Southampton UCU Rotating Header Image

February 26th, 2018:

Gold for Southampton Strikers

We haven’t really had much time for following the Winter Olympics. It turns out striking requires a lot of effort and takes considerable time. It has been pretty cold out on the pickets for the past two days but perhaps that’s why our eye was drawn to the news that Billy Morgan from Southampton had won a bronze medal in snowboarding.  Morgan said:

 I pushed all the fear to the side on that last jump. I was like ‘even if I completely wreck myself it doesn’t matter, I’m going to go and do it’.

We hope that strike action is not quite as terrifying as snowboarding in the Olympics, but we know that it takes courage. (It also helps to have handwarmers – supplied last week by our comrades in Unison, for which we were most grateful.)

We had a great response to our call for picket line volunteers and UCU members stood outside several buildings at Highfield and there was a huge turnout at Avenue and SGH too. We received some welcome press attention  and on and Friday one of our student supporters was able to address a picket ‘huddle’ of about 150 people before the senior management asked us to ‘move along’.

The pickets are perhaps the most visible part of the action – but lots more has been happening as part of our action to defend a decent pension for all staff. Here are a few edited highlights – do follow our Facebook and Twitter feeds for regular updates.

UUK arguments shredded

Alongside the various analyses offered by independent actuaries some of the country’s top academics have waded into the debate about pension reform.  Prominent amongst these are the damning counter arguments rebutting the UUK position offered by David Speigelhalter et al.

Their key points are:

  1. The USS provides insufficient information about the methods used to value its assets and liabilities.
  2. UUK proposals assume a fall in the expected long-term nominal investment return from 4.7% to 2.8%. – despite evidence that equity markets in high income countries have increased by 11% per year
  3. They assumed cumulative pay growth of 16% over 4 years yet recent general pay increases have fallen well short of this, cumulatively increasing by just 5.8%.
  4. They say life expectancy is increasing by 1.5% per year when the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries estimates suggest life expectancy is lower.

Their letter concludes

If the USS and Mercer reports were statistical, medical, or economics papers, diligent editors would reject them out of hand. Why do we apply lower standards to an institution entrusted with £60bn of investments to provide for our retirement, than for our academic research? There appears to be a real risk the USS could be wound up because of these analyses. There may be a sizeable deficit, but on the basis of the evidence that the USS has presented, it is impossible to judge.

This week it was also revealed that the push to move to defined contribution was in part enabled by the extra votes afforded to Oxbridge colleges – while we were forced to run a democratic process for our strike action it seems UUK decision making was distorted by a medieval power base. Mike Otsuka’s diligent pursuit of a Freedom of Information request has led to an estimate that about 16 Oxbridge colleges were counted in the survey of employers, on top of individual votes by Oxford and Cambridge universities themselves.  We are forced to conclude that the hardline position, taken by our own VC and this handful of the UK’s wealthiest universities is partisan and untrustworthy.

Every day it is becoming clearer that the arguments put to members of the USS pension scheme by UUK and our employers are at best misguided and at worst duplicitous. UUK and our VC repeatedly tell us there is a deficit when the scheme has assets of £60bn and new members joining every week. They tell us defined contribution – shifting all the risk onto us – is the best and only possible deal, when it removes our guaranteed pension and represents a cut of £10000 a year from the annual pension of a typical lecturer.

VCs breaking rank but UUK refuse to budge

We’ve been told by UUK that there can be no more talks and no better pension deal. But already we can see the strike is having an impact. Leaders of institutions like Loughborough, Glasgow, Warwick, Birkbeck, Goldsmiths, Strathclyde, London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine have publically called for a resumption of national talks. The vice-chancellor (VC) of the University of Essex joined them on Monday, and on Thursday, the VC of Newcastle University said he “”absolutely supported staff’s decision to strike”, saying he didn’t know “what else they could do to express their concerns about the current situation.” On Friday we received the momentous news that Cambridge, too, was breaking ranks to call for more talks.

