UCUStrikes: The Ballot, what it means and where we go from here.
The following is our understanding, based on evidence cited in the text, and on our understanding of how negotiations work/how settlements are reached, of where we are and the nature of the decision we are being asked to take. We are happy to debate any element of it if there are detailed rebuttals or alternative views on how things work, but we would ask for people to specify precisely how they perceive a settlement arising at any point in this dispute which does not involve a process the same or similar to the one that is on the table. For the avoidance of doubt, we are neither part of, nor opposed in principle to, any grouping within the union.
Jeanette Findlay, Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Glasgow
Patricia Findlay, Professor of Work and Employment Relations, University of Strathclyde
1. We came out on strike because in January the JNC (UUK plus chair) forced through a decision, based on the November 2017 valuation, to remove all Defined Benefits - totally unacceptable.
2. UCU position – (1) refuse to accept these changes, (2) want to open up the issue of the valuation to joint discussion and (3) protect a fair pension.
3. We go on strike for 14 days – make no mistake, the strike and action to date has been successful
a. Employers won’t talk …. Our action makes them talk
b. Employers threaten ASOS deductions … our actions ensures that most don’t/won’t
c. Employers assess that we won’t be strong enough to resist imposition of these damaging changes – but UCU grows in membership and activism
d. Employers insist DB is unaffordable – our action forces a DB offer in March (not good enough, but still an offer the employers previously said wasn’t possible)
4. We reject March offer and make plans for continuing action.
5. Employers make an offer in relation to the valuation process and HEC decide to put this to a ballot of members (people have a variety of complaints about the process - whatever the rights and wrongs of that, it isn’t relevant to the substance of the decision on the ballot).
6. What we are about to vote on is to agree a process, not to agree an outcome. Understanding this distinction is absolutely crucial. We/UCU believe that the USS valuation is wrong and have argued for 5 years for a different valuation process. Avoiding being in the same position every time the USS scheme is revalued means addressing the issue of valuation. Some agreement over the valuation is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, of an outcome to the current dispute that is acceptable to us. We are now being offered a joint valuation process.
7. 1st objective of UCU action has been achieved - the original (DC) offer is now off the table as implied in the UUK statement, confirmed in a direct answer to a question by Josephine Cumbo of the FT and then finally confirmed in the letter to Sally Hunt from Alastair Jarvis last Wednesday (day of Branch Reps meeting in London).
8. So what are we being balloted about? The establishment of an independent panel to look at the valuation methodology and to have underpinning this panel a focus on DB and on ‘broadly comparable benefits’. We are being asked to say yes or no to what we asked for ie the 2nd objective of the UCU action.
9. We are NOT, at this point, being balloted on a set of pension arrangements – this will come later. We would not, therefore, be ‘giving up’ the current industrial action – though it is likely that we would suspend it (see point 20 below).
10. The pensions regulator is on board and the USS board now needs to agree this.
11. Assuming that the USS board agrees, then we have won the first round of this battle – we’ve had the unacceptable offer/s removed and have forced acceptance of the need for a joint process to address the valuation question.
12. Yet some people are unhappy – why?
a. Process of HEC decision – nothing to do with substance of what will be balloted on
b. Because it came from the employers – not unusual in any negotiations process for one side to propose and the other to decide on the proposal (and remember, some members were equally unhappy about the March proposal for having come from UUK and UCU).
c. Because they don’t trust the employer – if a lack of trust was necessary for negotiating and agreement making, few agreements would be made. We gain what we gain by strength in negotiation – and knowing when to deploy that strength.
d. Because there are no specifics on what the final position will be – that’s because this isn’t a ballot on the substance of the pensions, but a process to generate information that will underpin future negotiations on the actual pensions outcome.
e. Because there has been no specification of timings – lots of speculation about how this expert panel process is only for the 2020 valuation – but correspondence between Matt Waddup/UCU and UCU Glasgow makes it is clear that the joint expert panel is aimed at the current valuation – ie will be available in time to influence what happens after April 2019. It is our understanding that UCU will convey this shortly.
f. Some are arguing for a guarantee of no detriment at this stage. But at this stage, there is no ‘detriment’ on the table. If people are arguing that employers should commit now to no detriment in future, this is unrealistic – and even if UUK made such a commitment now, they could abandon that commitment when the Expert Panel on Valuation concludes. Whatever comes out of this valuation process becomes the next terrain on which to fight – or not. Because either we were right and the scheme is sound and doesn’t need to change. Or we were wrong and change in benefits or costs will be proposed. But even if we agreed increased costs were necessary, we could argue that they should be borne by the employers given they had a payment holiday some years ago – but we are not at that stage yet. In effect, some people seem to want to have the agreement completed before getting into the room with the other side! This is generally not how negotiations work.
