By Poppy Askham
University and College Union members at campuses across the UK, including Durham University, are preparing to go on strike in protest against proposed cuts that could see their pensions slashed by 35%.
Dates are yet to be confirmed, but the Union’s President, Jo Grady, is currently proposing two days of strike action this term, which would most likely fall in November.
This would be followed by a period of action short of strike (ASOS), meaning staff would refuse to carry out any marking or assessments, work outside contracted hours, take on voluntary tasks, cover for absent colleagues or reschedule lectures or seminars missed due to strike action.
If the dispute with employers continues, the Union would then “significantly” escalate action in Epiphany term.
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 website, which has detailed information on the proposed changes and sector developments”.
Grady described her proposed two days of action as “a brief but massive show of strength” which she hopes will aid the Union’s position in negotiations with employers over the Christmas holiday period.
The Union’s course of action will be confirmed when its higher education committee convenes tomorrow, following consultations with branch delegates.
76% of members of the University and College Union voted in favour of taking strike action in a recent ballot regarding the pensions dispute and almost 85% backed ASOS.
The Union is contesting proposed changes to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), the sector’s principal pension benefit system. They argue that the proposals would cut the annual guaranteed pension by 35% and limit protection from inflation.
Support for strike action was particularly strong in Durham; almost 80% of participating members voted in favour. The Durham UCU branch also recorded high turnout levels — 63% of members participated, whilst just 53% voted nationally.
Staff also backed strike action in a second ballot regarding the Union’s ‘four fights’: rising workloads, staff casualisation, workplace inequalities, and pay issues.
The ballot results give the Union a six-month mandate to strike, meaning staff could walk out at any point before the end of April 2022.
Staff at Durham University previously went on strike in 2018, 2019, and early 2020 over similar grievances.
Grady proposed an initial two days of action to reflect the Union’s two campaigns; the first day will be focused on the four fights, and the second on the pensions dispute.
29 universities, including Oxford and Newcastle, did not meet the 50% turn-out threshold legally required for union ballots. The Union proposes that these branches participate in the days of action, but staff will not go on strike.
Before escalating action next term, Grady proposes launching reballots with a longer voting window with the hope of addressing low turn-out levels at some branches.
She stated: “I believe in UCU members’ ability to do this, get even better ballot results next time, and translate them into a serious victory that reverses the decade-long trend of underinvestment in staff in this sector”.
Image: Tim Packer