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How digital communication transformed activism

This blog was written following a teach-out facilitated by the author.

For the ongoing USS-Strike to defend our pensions, digital communication on e-mail and social media have played a tremendous role. In fact, in contemporary society it seems almost unthinkable that social movements were able to mobilise protest events without access to the internet. It seems useful to appraise how activism has changed since the advent of social media.

I begin by reviewing some of the main tasks of social movements. First, social movements are engaged in framing processes: they need to convince people that there is a problem and what the problem is, who is responsible for the problem and what should be done about it. In the case of the the current dispute, the problems are the proposed changes to pensions and the way the pensions are regulated.  UUK and The Pension Regulator are responsible. One tactic is strike action.

Second, social movements need to mobilise resources including people (supporters, activists, and leaders), access to meeting spaces, media and money and enlist support from the wider public, decision makers such as politicians, and experts. In the context of the USS strike, this requires mobilizing members to come to the picket lines.

Finally, social movements need to make decisions about tactics and strategies as well as about their organisational structures and decision making. For the strike for USS that includes decisions to continue or to suspend the strike, and the pursuit of alternative and/or additional tactics.

Digital communication and social media have made some of these tasks much easier, but have made others more complicated. It is possible to distinguish internet-supported and internet-based repertoires of action. Internet-supported actions are a continuity of previous forms of mobilisation – instead of handing out leaflets or contacting people via a telephone-tree cascade system, meetings or protest events are announced via websites, on e-mail or via social media. There is no offline equivalent for a hashtag-campaign on social media – this is an example of new internet-based activism.

So how are online- and offline activism related? Some are concerned that online activism decreases the involvement in offline activism and leads to slacktivism or clicktivism. However, others believe that digital prefigurative participation or engaging with an issue online through social media leads to participation in offline protest events. Collective action is based on collective identity (for example, as trade unionists) and organisational structures (for example, the UCU branch), but digitally-enabled activism can  produce connective action which is networked and may not be tied to collective identities, organisational structures and leaders. In the current dispute we can see that hybrid forms of action exist.

In her book, Twitter and Teargas Zeynep Tufekci brilliantly analyses the ‘power and fragility of networked protest’. The power might be quite obvious. When social movements are ignored by the mass media (see for example the lack of mainstream press coverage of the USS-strike) or are censored, digital communication allows the spread of information and can enable citizen journalism.

In 1999, Indymedia was created by independent journalists and activists in the context of the WTO protests in Seattle. Although the website still exists nearly twenty years later, including regional sites in many languages, today Indymedia is hardly known. It has been replaced by the behemoths Twitter and Facebook on which citizen journalism as well as fake news are disseminated. We also see that mass media and social media are not mutually exclusive;  articles and broadcast news media are frequently posted on social media. In addition, not everyone’s tweet or post gets shared, some have far more influence in the digital public sphere than others. Communication on social media raises important questions of verification, and representativeness.

Tufekci also discusses the impact of digital communication on the leadership, logistics and infrastructure of social movements. New communication technologies allow the kinds of quick dissemination which made the occupation of Gezi Park, Tahir Square and the Occupy camps possible. In contrast, the American civil rights movement required meticulous and lengthy organising over long time-periods. Slow dissemination allowed for capacity building over a longer time-period which created space for extensive discussions outside the public eye – for example concerning tactical shifts, and social movement organisations had a central role in providing an infrastructure for the decision making processes and dealing with dissent and conflict arising from these debates.

In contrast, Tufekci demonstrates how digitally mobilised movements can experience a ‘tactical freeze’ due to the lack of decision-making structures. Connective action is less well placed to deal with disagreement and building trust. Debates are played out publically, and while open debate might be welcome, it can be dominated by a few, prominent, but not necessarily representative voices. Moreover, discussing tactics openly  can signal to opponents where the breaking points in the movement are.

The USS strike has undoubtedly benefited from the existence of social media. While we stood in cold, snow and rain, it was inspiring to know that the picket lines were strong at Universities across the country. Moreover, social media enabled activists to crowd-source information about management practices at the institutions involved in the dispute, and to share information to support the protest. Petitions were circulated and signed, universities were named and shamed. Activists skilfully employed not just open digital spaces but also closed spaces which allowed for strategizing outside the public attention.

One important feature of social media use was the mobilisation of humour to support the strike.  Our own #DinosaurOfSolidarity (@of_dinosaur) has quickly gained 1950 followers (and counting) for example. But social media has also carried serious messages. The outcome of UCU/UUK consultations immediately resulted in the hashtag #NoCapitulation which perhaps influenced the swift rejection of this offer.

