'More strikes will not bring a better offer'

Chances of sustained joint union action are slim, UCU leader warns

Joseph Lee

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The general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) has warned members that further strikes have little chance of improving the pension offer for FE lecturers.

Sally Hunt, in a report on the negotiations over changes to the Teachers' Pension Scheme (TPS), says that the union depended on working with schoolteacher unions on the issue, since the UCU's membership within the pension scheme is dwarfed by that of the NUT and NASUWT.

She says she had met five times with the other unions, which still reject the deal, but concluded that the UCU was isolated. The present deal amounts to cuts of up to 17 per cent in the value of many FE lecturers' pensions.

"While the National Executive Committee's (NEC) initiatives, such as the proposed 1 March strike (which did not go ahead), have been received respectfully, we have never been able to garner support from any other union for such plans," Ms Hunt says in the report.

In a private session at the UCU's annual congress last weekend, members voted not to strike in June, but to try to build a coalition of unions for action in the autumn.

Ms Hunt's report warns that only prolonged strikes involving the major schoolteacher unions would be likely to change the government's position after its concessions at the end of last year, but it concludes that the NASUWT and the NUT were unlikely to take the necessary action.

"Such concessions as we did obtain were directly linked to the unity among the eight education unions and our strike action on 30 November 2011," she writes.

"Attempting to achieve an effective alliance between the education unions is far from easy because of their different sectional interests, and the likelihood, in my judgement, of us achieving agreement from NASUWT and NUT to sustained industrial action on the TPS is slim."

The report, debated in a private session of congress last week, contrasts with Ms Hunt's public stance on the issue. In a TES interview last week, she gave an unequivocal "yes" when asked if she was confident that the main schoolteacher unions would be prepared for joint action on pensions in the future.

But she told activists that UCU members' appetite for strikes was waning. Two-thirds of branch officers said that members would support a strike with schoolteaching unions, but the numbers fell to just a fifth for the strike with the Public and Commercial Services union at the end of June.

"I caution against asking our members, who have already taken more action than any other public sector staff, to take further strike action without a clear objective or bargaining position," Ms Hunt said.

In her speech to delegates, which was interrupted several times by hecklers, she urged activists to recognise the progress that had been made on pensions. "Nobody, absolutely nobody, should underestimate the extent of the attack on our members' pensions. But it is a real mistake too to underestimate our members' achievements," she said. "If we want to persuade members that it is right to fight, we have to remember that what we do does make a difference."

UCU Left accused Ms Hunt of failing to support the NEC's decisions and undermining preparations for strikes this year. "The defeatism and lack of leadership shown by the general secretary and her supporters has sown confusion among some members and spread demoralisation," a UCU Left briefing says. But it did acknowledge that it was hard to maintain support for strikes: "Some members were reluctant to lose another day's pay for a campaign which did not appear to have a clear strategy."

With the NEC supporting more strikes and the general secretary calling for caution, the debate over pensions embodies the union's internal power struggle, as Ms Hunt put her plans for a slimmed-down committee to the annual congress. She argued that the 80-member body has allowed too many uncontested elections, allowing it to be led by unrepresentative factions such as UCU Left. The union would also save pound;120,000 a year, she claimed.

But her plans, endorsed in a national ballot, were rejected by delegates, who instead supported a commission to investigate the issue. Ms Hunt had criticised the proposal in her speech, to complaints from the conference floor. "Since our members have already voted, what exactly would this commission be deciding, except to block the members' wishes?" she asked. "In truth, as we all know, this is simply a delaying tactic whose one major impact would be to delay those resources I have called for from getting to branches."

Original headline: More strikes will not bring a better pension offer, says UCU leader

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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