Thursday, 27 January 2011

University Pensions: Time to Plan for Strike Action

All University employees who are members of the USS national pensions scheme should now plan for strike action over pensions. The fine detail will be agreed at a meeting on the 1st February, but it is now certain that our employers will try to force through large cuts to the scheme.

To summarise:

  • The maths is a little complex, but the eventual outcome is clear: we stand to lose a quarter or a third of our pensions. If that wasn't bad enough, the right to keep the same pension if made redundant will be abolished in early 2013 -- just around the time that lay-offs resulting from the 40% cut in HEFCE funding are likely to bite. A week ago the USS consultation working group reported back with recommendations for some improvements to the plans, but the main substance remains. And there is no guarantee the employers will even accept these modest proposals.
  • On the other hand, the actual scheme continues to be in rude health (see notes below for more details). The obvious conclusion to draw here is that the employers' proposals are nothing to do with necessity and everything to do with reducing the costs of employing University staff. They're saying quite clearly: you're not worth it!
  • The USS consultation (~5,000 respondents) and the UCU on-line survey (~30,000 respondents) were overwhelmingly against the changes (96% in the UCU case; the USS has not published its results, but informal feedback indicates a similar response).

It is worth noting that other similar proposals have been blocked by industrial action. For example the worst of the BBC's recent proposals were withdrawn after the BECTU union took a strong position against them. There is nothing inevitable here, and given that the UK has some of the worst pensioner poverty in Europe (e.g. on average 25,000 deaths from cold weather and malnutrition each winter, with worse expected this year), there is absolutely no excuse for these attacks on our futures.

None of us wants to strike, but the best way to avoid action is a solid vote in favour -- the next negotiation meeting will happen on the day the ballot results come through, and if there is a strong mandate from membership then the likelihood of the employers backing down will be higher. If they don't back down, then we have no alternative.

Notes on the health of USS.

The UCU points out that there was no crisis in the scheme when the proposals were put in place a year or so ago: it was then and continues to be in good health. In addition, since that time:

  • the rise in stock prices has put £8 billion back into the fund's value (it is now worth almost as much as it was before the crash)
  • the abolition of default retirement age and the CPI/RPI change that are now planned at national legislative level mean large savings for the fund

So -- whilst there remains a possibility that some change might be needed in future, there is no crisis and certainly no need to make the huge cuts that are proposed. (Note that possible future shortfalls were estimated to imply the need for a 0.9% increase in contributions by the USS actuary; the UCU offered 1.1%, but this was turned down.) It seems that there is a different agenda related to cost cutting and repayment of debts incurred in helping out the finance industry, and it is instructive to note that the changes re. loss of benefits on redundancy are set to kick in during 2013, just as the worst consequences of the new student fees regime will become apparent. We face significant redundancies timed neatly to coincide with the loss of pension rights for those made redundant.

If you're near to retirement the proposal is for a 2-tier scheme with existing members retaining some benefits of the old rules; however, the history of other 2-tier schemes indicates that the upper tier never survives more than 3 or 4 years (why should some members pay the same for a vastly inferior product?).

Please vote in favour of strike action (and action short of a strike) in the UCU ballot in February.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Eyewitness from London Protests

Friday December 10th 2011

A few thoughts on December 9th protests.

It was interesting, though somewhat disappointing, to see the contrast between the march, and the NUS-UCU rally yesterday. As a retired member, I appreciate that it is much easier for me to attend such events mid-week, than for those who are still employed, and have teaching commitments.

The (mainly student) march was very impressive, with thousands streaming through central London on a good-natured march. I was not sure what route was intended, since I was nowhere near the front, and when I saw lines of police blocking off Charing Cross and other left turns, I first imagined that they had intended stopping the demonstration at Trafalgar Square. I was a bit puzzled to be following the march down Pall Mall - (Whitehall was blocked by police) - and past Horse Guards Parade, and the back of Downing Street. There seemed to be no reaction from the police, and all remained calm, as if this was all intended. I supposed we were off through Parliament Square to the rally on the embankment. I assumed the police would block off access to Parliament itself.