The question is – what next? How can we prevent a ‘tactical freeze’? It is clear that offline and online activism are intertwined and that the affordances of digital communication are invaluable. We need to consider whether the velocity of digital communication undermines careful strategic decision-making. And how online and offline resources can be used to ensure democratic and inclusive debate. Some things might not be best discussed online, and we may need to learn a ‘digital hygiene’ i.e. knowing when and what to tweet. However we move forward it is clear that movement building in digital times requires solidarity and respect.

Silke Roth is a sociologist @SilkeRoth

It’s still on, and we’re still out.

Members will know from email and social media, UCU Higher Education Committee voted to reject the proposals put forward on Monday.

As we said in our last blog announcement, our branch recognises and has shared members’ issues and concerns with the proposals. UCU President Sally Hunt has made clear in recent messages that the decision to reject the proposals was made following detailed discussion of the proposals by branch reps, following UCU’s commitment at the start of the dispute to ensure branches take a full role in decision-making.

We fully respect the outcome of UCU’s democratic processes and we ask all branch members to continue with strike action and Action Short of a Strike. We want to see a really good showing on the picket lines, at rallies, at events and teach outs for the rest of this week.

Please join us on the picket line. If you cannot join us on the picket line, we ask you not to do any university work, and to ensure that your auto-reply is on.  From next week, we ask you to engage in Action Short of a Strike (working only your contracted hours) when not on strike.

We have a full schedule of events and teach outs planned for the rest of the week, starting Wednesday morning with pickets at 8.00 AM; a rally and briefing at 11.00 at Jubilee Plaza, and continuing with Silke Roth’s fantastic teach out on Digital and physical activism, 2pm Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre (just past Brewed Awakening).

Details of the rest of the week’s teach-outs are here:

Weds 14 March

2-4pm

Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre, Broadlands Rd, nr Brewed Awakening How have digital technologies and social media changed activism? 
Silke RothIn this teach-out we look at the relationship between online and offline activism. We look at online media as a game changer and have a look at the affordances of social media, at repertoires of digital activism and the fragility of networked action. We will consider slacktivism and how ‘digital prefigurative action’ can lead to the participation in offline protest events.
Thurs 15 March2-4pm Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre, Broadlands Rd, nr Brewed Awakening Music Workshop 

WA Mozart, Casual Employee?
Tom Irvine

The Arts, the War on the Welfare State and the end of Keynsian Economics
Andrew Pinnock

How to Improvise a Protest Song (with audience participation)
Andy Fisher

 

Fri 16 March 2-4pm Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre, Broadlands Rd, nr Brewed Awakening Workshop: The ethics of taking strike action: principles, consequences and care
Taking strike action entails struggling with competing duties and responsibilities, thinking through and articulating why one principle trumps another, calculating the short and long terms costs and benefits, and taking practical actions with other people. This interactive workshop will offer an opportunity to explore these ideas and introduce concepts to build on over the coming weeks and months, as we reflect on what a university is and what being an academic and professional in higher education means to each of us.

Members are asking what happens next and you can find a broad outline in Sally Hunt’s message to members, which you will have received by email – though we do not yet know what UUK’s response will be, and their response will naturally shape our next steps. Indications are that it is likely that the consultation on full DC (mentioned in today’s meeting) will begin on 19 March. UCU will provide members with materials on this as soon as possible. Members who are also external examiners at USS institutions will be asked to consider their positions in respect of those contracts. Your branch will also be in contact with Head Office to set the next 14 days of strike action after the Spring Vacation.

We look forward to showing our strength and solidarity on the picket lines tomorrow! See you there…

Cathy, Mark, Roger, Marianne, Dave, Sarah, John, Mary, Huw, Maureen, Tim, Amanda, and Laurie (in absentia)

ACAS proposals and members’ briefing

We held a briefing meeting for members this morning to hear your views about the new proposals from UCU and UUK, published last night. Please note that this was not an EGM as we need to give three days’ notice for this under branch rules.

Earlier this morning a quorate UCU executive committee met to discuss the proposals and agreed the following statement:

“We are minded to support the suspension of the action to put the deal to our members with the information they will need to make evidence based and critically informed decisions because this is a complex situation and we need to hear all voices.”

