There are few certainties in life. Benjamin Franklin famously identified just two: death and taxes. Through the experience of the decades-long war on the working class in Britain, it has come to seem like there is a third: workers who have their pensions degraded don’t see them restored.
Defeats faced by the trade union movement since the 1980s can be tracked in many ways. Perhaps the two most commonly used metrics are the steep decline in union membership and the even more precipitous drop-off in labour’s share of national income.
But the steady degradation of pension schemes for workers in all sectors of the economy has been just as devastating. Intensified exploitation of the wealth we create as workers hasn’t stopped in working life: wage theft follows us to the grave.
That’s why it is of such historic significance that UCU members in USS – the second largest private pension scheme in the country – are now on track to win full restoration of their pension benefits, after employers imposed devastating cuts last year which wiped hundreds of thousands of pounds from retirement funds.
University employers’ systematic attack on our pensions really began in 2011. At every turn, our members have fought with great determination to defend their retirement income – most notably in 2018 when we halted a cruel plan to close down the defined benefit (DB) scheme and institute a defined contributions (DC) one in its place.
With our strikes having stopped employers from downgrading the scheme, they resorted in 2020 to spuriously degrading its value. Against the wishes of the union, they supported an opaque and deeply flawed valuation amid the Covid-induced global economic shutdown, and then took advantage of this rigged assessment to impose a 35% cut to the guaranteed retirement income of the average members.
Par for the course, perhaps: employers using the pretext of a financial deficit to attack workers and wreck their pensions. But our members refused to accept this as inevitable, despite being encouraged to do so by many a pension ‘expert’. At first we took strike action in tens of universities where we won local, disaggregated ballots, but despite the steadfastness of members on picket lines that approach simply did not give us enough leverage.
University employers took nationally coordinated action to decimate the value of our pension and steal our benefits. To win them back, we knew we needed to organise on the same scale. So we took the bold decision to hold a national aggregated strike ballot last summer, allowing us for the first time to hit all 67 universities in the pension dispute with strike action at the same time.
Many doubted we could win that ballot, but we did so overwhelmingly. University employers were so assured of our failure that they stood by their pension theft –even though their valuation imposed higher contributions on everyone to plug a non-existent deficit.
Winning the ballot was one thing; delivering national strike action another. But it was the most supported strike in UK university history, with unprecedented participation, massive picket lines, and sustained support from our students.
It has put us on the brink of a major win: university bosses have been forced to admit that not only can our pension benefits be restored but members’ contributions can be lowered too. In March, they confirmed in writing that restoring benefits would be prioritised.
Having won this agreement, approved by 85% of UCU members who voted in a recent consultation, we will now hold employers’ feet to the fire. We won a second national strike ballot last month, and so have a mandate for further industrial action on pensions to use if we need it. In the coming months, UCU, employers and the pension trustee will work together to make restoration happen.
But for us to be at this point is a testament to every worker who – in the face of disregard and often intimidation from employers – has stood on freezing university picket lines for years on end.
When our pension benefits are restored, it won’t only be an industrial triumph for UCU members. I hope it will also raise the bar for, and offer hope to, workers everywhere. At a moment of revival and renewed militancy for organised labour in the UK, workers are fighting for pay restoration. We should be fighting for our pensions back, too.
Pensions aren’t a luxury. They aren’t a gift from the bosses. They are deferred wages. They belong to us.
There is no reason for us to accept that good, secure pensions are a thing of the past: as trade unions we can build the power to win them back. UCU’s win will be a shot in the arm for unions wanting to fight for improved pension benefits. It shows defined benefit (DB) schemes are still more than viable, and it demonstrates the power of workers’ collective action over intransigent employers and ostensible financial experts.
Before becoming general secretary of UCU, my academic research focused on pensions and industrial relations. I sadly studied many glorious defeats. So on a personal note, I am especially proud to be leading a union on the brink of one of the biggest pension wins in UK trade union history.
We are now focused on fighting for improved pay and conditions, in the confidence that determined, strategically executed industrial action gets the goods.