When the march ground to a halt in Great George Street, I soon heard some students saying "Go back, or we'll get kettled in", and that the police were blocking the way, though I could not see above the crowds. I decided to head off for the rally via another route, but the only option seemed to be on the tube, since most routes were blocked by police.

At 3.00 pm, the rally was almost deserted, other than a handful of banners from different unions, and a few people. I had expected to see thousands of UCU and NUS moderates, who had not wanted to join in with the alternative march, and could have come via the tube.

By 3.30, a few hundred had gathered, including some UCU banners, students and members who had managed to get back via Trafalgar Square from the blocked march. We listened to speeches by Sally, Peter Hain, Caroline Lucas, and Bob Crow, which were OK, though it was pointed out (by Bob Crow, as I recall) that Labour had first introduced the fee charges.

I am not sure what route had been intended, or why the police had not funnelled the march towards the embankment.

Certainly, a few marchers came equipped for trouble with police (flares and crash helmets), though clearly they were not the only victims of subsequent police attacks (see BBC website: A couple of young women school students on our bus said how frightened they had been by police baton and horse charges when they were simply walking away from the confrontations up a quiet part of the street.

So far, I haven't seen or heard any news report about the speeches at the official rally. Clearly the media prefer the confrontational scenes, though not all the media comments about the student demonstration, anger at the vote etc. are negative.

So was the huge student march, with the ensuing trouble, a distraction from the official rally? Maybe, but I cannot see media ever taking much interest in such a small rally.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Sheffield's USPS Pension Scheme

Friday 10th December 2011.
You may be aware that the University of Sheffield wants to abolish its final salary USPS scheme, mainly used by grades 1-5, and institute a ‘cash balance’ scheme.  This loads virtually all the long term risk onto staff members, with any high inflation slashing the eventual payout.  Some points which may be of interest:
  • Currently only just over a quarter of eligible staff (grades 1-5) are in the current scheme as it is ‘opt-in’, unlike USS (grades 6+) which you are enrolled in by default.  USPS will change to being ‘enrolled by default’ in future, due to legislation.
  • If all eligible staff joined the current (final salary) USPS scheme it would cost the University an additional £1.8M pa. This is about 0.5% of turnover, or roughly the salaries of the people sitting on UEB.
  • The University paid no money into the USPS scheme for two periods between 1989 and 2000, totalling about 8 years.  The scheme is now underfunded and the University is obliged to make up the gap.
  • The University has given the minimum notice for the proposed changes and legal minimum consultation period, and got information to scheme members on the last possible day.  They have only added one week to the 60 day minimum period because of the Christmas closure, which avoids any possible legal challenge.
  • If any major changes were made to the proposals there would have to be a further 60 day period of consultation, by law. The University insists the consultation is genuine but it plans to implement the changes in April, and therefore in fact plans to make no major changes in response to the consultation.
  • There is a 2.5% pa cap on growth of each individuals ‘pension pot’ in the new proposals.  If the actual growth of funds were greater than this, and long term that is almost certain, there would be a fund surplus. It would be possible to then increase the cap.  However as noted above the last time this happened the University chose to pocket the surplus.
  • About 300 staff in grades 6 and above are in USPS, having chosen to stay in when promoted. It may well be possible for them to transfer benefits to USS if the University implements major changes.
None of the staff unions believe the proposals are acceptable.  All believe there should be meaningful negotiations between management and unions, with radically different proposals being then put out for consultation.

Dangerous Anarchists on the Loose

Thursday 9th December 2011.

Well, they're out there on the streets again. The UCU advises that members in proximity to this new threat should adopt the bracing position (you know, the one that they tell you about when you take a plane: head between the knees, hands over the ears, suspension of disbelief engaged, that sort of thing). As reported by The Graudniad just now, dangerous anarchists from Sheffield schools are causing havoc on the streets of London. A so-called parent writes:

My 16-year daughter phoned a few minutes ago - she is kettled (aka detained) in Parliament Square, with a big group of school students from King Edwards school in Sheffield, amongst many others.