This statement was then read to the members at the briefing. There was a discussion of the proposals at the meeting, and members raised a number of issues and concerns. We will feed these issues, and others that come to us via email, back to UCU nationally. It was very clear at the meeting that we need more information to inform our decisions. We are also aware that not everybody from the branch was able to attend the meeting or express their views. At this stage, the branch does not feel able to either support or reject the proposals.

UCU HEC will be meeting this afternoon at 2pm to discuss the proposals and will make the decision whether to suspend or continue with the strike and ASOS action. Please note that should the action be suspended UCU members will be balloted on whether or not to accept the proposals.

We will be in touch with you once we know more and can begin to answer your questions with confidence.

Thank you for your patience and continued support.

Interview with a Dinosaur

Today, the Dinosaur of Solidarity met with SUSU’s Arun Aggarwal, the VP Student Communities, and gave him an exclusive interview.  Below is an edited transcript, but for the full dinotastic experience (including Dinah throwing some rawrsome shapes), you can catch up with the full interview on video.

  1. What does a Dinosaur of Solidarity do?

I see my role primarily as drawing large scale attention to the attack on staff pensions.  I am quite large and I have been told I am a bit shouty. Basically I want staff here to have the decent pension they were promised.  Universities UK and some VCs of our Universities want to replace our defined benefit pension with an inferior defined contribution scheme that represents a 10-40% cut in deferred salary. My slogan is don’t let the pension go extinct.

 

  1. So what is a typical day for you on strike

I get up and eat some porridge – I need the slow release energy throughout the day because being a Dinosaur of Solidarity burns the calories. I then join a local picket at Highfield or Avenue or SGH. I do a bit of shouting.  Sometimes if the pickets re really good I do my special Dino picket for pension dance.  I’ve been working on it at the weekend.  Then I have some lunch – usually a salad – and I go to one of our teach outs. This week we have protest song writing with the Music Department – on Thursday – looking forward to that

 

  1. What are the parts of your role that are most directly relevant to students at the University of Southampton

I love students. I couldn’t eat a whole one because I am vegetarian now.  But I want them to get the best education they can. Demoralised devalued staff who have suffered real term pay cuts, casualization, increasing workloads and now this cut to our pension cannot deliver excellent education.  Students here have been Dino-tastic in their support of this strike action – they understand that their staff need a decent pension.

 

  1. I’d like to know about your time as a student, what do you miss ?

I was a student a long time ago. Can’t say how long ago it was cos then you’d work out how old I am, and a dinosaur never tells. But if I say first Ice Age you’ll have an idea. I studied when you didn’t have to pay – there were no student fees or those horrible student loans.  That’s another thing that makes me angry – a bunch of people who got free higher education have stolen it from a generation. Grrr.

There were polytechnics back then.  I went to one of those. It was great. I loved it. I often say it transformed my life.  I wouldn’t be where I am today without those awesome teachers.  I miss the days before fees when people from all walks of life could do education without paying.

  1. Were there any student union clubs or societies you joined?

Well obviously archaeology club. Love a bit of digging up ancestors, that kind of thing. And the choir. I love a sing.

  1. Southampton offers a broad range off degrees if you could start now what would it be?

Oh that’s a tough one. I’m a bit of a polymath. I like so many things. I like to stretch myself.  I suppose I’d like to learn finance and accounting and maybe do an MBA so that I could help the poor leadership of Universities UK, you know help them get their sums about the pension right.

I like to stretch myself and I don’t let my small brain or short arms hold me back so if I’mhonest what I’d really like to do is learn to knit.  I was hoping I could do that when I retired but I am not sure I can afford the wool if we don’t get the pension back.

  1. One last question before I let you go back to the strike – what are your hobbies?

I mostly like reading with my family and resting after a hard day working at the University. If I haven’t got marking or stuff to do.  I’ve go a big family so mostly I like reading. I like those Dinobird books – reading to the little dinos. They’ve learn lots of new words like ‘anti trade union legislation’ ‘expenses’ and ‘Pornstar Martinis’ from those books.

Another Monday. Another strike day.

If you are a recent UCU joiner, you are one of the 30% of new members we have welcomed since the action began – hello, and nice to meet you. Please come and introduce yourself, and join us on the picket lines!

This is day 10 of the longest, most sustained higher education strike I can remember and I have been in UCU (and before, its predecessor. AUT) for nearly 30 years.

