People like to divide the unions into moderates and militants, but we are all militants when it comes to defending and advancing pension rights. ‘
So said former TUC general secretary John Monks, and he was absolutely right. For the 120,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU) that I represent, pensions are not simply a benefit of service to be given and taken away on a whim.
Pensions are hard-won deferred pay and if you attack them you will find the unlikely militants will bite back. Our members are employed in two different pension schemes and both are under attack.
The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) was formed jointly by employers and unions four decades ago to provide pensions for academic and academic-related staff in the traditional universities.
Staff working in the modern universities and further education colleges are members of the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS).
TPS scheme members are in dispute with the government over changes to public sector pensions. USS members are battling against detrimental changes imposed by the country’s second biggest private scheme.
The USS scheme is in good financial health, yet the changes will see an end to the final salary scheme, lower pensions for new staff, less protection against inflation and reduced pensions for staff made redundant – the latter a particular worry at the moment.
The changes have twice been rejected by over 90% of members of the scheme in consultation exercises. That is why our USS members have voted for a sustained industrial action campaign. Not because they want to. Not because they are militant. Not because they want to hurt their students. But because the proposals are unfair, unnecessary and without mandate.
As action begins in USS, colleagues in TPS confirmed that they, along with a host of public sector unions, will take action at the end of November if the government continues to refuse to negotiate properly about changes to their pensions.
A lobby of Parliament has also been organised by the education unions for the Wednesday of half-term (26 October) to keep up the pressure, but minimise disruption for students and parents.
I, and my union colleagues, have made it clear that the negotiations need to be more than just the government seeking the best ways to implement pre-ordained changes. They need to be a genuine dialogue and they need to address whether changes are really justified by the valuation of the fund.
One would hope that the prospect of the largest day of co-ordinated strike action in a generation would focus government minds on trying to resolve the dispute, but instead ministers have once again taken to the airwaves to condemn the unions.
So does that make extended industrial conflict inevitable in either TPS or USS, or indeed across the public sector? I hope not. There is still time for USS and the government to change tack and agree to serious negotiations, genuinely aimed at reaching a solution.
The pensions my members get are hardly, in the government’s words, gold-plated. Women who teach in further education, for example, retire on an average pension of just £6,000 a year.
We have fought for generations for the right to dignity in retirement and we will not let these rights go in the blink of an eye. We may be unlikely militants but we are determined and we will see this through to the end.