They're in good spirits but say the police are being very aggressive. I feel it's outrageous that peaceable school-kids legitimately protesting are being detained in this way.

We say: Hah! We've all had the experience of walking past King Edwards and seeing those ruffians lounging around, flauting their adolescence, sneering at passers by, and wantonly eating sandwiches -- haven't we? And to think that those poor London police now have to withstand an onslaught from those savage slips of boys and girls, ducking and weaving, spouting abuse in their filthy Northern accents, listening incessantly to their iPods and androids.

Clearly the ConDemns need to get tough on this new menace. It is nowhere near enough that our democratically elected turncoats (sorry, representatives) are set to deprive the young of their chances of a decent education (after all, why should they do better than all those pensionners who are set for the chop?). No, we need to take a page out of Willy Whitelaw's book, and administer a Short Sharp Shock. Sheffield UCU will be writing to the Relevant Authorities and recommending that these young scoundrels be extradited to the US with stickers placed over the names on their passports saying "Sohail" or "Fatima", and their occupations given as "WikiLeaks editorial board". That'll learn them.

Oh, and we'll be posting the address for donations to the Metropolitan Police Benevolent Association. Watch this space.

Monday, 6 December 2010

University of Sheffield Occupation: Going Strong

Sunday 6th December 2010

I'm old enough to remember when the term "public service" held all sorts of positive connotations. Now that the concept has again been ConDemned, it is meat and drink to see a bunch of young people put their heart and soul into working selflessly for the good of future generations. Perhaps this is the Big Society that we should really be aspiring to?

University of Sheffield students have been occupying the Roberts building since last Tuesday, and this afternoon over 200 people packed their lecture theatre to listen to their story and to express support. Walking to the Coop in this weather is one thing; sitting in a building with no heating for 2 hours is altogether a more chilling experience, so hats off to the occupiers for sticking with it despite the big freeze.

Messages of support came from a host of local trade unions, left and green parties, unemployed, disabled and welfare campaign groups, and even from one school student (whose eloquent appeal for building the fight against cuts to pay for the bankers' crisis was the most moving speech I've heard in a long time).

One message of support was quite unexpected. Paul White, Pro Vice Chancellor of the University, stopped in to tell the students that despite spending thousands on securing a High Court injunction last Friday the VC and other University management are not, after all, planning to evict... at least not for a few more days. Call me an old cynic, but I doubt the sincerity of the people who recently decided to close the USPS pension scheme (and indeed to give the worst deal in the aftermath of that closure to the lowest paid). The reason they cite is that USPS is short of cash; they steadfastly refuse to mention the fact the University took years of "pension holiday" during the good times. Tails they win, heads we lose.

In other words, the management statement is indicative of one thing only: the occupation is having a real effect, and it is currently strong enough to prevent action against it. Sheffield UCU committee believes that we have to build on this strength to make sure we all benefit from the gathering momentum in the anti-cuts movement.

Things you can do:

  • drop the students a message expressing support
  • join the Sheffield Rally for the Future of Education, this Wednesday 8th at the Students' Union, Western Bank at 12, or at the Town Hall at 12.30
  • demonstrate at the first reading of the relevant cuts bill in London, this Thursday 9th
  • start building for the demonstration at the 2011 second reading and for the main Trade Union demo on March 26th

Finally, if you're University staff and you're not in one of the unions then now is definitely the time to join (if the employers don't back down over USS pensions, for example, then there's a strong likelihood of strike action early next year, and if you're not a member you've less protection from victimisation etc.). If you're already a member -- get active! The planned 40% cut in the core HEFCE budget won't be a picnic for any of us, and the student occupiers have a lesson for us all about how to respond.

And perhaps along the way we can resurrect the idea of a society in which public service is a good thing, after all.