I don’t know about you but I am exhausted and desperate to go back to work. It is draining being on the picket line, despite the collegiality and the strong sense of shared purpose.  The teach-outs have shown how wonderful teaching and learning can be, but they also remind us that this is where we want to be, doing education.  For others, research deadlines loom, and projects are being damaged. And our academic-related colleagues have had to watch as processes, systems and projects they have nurtured and developed begin to unravel.

ASOS has been an eye opener, too – we all knew we took home work and did extra on top of our contracted hours, but being asked to work your hours really brings that into focus – as have the messages from senior managers telling us to prioritise two-thirds of our workloads on non-strike days. In other words, the SMT appear to have conceded that we are overloaded.

It has been salutary to engage with our students about the value of education, about bigger issues such as fees and loans and VCs pay, and to talk about the damage that marketization has wrought on our once world-leading University system.  It has been wonderful to have their support – individually, and via SUSU – despite the fact that the impact of the strike is felt first by them.

We have achieved a lot, but we are not at the finish line.  UUK reluctantly agreed to talk at ACAS. The debate about our pensions has been broadened. We have significant public and political support.  The evidence base from which to challenge UUK decision making is larger and stronger. There are signs that UUK may be beginning to listen.

But…

We have to be aware that all the way through this dispute a handful of powerful VCs and some hardliners in UUK have pushed to destroy our pension and break the promises we were made. Our own VC has chosen not to align with those who are calling for an alternative proposal that would preserve defined benefits. He has not publically distanced himself from the questionable data about the scheme, or the dubious decision-making processes that we have discovered are at the heart of these damaging pension proposals.  Other universities’ SMTs are finding ways to reduce the impact of the strike on their most precarious staff, but we have been told that we are the authors of our own misfortune, and that we should “reflect” on the harm we’ve done (to the students who are supporting us day in, day out).

We have to maintain the pressure by continuing to strike this week.  If UUK sense that our resolve has been weakened by their delaying tactics they will not up their offer.  Our UCU negotiators will fight for the best deal we can achieve, but they can only do that if they can point to our strike action.  For that reason we are asking you once again to join us on the picket lines, to refuse to work and to maintain the strike.

There will be pickets on campuses from 8am each day. If you have not signed up to a rota slot, please call in at the office at 47 University Road and we will deploy you to a picket line.

We have also arranged teach-outs again this week:  here’s the schedule:

 

Mon 12 March

2-4pm

SUSU meeting room 2

Level 1 B42

An audience with the Dinosaur of Solidarity – tbc
Tues 13 March

 

2-4pm

SUSU meeting room 2                       Level 1 B42 What is education for?  An open discussion – Lucy Watson

In an age of increasing student debt where ’employability’ has become the benchmark for the success of a programme, students are finding themselves in the difficult position of having to decide what courses deliver the best ‘value for money’. This session will focus on the recent marketization of HE and explore some of its intentional and unintentional results.

Weds 14 March

 

2-4pm

Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre, Broadlands Rd, nr Brewed Awakening How have digital technologies and social media changed activism? – Silke Roth

In this teach-out we look at the relationship between online and offline activism. We look at online media as a game changer and have a look at the affordances of social media, at repertoires of digital activism and the fragility of networked action. We will consider slacktivism and how ‘digital prefigurative action’ can lead to the participation in offline protest events.

Thurs 15 March

2-4pm

Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre, Broadlands Rd, nr Brewed Awakening Music Workshop

“WA Mozart, Casual Employee?” – Tom Irvine

“The Arts, the War on the Welfare State and the end of Keynsian Economics” – Andrew Pinnock

“How to Improvise a Protest Song” (with audience participation) – Andy Fisher

 

Fri 16 March 2-4pm Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre, Broadlands Rd, nr Brewed Awakening Workshop: The ethics of taking strike action: principles, consequences and care
Taking strike action entails struggling with competing duties and responsibilities, thinking through and articulating why one principle trumps another, calculating the short and long terms costs and benefits, and taking practical actions with other people. This interactive workshop will offer an opportunity to explore these ideas and introduce concepts to build on over the coming weeks and months, as we reflect on what a university is and what being an academic and professional in higher education means to each of us.

We know many of you are worried about the financial impact of the strike – we have a local hardship fund in addition to the national strike pay so we will do our best to mitigate this, prioritising our lowest paid colleagues and those in casualised, precarious posts.

If you wish to donate to the fund the details are:

UCU Southampton 71 Hardship Fund
Account number: 20391537
Sort code: 60-83-01

This message has been posted on our blog but also sent to the all members email list as we know that some people are reading their soton.ac.uk accounts. if you are reading your work email please, please do not work while the strike is on.  If there is a meaningful proposal from UUK the action will be suspended, but we really must keep up the pressure or our efforts since 22 February will be in vain.

