Members of the Durham branch of the University and College Union (UCU) have voted in favour of strike action amid a tense dispute over cuts to staff pensions.
Strike action is expected to take place before the end of this term across UK universities. The UCU has not yet released the planned dates or duration of the strike, and will meet on 14th November to discuss further.
The UCU is set to strike in order to protest changes to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), the sector’s principal pension benefit system. They argue that the proposals would cut members’ annual guaranteed pension by 35% and limit protection from inflation.
Durham University staff members previously went on strike in 2018, 2019, and early 2020 for similar reasons.
The University told Palatinate that “our priority is now on making sure any impact to student education and staff workload is minimised. Members of the Durham community can stay up to date at our dedicated USS changes webpage, which has detailed information on the proposed changes and sector developments.”
The ballot was called in response to a breakdown in negotiations between the Union and employer bodies including Universities UK, which represents 140 institutions including Durham.
Almost 80% of participating Durham University UCU members backed strike action in the ballot which closed last night.
Just short of 90% of Durham UCU participants also voted in favour of action short of strike (ASOS), which means working to contracted hours, not carrying out any voluntary tasks, not covering for absent colleagues, not rescheduling lectures or seminars missed due to strike action, and not carrying out any marking or assesment.
Durham UCU welcomed the results, stating “today we’ve sent a very clear message – we will not stand by whilst employers cut our pensions!”
The branch recorded a higher voter turn-out than national levels, with 63% of Durham members participating. Union-wide turn-out sat at 53%; the legal threshold for ballots is 50%.
Durham UCU also voted more heavily in favour of strike action than the Union as a whole; nationally 76% of participants backed the motion.
The UCU now awaits the results of a second ballot over whether to take strike action with regard to its ‘four fights’ campaign, which aims to combat rising workloads, staff casualisation, workplace inequality and pay issues.
Once both sets of results have been processed, the Union’s higher education committee will meet on 12th November to determine the organisation’s next steps.
UCU general secretary, Jo Grady described the ballot results as a “clear mandate for strike action” and explained that “it is now in the gift of employers to avoid strike action”.
She stated that staff “have given their all to support students during the pandemic, but management have responded by trying to slash their guaranteed pension by 35%”.
“In a ballot window of just three weeks our members have made it abundantly clear that they will not accept these vindictive attacks on their retirement.”
Staff at Durham University last took strike action in 2020, in response to national disputes between UK universities and employers’ associations. The first concerned changes to pension schemes, which would see staff paying an average of £40,000 more, and getting £200,000 less in retirement.
The second dispute involved a cluster of issues concerning equality and contractual rights. These include the gender pay gap, BAME pay gap, a rising workload, pay rises that do not match inflation, and the use of casual contracts.
Students at the time called for the University to compensate students for missed teaching due to the strike, with 69.7% in favour of compensation in a poll of 3,168 students.
Durham UCU told Palatinate that they had been disappointed by the University response, but that some improvements had been made due to the strike, including reducing the precariousness of short-term contracts.
Some at the time were less confident about the ability of the strikes to have the impact desired. One academic told Palatinate “I cannot bring myself to support fully a strike that seems to be trying to fix everything that is wrong with higher education. How can the four fights (surrounding pay, workload, equality, and casualisation), which can only be solved locally, be won with a national strike?”.
The UCU’s higher education committee will review the latest strike ballot in the coming week after consultation with individual branches.
Image by Tim Packer