December Strikes: An Interview With UCU Branch President Dr. David Moon

As today, Wednesday the 1st of December, marks the start of a three day strike action led by the University and College Union (UCU), I sat down with the UCU President for the Bath branch, Dr. David Moon, to understand what this strike was about and what was UCU’s message to the impacted students. Here’s what he had to say.

Elie Breton: Hello Dr. Moon, thank you for meeting with us. Can you briefly tell us what issues lie at the heart of strike?

David Moon: This strike action is specifically over the USS pension scheme and the changes that have been made to it. This is a long running dispute, many students will be aware of it because they’ve gone through several different engagements in this.

EB: Can you explain what’s wrong with the USS pension scheme?

DM: Sure absolutely. So the staff which are represented by UCU are part of a national pension scheme called USS. USS is going to be making changes to our pensions which will have a major impact by cutting our final benefits by 25% to 35%, depending on whose figures you look at. USS’ model says we’ll lose ¼ of pensions’ final output, UCU says 35%. But either way it’s a crippling amount of money. What the strike action is hopefully meant to do is to put pressure on employees to get them to not put in place these deep cuts but instead to work towards a jointly-negotiated agreement that will put in place a different model, different changes to pensions’ system and to call for a new valuation of the strength of the pensions’ scheme.

EB: Why is the USS’ model flawed?

DM: The reason we’re in the situation that we’re in now is because all pension schemes have to take a valuation to see their strength. Our pension scheme took it in the middle of the COVID pandemic at the point where the market bottomed out. If it had been taken literally months later, we would have been looking golden. That means we have a completely non-realistic valuation which says things are far worse than they are, which is the basis of needing these cuts according to USS. And that’s why we need a new valuation that would demonstrate the actual strength of the pension scheme and show all of this is completely unnecessary. 

EB: How did we get to this point?

DM: Well our employers, who are represented nationally by a group called Universities UK or UUK, should be on the same page as us. They’re being hit by these large rises in contribution cost or swingeing cuts to our pensions which is bad for the entire sector because who wants to go to work for a very bad retirement. It’s bad for all of us. The problem is UUK and their role within USS. The reason we are where we are today is that USS has a board where decisions are made by a joint panel made up of roughly half UCU representatives and half UUK representatives with an independent chair. They’re the decision makers. When it came to decide what should be done here, UUK put forward their proposal which is roughly 35% cuts. UCU wanted to put forward their proposal but UUK refused to allow it. That meant there was only one policy on the table and the independent chair voted it through. This is where we are today, the pressure is now for UUK to basically change that situation.

“A strong strike now, with strong student support is the best way that we can avoid further strike actions later.”

EB: So you’re hoping that this strike action will open discussions and put an end to the new pension scheme?

DM: The point of this strike action is in many ways a shot across the bow, it’s a warning to Universities UK because these changes come into place in February, some major deep cuts. As things stands, 58 universities will be going out on strike but a significant amount more are being re-balloted and the idea is within the new year there will be a stronger number of universities which might go out. Nobody wants to go out on strikes, strikes involve first of all members not getting paid, members standing out in the freezing cold at the worst possible time of the year. We also as staff don’t want to be causing disruptions to our students, that’s almost the number one thing. One of the difficult things for staff is the only tool we have to influence our employers is to withdraw our labour but the only way we can do that is by causing disruption to students’ education, the very thing we work the hardest at and we care the most about. So it’s an awful, ugly situation that we’re in but the hope is that by taking this strong stance we can avoid any further action in the future. But really the ball is in the Universities UK court now because it’s with them to respond to UCU’s demands to stop the strike action. There is still time to stop anything in the new year, it’s just down to intransigence.

A strike action in 2020

EB: It seems that you’re hinting at future actions at the start of 2022. Are you saying that students should be prepared for the possibility of further strike actions and disruptions?

DM: My honest answer is that I hope not because my hope is that Universities UK will come to the table and negotiate in good faith so that this is called off. UCU did not choose this fight, the fight was put on the table because UUK refused to actually negotiate in good faith towards a situation without such deep cuts. It’s entirely possible for this to be avoided it’s completely unnecessary to force all of us into this situation however if UUK refuse to act then workers have no other tool in their belt except the threat of withdrawing their labour. Unfortunately that’s always a danger but that’s one of the key reasons why we want the strike action this time to be as successful as possible. A strong strike now, with strong student support is the best way that we can avoid further strike actions later. Because it will demonstrate to Universities UK the threat of further strike actions and I’m really happy to see the support of the National Union of Students.

“Our working conditions are your learning conditions”

EB: If you had a message to the students who are going to be affected by the strikes, what would it be?

DM: It’s a cliché in some sense, but it’s also true: our working conditions are your learning conditions. What we want as a University community is a situation in which students are taught by staff who feel secure, who feel safe in their ability to plan for the future and have reasonable workloads and other such concerns. If staff are feeling underpaid, unhappy and insecure, then that doesn’t mean a very good educational system for the students who deserve it. So the support and solidarity of students is the number one thing that can help in our action. It will galvanise members, strengthen our hand and hopefully avoid any future action. If students come out in support of the action being taken it sends a clear message to management to act.

EB: Is there anything that the students can do to help? How can they participate?

DM: One thing that we’ve been asking to do is for people to email the Vice Chancellor asking him to make a public statement in which he’d call for a negotiated settlement based on the withdrawal of the current changes to pensions agreeing to give the same level of covenant support to any proposal, that progress be made on governor’s reform and reiterating the welcome call for new valuation. That’s what students could do and please come down to the pickets, come and join us, come talk to us. Just because we’re not in the classroom doesn’t mean that we’re not also there to contribute to those conversations.

EB: Two years ago during the last strike action the SU had put a referendum on strike support. How come there is no referendum this year?

DM: I have no knowledge about what the SU’s thinking is on that. The only thing I’ve been told is that calls for referendum have to be made at the SUmmit and one did not come ahead of the action being taken. That’s all I know on the matter but we will of course welcome the Student Union’s support or any student support in general. And I will say, I’m proud as UCU branch President to try and work closely with the SU on issues across the university. We all want the same thing.

EB: Thank you for your time.

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