I know that you are fed up with striking and with ASOS. I know you are angry with UUK, with our University governance and our senior managers – rightly so, for they have all contributed to this situation. I know you are tired of striking.

I want to remind you that we are the University. UUK, the VC, the senior managers, the lay members of Council, are not the University. They do not do the things that you do to keep higher education and research going at this University.  We are standing together – with our students – and we are saying no to the broken promises about our pension.

I’d like to end by saying that while this message will be signed by me, your branch VP, this action to defend pensions here is the work of an inspirational collective.  Members of UCU at Southampton have the most brilliant branch executive.  I cannot tell you how grateful I have been to them over the past month. They have pulled together; we have supported each other and our members, and collectively responded to all manner of issues ranging from last minute requests from management for a detailed risk assessments for our joint union rally, to managing picket lines through some of the worst weather we have ever had in this city, to crafting petitions and open letters to try to influence the debate locally and nationally.  We may be tired but we are also blessed. I am hopeful that we will win. We just have to stay strong, stand together and hold the strike a little longer.

See you on the picket lines.

Catherine Pope
Vice-President, Southampton UCU

Letter to the Chair of Council, Dr Gill Rider, and all members of Council

NB: Update, 1700 9 March 2018.  We have had a response from the Chair of Council. attached at the foot of this post.


Away from the vitality and vibrancy of our pickets and teach-outs, Southampton UCU members have been busy writing letters and campaigning.  You will have seen our open letter, signed by over 1000 people, that we published on Monday.

Today, we sent another letter to the Chair of Council, Dr Gill Rider, and all members of Council, asking them to make representations to Sir Christopher Snowden, our President and VC.  We asked specifically for him to align the University of Southampton with the growing number of universities who are now rejecting the “November valuation” of USS on which UUK’s final proposals were based.  We also asked for Southampton to follow the example of a number of institutions who have committed to spreading pay deductions for striking members over the rest of the academic year.

The text of the letter is given here:

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Please sign our Open Letter to the President and Vice-Chancellor

NB: We closed the letter to new signatories at 1645, due to the announcement on SUSSED that confirmed that the VC would not be withholding pay from staff for ASOS. We’d like to thank everyone who signed the letter, and we are grateful to the VC for listening to our concerns.


We have compiled an open letter to the President and Vice-Chancellor, Sir Christopher Snowden, urging him to support his staff in their fight to retain their pensions, and expressing our grave concern at the aggressive position taken against striking staff, in messages sent on 1 March 2018.

We would like to present this letter to the VC at the end of this third week of strikes, on 9 March 2018, but we will continue to collect signatures until the dispute is called off.

Please show us your support by signing the letter – anyone can sign, not just UCU or university members.   The text is reproduced below. To add your name, click on this link and fill in the form at the bottom of the letter: signatories will be added to this blog periodically, last update each day at 1730.

(Please do not leave a comment here to ask us to add your name: we really want your signatures, but we are really stretched for administrative capacity, especially during the strike. Please click on this link and add it via the form instead.)

A huge thank you from Southampton UCU Executive Committee.


Dear Sir Christopher

We are writing to you about the ongoing strike action, related to the sweeping reforms to pension arrangements proposed by Universities UK.

The proposal for radical change, which downgrades the USS pension scheme from primarily defined benefit to completely defined contribution, is a contentious and divisive issue amongst universities themselves. We think that Southampton should be demonstrating strong leadership to counter this ill-conceived proposal, and avoiding a damaging and potentially prolonged industrial dispute with its staff. We know that you were among the first VCs publicly to embrace the proposal (Southampton UCU blog, 4 October 2017), but you have expressed a desire to see meaningful consultation resume.

We urge the University of Southampton to lobby hard to find a fair and decent solution, which protects the interests and financial security of staff and restores relationships of trust across the sector. Whilst we appreciate the need for collective responsibility in negotiations, we think the issue is so critical and the consequences so grave, that you should consider making a public stand, similar to that taken by the VCs of Cambridge, Warwick, Glasgow, Loughborough, Aberdeen, Sheffield, Essex, Durham, Birkbeck and Imperial College.