g. There are objections to mention of affordability and constraints of the existing regulatory regime - we can disagree in negotiations as to what is or is not affordable, but we cannot object to the concept of affordability in and of itself. Similarly, we may not like the regulatory regime, and we may wish to pursue separate discussions with the regulator to establish what room for manoeuvre there is, but we cannot pretend that regulation does not exist or oppose it in principle.
h. Some objections are because the UUK proposal doesn’t address a much wider range of issues, or because there is no focus on UUK governance – on the former, there are wider issues to focus on with our new members and activists, but this dispute is about pensions, and mission creep doesn’t help us with this; on the latter (and notwithstanding that the governance of UUK is a car crash that has got us into this dispute in the first place), it is not the job of any agreement with us to review/reform UUK governance – we would be up in arms if UUK suggested an agreement over the internal governance of UCU. UUK governance is for Principals/VCs to address – and they should.
13. We defer to no-one in our willingness to fight for what is right in the workplace. But we cannot get anyone to articulate – in conversation or on Twitter – what else precisely, at this stage of the process, we are asking for. The question being posed is simple at this stage – is the specified form and operation of an Expert Panel, focussed on retaining a DB scheme and broadly comparable benefits, acceptable to us at this stage in our dispute?
14. Discussions – on Twitter and elsewhere – about problems with the vagueness of the current ‘offer’ are misplaced because we do not have a current offer – we have a proposed mechanism to underpin an offer at the next stage of negotiations.
15. People say this should go back to the negotiators – what for? We have what we wanted at this stage – removal of the January JNC imposed changes – effectively returning us to the status quo for the time being - and (potentially) an agreed process. In fact, UCU confirmed at the Branch Reps meeting that there will be a DB scheme for at least four years: till April 2019 as is, and for the following three years (till next valuation) whatever DB scheme comes out of the current dispute – a scheme which we, necessarily and by definition, will have agreed to.
16. There are lots of risks in the process and in the future. The UCU choice of experts is incredibly important, as is ongoing communication and consultation with the membership. Being clear about what we will and won’t accept is crucial and needs to be understood by our negotiators. But at the end of any agreed process, based on whatever valuation comes out of it, proposals will be put to the Trustees and we will be balloted on whether to accept or reject them.
17. To reiterate – because this point appears to have been lost from the debate, certainly on Twitter - at this point, we are not agreeing to accept whatever comes out of this valuation process. We are not being asked to accept a ‘deal’ that specifies what our pensions will look like. We are being offered the process we asked for. To reject the process we asked for risks making us look ridiculous, alienating some members, and losing student and public support. Members need to be very clear about the different stages of the process – negotiations will follow the valuation process. The upcoming ballot is only about the valuation process.
18. A lack of clarity about what we are deciding in the upcoming ballot doesn’t help in informing members and makes us look divided and consequently weaker.
19. Once the Expert Panel has concluded, we are back in negotiations about the content of any agreement. If at that stage we don’t like what we are offered, then we will take action to defend our pensions.
20. If members vote yes in the ballot, and USS accepts it and the action is suspended, some people appear to feel that if activists ‘stand down’, they won’t stand up again. We have no reason to believe this (quite the reverse – we’re more likely to lose people if we try to keep them involved in action without clarity over why they are taking action). Not only are the employers unlikely to accept that industrial action continues throughout the valuation process (no employer would), but any strike action (or action short) would neither have a current objective (to get the employer to talk, because we'd be talking) or be timely for any ultimate objective - ie to influence an agreement, because we don't have an offer of an agreement yet.
21. If members vote no in the ballot, what are we saying? What comes next? We can, of course, continue our action, but without a new valuation the November valuation will stand. We cannot wish away external constraints in the form of the tPR timescales for the current valuation – and (whatever limited flexibility exists) these are not sensitive to our industrial action as they are not in the gift of UUK.
22. To conclude, all disputes are resolved by a negotiated settlement. Our (UCU) position has always been that we want a joint process of valuation to underpin a negotiated settlement. If we accept the UUK proposal, we would be agreeing to take part in the valuation process that at some point would (or wouldn't) lead to a negotiated settlement that we'd be balloted on. Engaging with the valuation process would be a necessary but not sufficient condition of a final agreement. We deployed industrial action to win round 1 - ie to stop the imposition of changes to DC and deliver the necessary condition (ie a fair valuation). That valuation process would then begin. When complete, we would negotiate on the basis of it (so long as the process had been robust), ballot on it and either accept it, or reject it - at which point industrial action would have an objective, which is to change the offer.
23. We have a job to do while the expert panel is ongoing. We need to build our union and we need to stay united and keep the communications flowing. We need to build capacity and capability for what might come next. We need to talk about and act in relation to all of the other problematic issues that we’ve discussed on the picket lines over the last month.
24. We have been successful to date, but there is a long way to go. There are tactical considerations to be made about how best and when is best to deploy our collective resources. What would be an absolute travesty is for us to be disunited after this ballot on process – for us, that really would feel like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.