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January, 2018:

Why pensions matter (and why you really must vote to save USS)

When I started working in academia I didn’t think much about my pension. I joined USS because I thought I should (a bit like my reason for joining AUT the forerunner to UCU). Someone explained that my pension payments – made by me and my employer – were deferred salary.

That made sense.  My pension is money paid to me but kept back for when I can no longer work. Over the years I put up with pay freezes and below inflation pay awards, the gender pay gap, and short term fixed term contracts, in the knowledge that I would be OK when I retired.

The current proposals to close the defined benefit element – if enacted – rob us of that future financial security.

UCU have calculated that ending guaranteed pension payments would mean a loss more than £200,000 over the course of a retirement for a typical member of staff.  You can see the First Actuarial report analysis here, and admire the critique from our resourceful colleagues at Sheffield UCU below (reproduced graphically for best effect):

UUK have been muddling with the figures on potential losses by including state pension in their calculation (see here an analysis of the impact of their proposals produced by Aon) but even if we take their estimate, current USS members lose 20% of the value of their pension.

Even with UUK taking  liberties with the calculation of the size of your pension cut, this still produces a reduction of 20%.  That’s a lot of deferred salary.  Are you prepared to take a 20% pay cut?

It is difficult to precisely calculate the level of cut in pension our members could face, due to the nature of the move from defined benefit to defined contribution pensions.  Essentially, University employers are wanting to move the risk of providing pensions from Universities to individual employees.  This is an unnecessary gamble, and means that retirement income will be dependent on the peculiarities and upheavals in the stock market.

Little wonder we are angry and starting to get serious about our pensions.

As I write our UCU national negotiators are continuing to put forward counter proposals for a way forward.

  • We know that there are very different views about the methodology for valuing the scheme and the way of managing risk.
  • We know that most employers could afford an increase in contributions from the current 18% of pensionable salary to at least 21% (and this may not be needed in perpetuity).

Your local UCU branch like others around the country has been asking our Vice Chancellor to stand with staff to defend our pension. So far Sir Christopher and the senior management have continued to support the UUK and USS Board proposals. (Perhaps their relatively higher salaries mean that they have fewer financial worries about their futures?).

UCU are balloting for nationally coordinated action initially aimed at shutting down lectures and classes, including a refusal to reschedule any lost due to strikes, throughout February. Already, the pressure created by the strike ballot has forced UUK to extend their deadline for talks, due to end on 19 December 2017, to 23 January 2018. They have also been persuaded to consult their members on an alternative proposal from UCU, which maintains the defined benefits (DB) cap at £55,500, reduces accrual rates to one-eightieth and means increased contributions for both employers and staff (based on the previous cost sharing agreement).

But we cannot afford to be complacent. We know that only the threat of sustained strike action will move the employers’ position, and we must deliver a clear message – before the ballot closes – that we will not tolerate this attack on our pensions.

It is time to think about your pension, but also to act. We need a 50% turnout in the vote for the ballot to be legally binding, so your vote really does matter – regardless of whether you vote in favour or against the strike.  And we need this 50% from University of Southampton members, as the ballot will be counted locally: if Southampton members do not vote in the necessary numbers, our voices will not be heard in the ballot.

PLEASE ENSURE THAT YOU HAVE POSTED YOUR BALLOT PAPER BY 16 JANUARY AT THE LATEST.

If you have not yet received or have misplaced your ballot papers, please visit this address before 12 January for a replacement: https://www.ucu.org.uk/ussballotrequest

We are having a General Meeting on 9 January 2018 at 1215pm, in 45/2040 (Lecture Theatre A), which will be addressed by Christine Haswell, UCU’s National Pensions Official, and we will be running surgeries after the meeting.  Please let us know on ucu@soton.ac.uk if you wish to attend – all members are welcome, or if you are not a member, please come and join!

Please tell your colleagues to VOTE. If they are not members they can join UCU today at https://www.ucu.org.uk/join – and if they do so by 12 January, they can get a ballot paper.

If you want to know more about the arguments about USS there are resources here and our UCU colleagues at Sheffield have produced some useful audio and slide sets:

Catherine Pope
Southampton UCU vice-president