Some institutions have challenged the proposals, including on the grounds of justice and fair play to their staff, as well as concerns about the underlying assumptions upon which the case for reform are based. Loughborough has led the way in demonstrating compassion for its staff, ensuring that strike pay deductions are made over the remaining months in the academic year, to lessen immediate hardship for those who can least afford the loss of income. In light of this, we are particularly concerned by the unnecessarily aggressive stance taken against staff in messages sent on Thursday 1 March by a number of AUs and Faculties, which set out threats of docking pay of those taking part in Action Short of a Strike (ASOS), for failing to reschedule lectures (an instruction that is impossible for individual lecturers to fulfil), as well as restrictions on leave to attend conferences. We are dismayed that the University feels this is an appropriate position to take, and we are concerned that this demonstrates little recognition of the effort that will be needed to repair serious damage to staff-employer relations once the dispute is over.

We find it hard to think of an employment-related issue that has generated more anger, distress and strong feelings among university staff. To be sure, many senior academics stand to lose significantly in retirement, but the proposed changes will be devastating for the pension provision for younger and more junior staff, of both academic and related backgrounds, and those on lower incomes and part-time contracts, particularly female staff. The proposals – and the ongoing industrial action – will damage the sector, the financial wellbeing of its staff, its global competitiveness, and institutional relationships of trust and goodwill for decades to come.

We urge you and your senior management team to use Southampton’s influence in the sector to demonstrate active leadership in challenging the UUK and seeking to convince it to reconsider its position before the UCU industrial action escalates. Only through working together with the union, both within this university and across the higher education sector, can Southampton ensure that its staff are valued and fairly-rewarded, in particular those in weaker positions of income and contract; that students are given the best educational experience; and that its international reputation is maintained.

Yours sincerely

1055 signatories to 1645, 6 March 2018

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Picket and Teach-Outs Schedule, Strike Week 3, 5-8 March!

Last week’s action was warming to the soul, if freezing everywhere else.  What an amazing lot you are!  Highlights included the Monday rally with Sally Hunt, General Secretary of UCU, and the meteoric rise of the Dinosaur of Solidarity, now a Strike of 2018 superstar (other branches are now requesting appearances…).

Here is the schedule for this week’s strike activities. After each day’s pickets, UCU has organised a series of teach-outs for students and staff to learn together during the strike action.  Please do come along and join these and support your striking lecturers.  You can download the teach-outs schedule here.

You can sign our open letter to the VC here, for delivery on 9 March.

All activities subject to change (who knows, the dispute may be called off!).  More activities may be added, so keep your eyes on Twitter and Facebook for updates.

MONDAY 5 March: (am dry and breezy, showers later)

8am – 12pm Morning picket – meet with picket coordinators or come to Union House

Twitter challenge:  Where is The Dinosaur of Solidarity?

12pm Rally at Highfield – petition to go to VC at 1230pm
2pm-4pm Teach-out, Trago Lounge, Portswood Road

WTF does my lecturer actually do all day?

Christopher Gutteridge from iSolutions has worked near and with academics for over 20 years. He will give a tour of what the hell it is that academics actually do all day (when they are not on strike).

 

TUESDAY 6 March: (breezy all day)

8am – 12pm Morning picket – meet with picket coordinators or come to Union House

THERE WILL BE CAKE.  TODAY IS THE DAY OF CAKE.

2pm-4pm Teach-out, SUSU meeting room 2, Level 1 B42

Strikes on  Screen: Representing Workers 

You’ve seen us on the picket Iine, but is that what strikes always look like? Cinema has long told stories about workers and their struggle for fairness.  Dr Shelley Cobb, Dr Louis Bayman and Prof Nicky Marsh will take you through a history of strikes on screen, then look closely at the context and conditions of strikes and workers in 80s Britain, concluded by a look at women’s strikes and the gendered issues of workplace equality.

4pm-5.30pm Teach-out, October Books, 243 Portswood Road

How do you teach creativity?

Can you teach creative writing? How can we use our imaginations to engage with the world around us?  Join writer and teacher at Itchen College, Catrin Mascall, for a creative writing workshop and open discussion about how we teach creativity in schools and beyond. This session is in support of October Books.

 

WEDNESDAY 7 March:  (showers in the am)

8am – 12pm Morning picket – meet with picket coordinators or come to Union House

POP PICKETS CHALLENGE – video your picket singing! Lyrics sheets will be available, but we’d love to see what you come up with.

