UCU members back strike action over USS

University and College Union (UCU) members have supported the call for strike action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, with 76 per cent voting to back strike action in recent ballots.

A total of 68 universities were balloted on pension concerns over a three week period, with a further 88 per cent voting in favour of action short of a strike.

The overall turnout for the ballot process was 53 per cent, which is higher than the legally required threshold of 50 per cent.

The result has been highlighted as UCU as a “clear mandate” for strike action and demonstration of the staff anger over the proposed changes to the scheme.

However, UUK, on behalf of USS Employers, pointed out that union members voting 'yes' to strike action at eligible branches account for less than 7 per cent of the scheme's total active membership, suggesting that support for industrial action is "limited".

A UUK spokesperson, on behalf of USS employers, said: “While it is disappointing to see some UCU members think industrial action over pensions is justified, the union has failed to secure a mandate for industrial action in 31 of the 68 institutions where ballots took place on USS, meaning fewer branches have reached the threshold than in previous ballots.

“In most places where the threshold was reached, it was the votes of those saying “no” to action that carried the numbers over the 50 per cent legal threshold.”

The ballots were initially announced after proposals from University UK (UUK), which would see the salary cap for the scheme reduced from £60,000 a year to £40,000 a year and indexation capped at 2.5 per cent a year, progressed to a member consultation.

UCU previously warned that members could face a 35 per cent defined benefit cut under the proposals, although UUK has argued that this is a "misleading" figure, with modelling from the USS trustee suggesting that there would be an annual pension reduction between 10 and 18 per cent.

Next steps for the union will be agreed at a meeting of UCU’s higher education committee on Friday 12 November, with key decisions to include whether and when to re-ballot some branches.

Commenting on the results, UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said: "These results are a clear mandate for strike action over pension cuts and should be heard loud and clear by university employers.

"Staff in universities they have given their all to support students during the pandemic, but management have responded by trying to slash their guaranteed pension by 35 per cent.

"In a ballot window of just three weeks our members have made it abundantly clear that they will not accept these vindictive attacks on their retirement.

"It is now in the gift of employers to avoid strike action, which is the outcome staff want as well. All management need to do is withdraw their needless cuts and return to negotiations. If they fail to do so, any disruption will be entirely their responsibility.'

A UUK spokesperson, on behalf of USS employers, added: “The employers’ proposals for reform are the only viable plans under current regulations that will keep the scheme affordable for members and universities and keep the defined benefit section of the scheme open.

"Discussions with UCU will continue, and the consultation is currently taking place with the scheme’s wider membership.”

“Universities facing the prospect of industrial action are well prepared to mitigate the impact on students’ learning and minimise disruption for those staff choosing not to take part. The majority of university staff are not members of UCU.”

Adding to this, a USS spokesperson emphasised that the "fundamental truth" is that the price of promising a set, inflation-protected income for life in retirement is "much more expensive today than in the past".

The spokesperson stated: “We understand the concerns of USS members faced with proposals for higher contributions or benefits that will build up more slowly in the future.

“The decisions of our stakeholders, at the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC), respond to the challenges presented by long-term economic and demographic trends by slowing the pace at which USS pension promises build up in future.

“The JNC’s proposals – enabled by a very substantial commitment negotiated by the Trustee from employers to support their covenant to the scheme – put USS on a more sustainable footing for the long-term. They secure the future of this rare and valuable scheme in a way that is affordable to members and employers.

“Under the changes proposed, USS would be among the relatively few private DB pension schemes in the country still open to new members and still offering valuable ‘guaranteed’ benefits to its members.”

The Russell Group of Universities has also warned that industrial action will "only penalise students" and "will not change the fact that reform is needed to ensure the USS scheme is sustainable and affordable for staff and employers".

A Russell Group spokesperson said: “Throughout this process, employers have made clear they want staff to have a competitive pension that will provide a comfortable retirement.

"The proposal that individual USS members are being consulted on over the next two months maintains the DB element of the scheme, allowing members to build up guaranteed pensions at levels far higher than the national average, and protects all benefits earned to date.

"Crucially, it ensures staff won’t see big reductions in take home pay as contributions will be maintained at current levels.

“Universities are well prepared to mitigate the impact of industrial action on students and would urge UCU, who have acknowledged the need for change to USS, to work with employers to find mutually agreeable solutions that will provide value for money for the long-term without placing an unfair burden on future generations.“

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