Yesterday I was invited to address the strike rally organised by UCU branch of the University of Leeds. It was a hugely well-attended event, and was a tribute to branch President, Vicky Blake and all the other officials who have worked so hard to build momentum and morale all the way through this gruelling strike.
News on Monday 12th March made it clear that the strike was not over. There was an ‘agreement’ reached at the ACAS talks, but not one which UCU members could accept. This meant a major re-write for me, as the whole mood seemed to change. It seemed even more necessary to try and remind people why they needed to continue to fight for their USS pensions.
As the speeches started, the microphone failed. This meant that my words had to be chanted by those at the front, so that the wider audience at the back could hear. It was surreal to be accompanied by my very own Greek chorus, but perhaps appropriate given that it was taking place on the steps of the Henry Moore Institute.
Text of the speech below.
Thank you for inviting me to speak. Leeds pickets are amazing!! You have come up with the best placards, hashtags, banners, songs, poems, playlists, teach-outs. And you have wonderful, supportive students whose silent protest was a moving and effective reproach to the Vice Chancellor.
And alumni !! And External Examiners !! The campaign to suspend donations and resign as Externals has really taken off.
But it’s clear, there is more to do. And what happens now determines what happens for a generation.
Make no mistake, this is a pivotal moment in universities. It is higher education’s PATCO moment. If you’re under 50 and not a historian of labour relations, you might not know what I’m talking about. PATCO – Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation, 1981, was when President Reagan decided to break their strike by replacing all of them with military personnel. This inspired Margaret Thatcher to go ahead with plans to break the Miner’s Union in 1984.
So let’s take stock of where we are now and where we need to go.
We’re at the point where Universities UK are willing to sell out your entitlement to a decent pension. Because they see you as liabilities, not assets.
And we’re at the point where UCU are proposing an agreement which does not meet the needs and aspirations of the membership. And which appears to accept an artificial deficit.
You have stood in snow and freezing cold for this:
- A defined benefit element guaranteed for the next 3 years only.
- Defined benefits capped at a salary of £42, 000.
- A lower rate of accrual, so you will retire later.
- An increased contribution from employees.
And the proposal for a new scheme to be investigated – Collective Defined Contribution. This is a new hot item. Wonderful, apparently, in the Netherlands. But not yet legal here, and utterly untried and untested.
Are you willing for your life savings to rise and fall with the stock market – however collectively the risk is borne?
And it is back to the table again in 3 years when the fight needs to be won NOW. In 3 years, if the union doesn’t stay solid, employers can just keep chipping away. Every 3 years, another dodgy valuation which we don’t accept. This is not defined benefits, it is defined attrition.
And all to address a deficit which we do not accept in the first place.
But if this deal is accepted, we implicitly accept the legitimacy of that deficit.
IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?
If this deal is accepted you get inferior, uncertain pensions. Let me tell you about Defined Contribution pensions, because that’s what our colleagues in the US have. It isn’t a pension as we know it. It is a financial product which fluctuates with the stock market. They try to tell you they are giving you choice in managing your money, but when management use terms like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ you need to set off the fire alarms. You want a guaranteed income and you’re not being offered it. My friends in the US are all terrified the money will run out before they die. And so they delay retirement until age 70 or even 75. Which of you still wants to be meeting REF targets or drawing up an NSS improvement plan for the rest of your life?
We are seeing strike breaking tactics including using lecture capture software to run last year’s lectures.
Leeds has distinguished itself by being utterly inflexible in its attitude to staff and in its continuing support for the UUK position with regard to the USS pension valuation. Tactics of intimidation – deducting 100% of pay until you fulfil a ‘reasonable’ management instruction to prioritise the replacement of lost teaching. And now they can face you down and say ‘the union has agreed this’. And at Leeds, as we know, they are trying to implement a statute whereby you can be dismissed for Some Other Substantial Reason. If you miss any one of those ‘reasonable’ priorities, you may be vulnerable.
There has been a colossal failure of leadership in British universities. Vice Chancellors have cravenly gone along with the marketization and commodification of higher education so that we find ourselves now responsible for our students’ future earnings. They have distanced themselves from the academic values which brought us into the university, and have refused to defend free, public higher education.
We see epidemic levels of stress in universities. And then there’s the bullying. The ridiculous demands of performance management. Management by metrics. Journal impact factors, H-indices. The notion that if you build anxiety into the business model of universities, then teaching and research will improve, grants will be captured and students will be satisfied.
You have workload models which are delusional. Spreadsheets which render invisible the £3.2 BILLION pounds of Pro Bono work you do. And that’s just the stuff that’s measurable. Because if it doesn’t fit the HR spreadsheet – well, to parody the OJ Simpson trial – if it doesn’t fit you must omit.
Look around you at the solidarity. Professional staff, students, zero hours colleagues, postgraduates, administrators, lecturers, researchers – all standing together. We are united and UUK are divided ! UUK cannot pretend to be ‘the definitive voice of UK universities’ anymore. There isn’t just a bit of slippage in their message – it’s a full scale wardrobe malfunction !
This fight for fair pensions will be won. They will not use this strike as a chance to break our union ! And we will win back democracy and decency in British universities.
There have been so many gains:
Solidarity and strength in the union.
Becoming critically aware of the power and ideological structures within which we work.
No to bullying and authoritarian management.
No to smoke and mirrors accounting.
Yes to sustainable careers.
Yes to transparency and democracy in our universities.
Yes to decent pensions.
No capitulation !