1pm-2pm Southampton University Community Choir, Turner Sims Concert Hall
2pm-4pm Teach-out, Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre (by the entrance to Hampton Car Park) NOTE CHANGE OF VENUE

Resistance histories

Come and hear lecturers in History talk about how people in the past have used their imagination and skill in resisting oppression. Whether in the ancient world, 20th-century Europe or our own times, when faced with armed force or with a ‘new normal’ that they reject, men and women have found ways to think, liaise and refuse.

 

THURSDAY 9 March:  (showers all day)

8am – 11.30pm Morning picket – meet with picket coordinators or come to Union House

IT’S INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!  Come to your picket prepared to celebrate.

1145am Meet at Highfield, Building 37, for a rousing finish to the strike week.
1.30pm-3.30pm Teach-out, SUSU meeting room 2, Level 1 B42

Is homelessness the fault of the individual or society?

Official figures indicate that homelessness and rough sleeping have been rising over the last 7 years. Why are the numbers of people living and dying on the streets continuing to rise? Are those individuals responsible for their own misfortune? Or is society to blame? This lecture will unpack what we know about micro and macro factors It will formulate rough sleeping as an interaction between the individual and environmental, exploring how policy and economic variables interact with mental health and individual coping to cause and maintain homelessness.

 

Cake and misdirection. The VC’s chat with the students

Cake and misdirection. The VCs chat with the students

The students recently occupied the VCs office to quiz him about the USS pension plans. The resulting video (part 2 here)  provides an opportunity to hear Sir Christopher’s defence of UUK plans to remove the guaranteed pension for academic and academic related staff at level 4 and above.

We have identified four core arguments he offers and we refer to these, for reasons that should become clear, as

  1. Cake
  2. Hobson’s Choice
  3. Lost the money
  4. Shift the blame

Throughout, his responses are peppered with reassurances that he knows what he’s talking about (“that’s the reality,” “let me explain,” “it’s more complex than that”) – but once you poke under the veneer, the arguments are flimsy. At the end, he adds a few other rhetorical flourishes but we will deal with the big four first.

CAKE

This is the “not enough money argument” We call it cake as he talks about there “only being one cake.” (NB: We believe Marie Antoinette used this metaphor previously).

The VC says that keeping the Defined Benefit scheme would cost this university £9m, and this would force cuts elsewhere (there is only one cake). Later he says that to return to 1997 contribution levels, the university would have to pay up to £12 million.

Our VC – and UUK – seem very keen to create fear about the cost of USS.

We have seen similarly inflated claims by other universities. We suspect that UUK has been rehearsing these arguments with university leaders, along with shared strategies and scare tactics.  We have seen very similarly worded emails being sent to staff at different universities about deductions of pay for working to contract, for example.

In 1997, the employers were paying 18.55% into USS. If this had continued, there would be no possible excuse to claim that the scheme might have a future deficit.

In 1997, however, the employers claimed the scheme was in surplus and reduced their contribution to 14%. We think Southampton stopped paying into PASNAS around this time as well, citing the same reason.

Even with the USS “pension holiday” by the employers, the scheme is doing surprisingly well. The best actuarial estimates show that it is not in deficit at all.

So these “cake” arguments are about further reducing the possibility of the employers having to make additional payments in the future. Universities want to reduce liabilities and salary spend in order to generate more profit, and attract financial investment – like our Bond. Interestingly, the pension liability was described as fairly low risk in the bond application; it is only now we have the £300 million in the bank that we are being told that pensions are a high risk.

It seems to us that, basically, employers would like more cake for themselves. We say they should invest in their staff who actually deliver education and research.

HOBSON’S CHOICE

… or the “we have no choice” argument.

He says “we have a moral obligation to have the best possible pension scheme we can have.”  Yes, this is about morality and obligation. The employers made a covenant or promise to staff about a guaranteed pension.  They have made lots of promises they have not kept.

This is the third change to the pension scheme in seven years: the scheme was changed in 2011 and in 2014, and each time we were promised that the changes would be stable for years into the future.

Staff want the Defined Pension because it provides some certainty about the income they will get in retirement and crucially, unlike Defined Contribution, the risk is collectively shared by the employers, not pushed onto the individual.

DC is not “the best the employers can do.” Universities can decide to value staff and reward them. They seem very happy to make the argument that pay matters to senior staff whose reward packages have gone up and up, while staff pay has fallen in real terms,

The DB scheme and its guaranteed pension was a moral obligation and a promise.

WE LOST THE MONEY

…or DB is just too expensive and we’ve lost the money (and all the while USS executives and investment managers are earning in their millions).