In response to these apparent divisions in their ranks UUK offered talks on Tuesday 27 February. The timing is seen by some a cynical move to test the strikers resolve to continue into a second week.  UCU negotiators will attend but have reluctantly decided not to suspend the strike because UUK have lied about their position.  A leaked email reported in the the Telegraph revealed that UUK has no plans to make changes to the pension offerSally Hunt responded:

Because this is so serious for students and for staff we will of course attend. I am however very concerned that UUK has explicitly ruled out discussing the imposed changes that have caused the strikes.

Success in Southampton teach-outs

Prof Traute Meyer leads our first Teach-out

It’s the first time we’ve run these, and we’ve had two excellent sessions so far, one  led by Prof Traute Meyer (Sociology and Social Policy) on pensions and risk providing a European and historical analysis based on her research, and one led by Prof John Langley (Chemistry) on time management.  What struck me about these session was the quality of the interactions – students, staff and members of the public freely learning together, debating, and sharing experience – quite different from some of the more heavily monitored ‘educational experiences’ we are forced to offer.  For those of us a faculty who recently introduced a compulsory lesson plan for every contact hour of teaching, it was something of a relief to just participate in education. There are more teach outs this week including our fundraiser at October Books – please do come and encourage students to take part.

Twitter and all that

We know many people find social media frivolous distraction but we have seen a vast increase in traffic on our own Twitter and FB feed and branches around the country have been sharing evidence about the flaws in UUK proposals, news of VCs reconsidering their views about defined benefit pension and, my favourite, photos of picket lines.

The Penguins of Solidarity enhance their skills portfolio by baking Chelsea buns.

It has been fantastic to see Southampton mentioned regularly on the UCU strike live web page and we are taking a few moments each day to compare #dogsonpicketlines, the quality of picket picnic fare #bakingforUSS (buns, welsh cakes, and chocolate cake here) as well as keeping up with the more serious commentary.

This blog by Marianne O’Doherty (English) struck a chord with many around the country with her observations about how the strike has “clarified the extent to which our employers feel that they are entitled to our free labour.”

 What’s next?

The conversations we have been forced to have about pensions are sparking much wider, important, debates about our sector and the work that we care passionate about. We must continue to engage with these and defend higher education and research.

It has been galling to see, after a semester of staff cuts, restructuring and increasingly hostile senior management behaviours here, that our once well-respected University has made the headlines yet again for all the wrong reasons.  In addition to having some of the most inflated senior salaries in the sector we discovered unedifying details about the further excesses of a few senior managers. We hope all members will watch the Channel 4 programme on Monday at 8pm and that efforts will be made to be more prudent at the top of our organisation.

Our sister unions Unite and Unison are holding a rally about the attack on pensions on Monday at 12 noon. Sally Hunt is due to attend, as is the leader of Southampton City Council.

There are rumours circulating that the University may try to prevent this rally taking place. Rest assured we will rally at 12 pm on 26 Feb – please check @SouthamptonUCU Twitter  and Facebook feeds, call in at Union House (47 University Rd) or ask our pickets for details.

As a result of the strike and the vote of support from SUSU Southampton UCU are working much more closely with student union representatives than ever before, Students have joined the picket lines, provided strikers with cakes and encouragement.  Next week we have more teach outs hosted by SUSU.Please do come along to these.

It’s been hard week. Striking is tough, especially when it is cold outside.  We would all rather be inside working, but we have to win this – our financial futures depend on it. So we will have to persevere, escalating our action if necessary.

To return to the Olympics theme, we think we deserve a GOLD for the strike last week. But this is not enough. We’re calling on all members this week to join us.

  • Join the picket lines. Bring a colleague.
  • Come to the rally at 12 on Monday 26th.
  • Support the SUSU teach outs on 27th and 28th.
  • Donate to the hardship fund.
  • Write to the VC and your MP – again if necessary.
  • Watch our FB and Twitter feeds for updates.
  • Work to contract on Thursday and Friday.

UCU members are clear.  Enough is enough.  We want a decent pension. We will take action until UUK make us a better offer. If you have not participated in a strike before now is the time to find your inner Blly Morgan – fight the fear and just go and do it.

See you in the morning for the first picket rotas.

 

 

.