vote to express their refusal of that risk. There were other discrepancies which you can read about here, but as Ben Anderson insightfully pointed out on Twitter, VCs have constructed a valuation method based on the most fanciful scenario possible. The fact that they have gone to such lengths to do so, reveals their contempt for their own staff. Their incompetence and neglect, compounded by a degree of duplicity and subterfuge has told strikers all they need to know. It really is an ‘us and them’ world in universities.

4.Ever wondered how superficial all those boasts are about commitment to being an equal opportunity employer? St Andrews stepped up for the big reveal last night when it emailed this:

St Andrews strike threat.jpg_large

No doubt the programs referred to by the vice chancellor have appeared in various strategy documents and will feature in their applications for badging and kitemarking for equal opportunities awards like Athena Swan. But all these are expendable when it comes to pressuring strikers and attempting to offload the responsibility onto them. Apparently you cannot have a fair workplace AND a pension. You need to choose, and St Andrews is bartering with your rights to equality of opportunity in its workplace. The announcement was met on Twitter with disgust from alumni, potential students and applicants for academic posts alike. I hope everybody learns from this.

5.I now know how pensions are…or should be…valued, though I don’t claim to understand all the details. I also know there are at least four different models of pension schemes, and some deliver better benefits than others. The scheme with the less favourable benefits is, of course, the one UUK is attempting to sell to USS members. George Osborne would like you to think this is about giving people ‘choice’ in how you use your money. When you hear managers use words like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ you need to set off the fire alarms. Be very wary because the USS proposals also involve the transfer of financial risk from the employer to the individual enrolled in the scheme. It is not a scheme in which money is collectively pooled and invested. It is just your pot, with your name on it, fluctuating up and down in line with the vicissitudes of the stock market. That’s not a choice I would be willing to make. More about why the investor class hates pensions was published in the New York Times 5th March 2018.

But as VCs are finding out, strikers and those who support them are still able to make choices that will have reputational and financial consequences for universities. The VCs who are so heavily in favour of academics having ‘choice’ in managing their USS pension money will find it rather inconvenient when that ‘choice’ is exercised in an external examining boycott, or a suspension of alumni donations.

Week three starts tomorrow, 5th March. Keep up the momentum everybody. UUK are so discredited even Lord Lucas, Conservative peer with an education brief, described UUK as “off their rocker”, and had this to say on Twitter on 3rd March:

“UUK, with all the intelligence at its command, ought to understand that pensions deficits are an imaginary product of quantitative easing and politicians who confuse safety and the stillness of death. They ought to be in the vanguard of reform”.

Given UUK’s general failure to defend public higher education , that hope may be misplaced. But as ACAS talks get underway, there is a real possibility their incompetence will be exposed.

 

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5 thoughts on “Five things I learned from the USS strikes”

  1. Solidarity with the strikers. There is no more stark a reminder of the divergence of interests between university management and the people who actually do the work than the wheedling vacuous faux-concerned-for-your-welfare arguments used to try to cheat university staff of their pensions and working conditions.

    Wishing you every success in your struggle.

    Liked by 1 person

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