Universities ending the strikes is not a climbdown – the fight goes on

The Guardian reports that members of the University and College Union have voted 64% to 36%to suspend industrial action in their campaign to defend guaranteed pensions. They have accepted the proposals of the employers’ organisation, Universities UK, to set up a “joint expert panel” to consider the valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) fund.

They have not done so with any great faith in Universities UK’s commitment to sustaining existing levels of provision, nor with any conviction that the employers’ underlying determination to reduce their pension liabilities has suddenly disappeared.

This was a decision driven more by short-term calculations about what further strike action in the summer term might deliver than about accepting Universities UK’s claim that it now recognises “the clear wish of staff to have a guaranteed pension comparable with current provision”.

The dispute has changed the union: thousands have joined up, moribund branches have revived, and a process of radical political education has taken place. While ordinary members have become experts in superannuation schemes and actuarial arguments, we have all learned that the debate is about far more than pensions. Instead it concerns the broad direction of travel of the university sector under neoliberalism. Pension obligations, far from being a technical and opaque issue, are in fact one of the main constraints on the ability of entrepreneurial-minded institutions to operate as autonomous companies in a higher education (and shiny new buildings) market.

The dispute has further illustrated the precarious position of hourly paid staff who can barely afford pension contributions. At the same time, it has highlighted the bloated nature of a higher education system that gobbles up tuition fees in order to generate surpluses which it then spends on infrastructure and inflated salaries for vice-chancellors, while pleading poverty when it comes to adequately compensating staff.

Acceptance of the offer does not signal the end of the pensions campaign. The composition and work of the proposed panel needs to be scrutinised. The issue of fair pensions must not be kicked into the long grass. The suspension of the action, however, will make it harder to maintain the energy and militancy that emerged so dramatically during the strikes. As the academic Jack Saunders has noted, a “pause” in a dispute is always dangerous: “With momentum gone, attention dissipates and people move on to new problems … Examples of workers successfully prosecuting disputes with a substantial pause in the middle are rare to non-existent.”

Read the full article Universities ending the strikes is not a climbdown – the fight goes on

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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