It seems like only yesterday that UCU called its members out on strike. In fact it was about 18 months ago and that time our pay was under negotiation. After years of very low pay rises, which amounted to real terms pay cuts, members came out to try to push for a more reasonable pay offer. Truth be told, I don’t think we were particularly successful. That makes the call to strike again a difficult one. Will we have any more success this time?
I hope so because the pensions crisis is, in someways, more serious than the pay rises. For those of us who rely on our salaries and pensions to live, a threat to move away from a modest defined pension benefit to a very risk defined contribution is frightening. I am frightened of a retirement spent on an income which pushes me considerably below the poverty line. As a woman, I already know my pension is likely to be worse due to persistent pay inequalities in universities. I look at the models put forward and I see my projected annual income fall below £13k – I wonder what £13k per annum will cover in 30 years time. If I can retire then. If there is any state pension left by 2048.
All this in the context of being a relatively well-paid employee. Although I know I am likely paid less than male colleagues, I am still very well paid by any average salary comparison. Yet house prices have escalated way beyond salary rises, so I am stuck (like others my age and younger) in the private rental sector. Years of paying off student loans stifled my savings capacity. And the cycle of temporary contracts which necessitates a move to a new city every few years has taken its toll. Yet I am aware of my fortunate position. However, we need to work together to push for a fair income for all, irrespective of employment status, not a race to the bottom.
So I will join in the industrial action to save USS at a defined benefit for as much as is possible. I will join for selfish reasons, but I will also join in for those who cannot. Those on precarious contracts who cannot afford to strike but want a future in HE. For those who have yet to join the fantastic world of teaching and research – because it is fantastic. I want to focus on my work, on supporting my inspiring students who make this job the joy that it can be. I want to research disability, gender and inclusive workplaces. I want to effect change for a more progressive and inclusive world. To do this me, and my colleagues, need to be able to focus on being researchers, teachers, scholars, librarians, IT and learning tech experts, managing staff, overseeing research projects – and all the other essential services overseen by UCU members. We should not live in fear of poverty in retirement and wondering if we should have followed a different career path. If the employers destroy our pension then entering the sector becomes even less attractive.
I hope that the industrial action does not need to go ahead because the employers have re-entered negotiations. I really do not want students to suffer through this dispute. But I am hopeful that if staff and students stand together we can push the universities to rejoin negotiations and find a way forward that ensures a fair and attractive academic career. I hope anyone reading will join me by writing to their VC/Principal asking them to return to negotiations and their MPs, AMs, MLAs and MSPs to ask for their support and if possible, support the industrial action if it starts.
Useful information https://www.ucu.org.uk/strikeforuss
Fighting fund https://www.ucu.org.uk/fightingfund
Employment rights during strike and industrial action https://www.gov.uk/industrial-action-strikes/your-employment-rights-during-industrial-action