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Fight for your education, support the strikes : An open letter to students by Dr. David Moon

The local branch of University and College Union (UCU), which represents academic and professional service staff members at the University of Bath, are out on strike between the 14th and 22nd of February. This is part of national strikes across the UK aimed at preventing deep cuts to our pensions. As the Branch President of the University of Bath UCU branch, I am writing this open letter to our student body to explain why we are taking this painful action, and in doing so to hopefully gain your support and solidarity – and to see you at our alternative Teach Outs in town. If not, I hope it at least explains what is going on and why now, specifically.

What is the plan?

For seven days, colleagues will withhold our labour and go without pay in the hope that the subsequent disruption to university business pressurises our employer to back a better deal on pensions, avoiding the planned cuts, as a way to bring a quick end to the strike.

None of us want this. Strike action is not an easy or enjoyable thing to do.

No staff member wants to take the financial hit that strike action brings. As noted, staff on strike are not paid. We have already faced two decades of real term pay cuts. Now, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis caused by inflation and skyrocketing utility bills, losing over a week’s pay is particularly painful.

No staff member wants to bring disruption to students’ education. Our academic members take great pride in our teaching – we hate to see whole weeks torn out of lecture schedules – and we genuinely care for our students’ learning and miss being in the classroom. Your librarians, student support staff, technicians all work daily to aid and assist you.

None of us want this. Strike action is not an easy or enjoyable thing to do.

Dr. David S. Moon

Why are we doing this?

So why will we choose to spend Valentine’s Day standing in the cold on a picket-line, losing pay, in danger of alienating the very students we care about, all with no guarantee of victory?

First, this is not just about us. It sounds trite, but it’s true: Our working conditions are your learning conditions. I mentioned already we’ve faced real term pay cuts for two decades. Well pensions are themselves a form of ‘deferred pay’: we sacrifice a significant portion of our pay each month to put into the pension pot on the promise that when we come to retire, we’ll have enough money to live in dignity.

Overworked and under-paid, university workers have at least had that assurance to sustain us. Strip that away and you’ve demoralised staff, with many people leaving the sector, other potentially brilliant teachers deciding it isn’t a viable career. All of this impacts your experiences in classrooms and laboratories.

Your support is more important than anything else to UCU members.

Dr. David S. Moon

But why now? And why for so long?

Answering this requires a brief explanation of how our pension scheme works. Please bear with me!

Key decisions governing our pension, which is called the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), are made by a group called the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC). This is made up of five UUK reps (the national representative of the employers) and five UCU reps (the national representative of the workers), with an ‘independent’ chair who holds the casting vote. When we strike over pensions the aim is to put pressure on our individual universities, to put pressure on UUK, to inform their negotiators to work towards agreeing an agreement that their JNC reps can vote for, alongside UCU reps. Last year UUK’s reps, backed by the chair, voted to impose the currently proposed cuts to USS rather than even discuss UCU’s alternative proposal, with the employers thereby starting the current dispute.

The reason we are on strike now and for a painful seven days no less, is because we have reached the decisive point. It is ‘put up or shut up’ time: On Friday the 11th the JNC meets again, with UUK and UCU submitting alternative cost proposals. The JNC’s next meeting is Tuesday the 22nd at which the vote will be taken – either to implement the deep cuts, or to adopt UCU’s alternative policy, in which we all pay more into the pension for the short to medium period to allow time for a new valuation (more on which below). The strike action takes place in between these two meetings, targeted to pressure employers to abandon their unilateralist approach to cuts, and to engage with UCU’s negotiators to work towards a position acceptable to both sides that ends the strike as quickly as possible.

This is our stand. With the 22nd of February coming it’s do or die territory now.

Dr. David S. Moon

There is no reason this is not possible if employers engage with the union in good faith. We want the strike to end. Hell, we’d rather it never had to start! But for months, UUK have demonstrated nothing but bad faith in negotiations and a general disrespect for the people they employ. Essentially staff are being treated as if we are idiots unable to comprehend basic facts.

The last USS valuation used as a justification for these cuts was run during the depth of the pandemic in March 2020. That identified a £14bn-£18bn deficit. But as The Financial Times Global Pensions Correspondent notes, USS assets had since recovered and by January 2021 had grown to £92bn or £25bn higher than the 2020 valuation. There is no deficit. Then there’s USS’s 2020 ‘prudent assumptions’ on the likely growth of assets. Looking at this members can hardly feel anything but a deep insult to our intelligence. Over the last eight years, the USS Defined Benefits pot has more than doubled in value. In the expert opinion of the Financial Times’ Martin Wolfe, USS’s calculations of risk are absurd and “USS is more than properly funded”. Added to this, an FOI request revealed this month that the Government has (albeit in an “embarrassing cock-up”) guaranteed USS liabilities, underwriting the entire scheme! Claims USS risks collapse are demolished.

UCU members are tired of talking to a brick wall. This is our stand. With the 22nd of February coming it’s do or die territory now. Your support is more important than anything else to UCU members. Our working conditions are your learning conditions. We are standing up for the former, we need your support to protect the latter.

Timetables and how to support us are below.

In Solidarity

Dai

Dr. David S. Moon
UCU Bath Branch President

Timetable for strike action:

  • Monday the 14th: Picket-lines on campus and the Virgil Building starting at 8:30am and running till 12:00.
  • Tuesday the 15th: UCU Teach Outs at The Grapes. Two sessions running at 12:00-14:00 and 15:00-17:00.
  • Wednesday the 16th: Picket-lines on campus and the Virgil Building starting at 8:30am and running till 12:00.
  • Thursday the 17th: UCU Teach Outs at The Grapes. Two sessions running at 12:00-14:00 and 15:00-17:00.
  • Friday the 18th and Monday the 21st: “4 Day Weekend”: no pickets, no UoB work, just stay home and relax.
  • Tuesday the 22nd: Picket-lines on campus and the Virgil Building starting at 8:30am and running till 12:00.


What can students do?

  • Write to your teaching staff and tell them you support the strike, and ask them to support the strike.
  • Talk to your fellow students and explain why the strike action is taking place, ask them to support the strike.
  • Show your support by tweeting it out with the hashtag #UCUBathStrike
  • Visit our picket lines at the pedestrian entrance on Soldier Down Lane and the Virgil Building.
  • Come along to the ‘Teach Outs’ at the Grapes. Hang out, grab a drink with staff and hear some alternative lectures. Keep an on @UCUBath on Twitter and @UCUBath2 on Instagram for line-ups and updates.
  • Stay home on strike days. Don’t cross the picket line. By populating and adding normality to university buildings it undermines the efficiency of strikes. If you attend do not spend money in these buildings. Your absence is a message to management to act to work to end the strike.

Elie Breton des Loÿs

Elie is the current Editor-in-Chief. He was previously the Lifestyle Editor (2019/20) and is still our resident cinema-goer. He won the 'Best Newcomer' prize at the 2019 Media Awards in recognition of his cinema reviews and world politics pieces.

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