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UCU members balloting for action on pension cuts
Sam Morecroft, Sheffield UCU anti-casualisation officer
The UCU (University and College Union) is balloting for industrial action across the "pre-92" universities in response to plans to entirely scrap guaranteed pension benefits for academic and academic-related workers enrolled in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).
The ballot will run until 19th January, with industrial action likely to begin in February.
These plans are so extreme that currently they would mean a lecturer beginning their career today would be as much as £208,000 worse off in retirement than someone retiring now.
Even before the full extent of these proposals were known, an indicative ballot of UCU members in the USS institutions showed 86% of staff were prepared to take action, on a turnout of 53% - more than enough to overcome the Tories' draconian anti-trade union laws.
Now that Universities UK (UUK) has announced that it wants to do away with guaranteed benefits altogether, the anger of university workers is approaching boiling point.
At my institution, the University of Sheffield, on Monday 11th December 150 members of staff attended a lunchtime meeting to express their anger and discuss the ballot.
We are certain in UCU that we will secure a resounding Yes vote for strike action - and we'll need it.
Not only has our pension fund been seriously undervalued, but under pressure from the Pensions Regulator (acting under the direction of the Tory government) USS now claims it is £7.5 billion in deficit.
In fact, a valuation commissioned by UCU shows the fund is £8 billion in surplus! Because USS is backed by the government, we are effectively fighting not just the employers but the Tories as well.
There is an opportunity to divide the employers however. At the University of Warwick, Vice Chancellor professor Stuart Croft has already broken rank with UUK and publicly criticised the proposals in a blog post.
It's no surprise that some VCs are worried - already the Teachers' Pension Scheme in operation in 'post-92' universities is more generous than what is left of USS.
Professor Croft and others are unsurprisingly worried that without a decent pension scheme, universities will struggle to attract staff to work for them.
As well as balloting for action, UCU is demanding that other VCs who criticise the changes privately speak out and say that these proposals will damage higher education.
Angela Rayner MP, the Labour Shadow Education secretary, has also spoken out against the changes, expressing her "deep concern" that hundreds of thousands of staff will be much worse off in retirement and calling for more negotiations.
That's good - just a couple of years ago statements of support from the Labour Party would have been unthinkable.
But UCU members need more. If we are forced to take strike action, the Labour Party should support our struggle and guarantee that any cuts to our pension will be reversed by it when in government.
UCU is rightly saying that it will take more than a few days of action to force the employers back on this issue.
Members need to prepare for an almighty battle and will need the support and solidarity of our students. Hands off our pensions - or we will shut down our universities!
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 3 January 2018 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.