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All together for our pensions – UCU lecturers prepare to strike

University lecturers are preparing to strike against a massive attack on their pensions. Across the public sector, the Con-Dem government are tearing up existing pension agreements (see article on Hutton Report). But so far it’s only the lecturers who have balloted for action. Over 60% voted to strike, with just over 50% also voting to strike over pay and job security.

Like many public sectors workers, lecturers’ pay has stagnated for decades, while the management pay bill has gone up and up. This year they have been given just 0.4% pay rise, when inflation is over 12 times that at 5%. But it’s the attack on the USS final salary pension scheme, which has sparked enormous anger across the workforce.

It will mean a huge reduction in the standard of living of thousands of lecturers when they retire. A lecturer aged 30 who worked until s/he was 65 would lose on average £130,000 across her retirement, but if s/he were new entrant on the scheme this figure skyrockets to £369,000. It’s a classic example of how this government has been so quick to secure the bankers’ bonuses, but so determined to attack the living standards of public servants.

The UCU executive needs to be giving more leadership in this campaign. It’s great that they’ve been quick to ballot when other unions have dragged their feet. But delays in getting the ballot papers out squeezed the voting period, which inevitably hit the turnout; only a third of members took part. Still, there is broad support for strike action across the union.

They executive also initially talked about a two week “rolling period of strike” action at different institutions to “maximise disruption” – a very odd idea in higher education, which isn’t like the postal service where integrated systems of production can be paralysed by rolling strikes. What we need is national action, to lift the confidence of the whole workforce and show we are united.

Fortunately good sense prevailed. And the union has instead called for two days of strike action in each of the “home nations”, culminating in a UK-wide strike on the 24 March.

Significantly it was the UCU Left, which first proposed national strike action in defence of jobs and pay, and the leadership, which delayed the ballot.

Now the UCU Left is being subject to a witch-hunt by the leadership, under the false premise of “reclaiming the union” against a takeover by socialists. This attack follows UCU Left members convincing the NEC to criticise general secretary Sally Hunt for attacking the students’ occupation of the Tory Millbank HQ last November, and winning the leading committee to support for the 9 December student march on parliament – which, again, the leadership backtracked on.

The UCU Left has rightly rejected the attacks on it as a “McCarthyite” way of avoiding a discussion about the real issues. Now the UCU Left needs to develop a stronger rank and file co-ordination of activists across the union, hammer out a strategy for victory in the pensions dispute, and rally the rank and file membership behind it. We need to escalate strike action into the summer term.

At this time of year, we can threaten to boycott exams – or refuse to divulge their results – to great effect too. The last time this was used in 2006, it had a tremendous effect in the battle over pay.

At the same time, the UCU should be much more aggressive in pushing for joint public sector action with PCS, NUT and other education unions plus Unison and so on. We can start by uniting the university and college sectors of UCU – further education tutors are currently balloting over pay, jobs and pensions and the result is out next week. By uniting college and university workers – and mobilising the youth behind them – we could recreate the militant spirit of the student rebellion.

A million public sector workers are facing an historic attack. Imagine the power we would have if we all struck together, on the same day, in defence of our pension rights. The upcoming lecturers’ strike shows the way!

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