Sir Christopher says the DB has “become more expensive because basically the investments haven’t generated the money they need to.” See how neutral that sounds.  It is as if the money invested itself and fared badly. But it seems to us that the employers keep redoing their sums to get an answer they can use to argue for removing DB.

The “technical provisions” proposed by USS in September 2017 did not cast the scheme in a sufficiently bad light to satisfy the hardline VCs at Universities UK, so they launched a special consultation not just of  mainstream universities but also of all the other small employers who have a few members in the USS pension scheme. Fewer than half responded (unlike our UCU strike ballot) and, of those that did, a minority called for even more pessimistic “technical provisions.”

It later emerged that a third of this hard-line minority consisted of individual Oxbridge colleges, each of whom have few USS members, who wanted to bring down the shared USS covenant as it favoured other universities over Oxbridge. Based on this minority position, the USS trustees were persuaded to adopt new “technical provisions” in November 2017. These artificially inflatde the cost of a defined benefit pension by about 4% of salary, making them (falsely) appear unaffordable.

We suspect Christopher Snowden was also amongst the minority who pushed to destroy the USS guaranteed (DB) pension. The non-Oxbridge supporters of this position seem to be VCs who have taken out large private-sector bonds. He is also trying to do similar damage to Southampton’s local PASNAS scheme.

SHIFT THE BLAME

Finally, he tries to shift the blame. Basically he attempts to offload the blame to anyone but UUK and the employers. First he tries to blame THE GOVERNMENT. This is the argument that “it’s that nasty pension regulator what made us do it.”  He suggests the deficit problem is “coupled to a pensions regulator” and the scheme isn’t compliant with these regulations.

Then he tries to blame THE STUDENTS – they don’t cover their cost.  Even with fees of £9250 the University is not generating sufficient money to cover the cost of education for the UK/EU students. This is a neat way to attempt to sever the emerging coalition between staff and students to defend higher education. Our pension is being taken away because they don’t pay enough.  (He says his view is that the government itself should recognise the social benefit in education and shouldn’t rely so heavily on fees. See how this cleverly loops back to the first blame argument – he’s trying hard here).

Finally in a last ditch attempt to shift the blame he tries to blame THE UNIONS. This one is subtle because he suggests that it is the complexity of the negotiating framework that makes it too difficult to get a decent pension. We acknowledge that there is a JNC that has UUK and UCU sides and there are 366 employers represented by the UUK side.  But the large employers are the 64 in the strike. And our VC has a very powerful voice to influence the direction of the negotiations as a former chair of the UUK and one of the most senior vice chancellors in the country. Why did he side with Oxbridge?  Could it be because of the bond we mentioned above?

AND THE REST…

He then mentions the 1/75th or 1/80th  of salary for calculating defined benefit– either in a final salary or CRB (career revalued benefits) scheme.  This is basically the cake argument again.

He then brings up one point made in a proposal by ‘UCU members’ about retaining 18% employer contributions, but moving to DC. This refers to a discussion document prepared by 3 UoS academics who are also members of the union. This discussion document is not union policy or our positon. The current UUK proposal will not put 18% into the pension pot; it will put a maximum of 13.25% in to the DC scheme. This is a cut to deferred salary.

On the consultation regarding changes to the PASNAS scheme he blames the students, invokes Hobson’s choice, and says they lost the money here too.

He cleverly dodges the question of reducing his own pay.

On the expenses scandal he shifts the blame to ALL THE OTHER UNIVERSITIES because we showed all our dirty linen but the others hid theirs better. Even if the FOI revealed all the questionable expenses of the senior team, the point is that these people are behaving like FTSE 250 CEOs, not educators in a public education system.

He agrees with UCU that the outcome of the current UUK proposals is a totally different type of scheme. He suggest that because others – including his own son – have a ‘worse’ DC scheme we should all have one, too (“That’s the reality,” so deal with it…). This is a race to the bottom argument. We might be tempted to say that as some VCs can live on £150k pa then maybe all should?

The UUK proposals are for a worse pension. Yes, accrued benefits remain (but are subject to volatility of investments to an extent) but this is a move to DC. The questioner makes a great point that he’s “not sure employees want flexibility, I think they want security …it’s perfectly reasonable to say that people don’t want their pension to be decided by the stock market on the day that they retire.”  Exactly. One of our students understands what we are asking for better than UUK and our own VC.

Near the end of the session, Sir Christopher hints that if the finances improve the employers will pay more into our pension. What makes him think we are ever going to trust our employers again?

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.

 

 

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