Tomorrow’s Higher Education Committee meeting of the UCU will decide whether or not to put the offer tabled by UUK to a ballot of union members. At our branch meeting in Bristol, I was among a large majority in favour of this ballot.
There are, I now realise, good reasons why the proposal should not go to union members just yet. The fact that it is (more or less) a UUK proposal has aroused a lot of suspicion. There are details in it that are objectionable, including how the preexisting timeline for changes is being presented as a concession. And, as lots of people have pointed out, it might be best to think of this UUK document as the opening gambit in further negotiations.
This has made many people upset with branches – like Bristol – who offered members just two choices. Should the proposal go to a member vote, or not?
I remain convinced those are still the only two options, but many others have spoken of a third: union branches could – as the UCL UCU twitter handle has been suggesting – ask the HEC to work towards an ‘amend/counter-offer’.
How does this differ from voting ‘no’?
If we don’t like the deal on the table, we should absolutely tell our branches that we don’t want to see it put to a ballot at this point. But let me suggest three reasons why there is no third way between putting this deal to a ballot or not.
- This involves second-guessing our own negotiators. I – along with most union members – have very little idea of what the discussions in the room with UUK have been. Our negotiators show us the offers they can get, and we choose whether or not to take them. Answering ‘yes’ to the question of whether this should go to a ballot is a step towards accepting this particular offer. But if you object to the details, you should lobby for ‘no’. Why? Because we do not get to pick and mix the elements that we like when choosing to accept or reject…
- Because everyone has different demands. Over the past few days, I have seen demands including ‘no detriment’ (the idea that we should push for a deal that promises our pensions won’t be any worse than they would have been under the scheme up until now); guarantees that the reforms will not disproportionately harm women, or junior staff; the reimbursement of strike pay; sacking Alistair Jarvis; reforming UUK; and putting our pension into the TPS or getting government backing for it as it stands, to mention just some obvious ones. Some of these demands may be incompatible. Some may be impossible. Crucially, how many of them are shared by a majority of striking staff? The reason that ‘neither yes nor no, but maybe’ is not a viable option is that there is no agreement on what ‘maybe’ means. Every different person who is advocating ‘revise and resubmit’ for this deal has different ideas for what an acceptable offer would look like. But we will only get one deal, for the whole union, and it is not realistic to expect our negotiators to satisfy all of the individual demands from branches and members. The strike did not start as a ‘no detriment’ movement, but as a way to stop the imposition of a defined contribution scheme, and this deal suggests a possible way to achieve that.
- What more can we expect? I’m not kidding myself. This is not a super deal. It is not even, as several people at our branch meeting pointed out, a pensions offer. It is just a proposal for a mechanism that would allow UCU and UUK to resolve the dispute over pensions. Our employers may well be hoping or even planning to find ways to use it against us. But it is still a massive step towards resolution of the subject of this dispute. And when I say that we cannot expect much more from UUK, I do not mean that we should be jolly grateful our bosses have conceded this much. I mean that this is just about all that is within UUK’s power to do about the fundamental issue at the root of the dispute. UUK are not in a position to propose a financial settlement that will fix the pension as it is currently valued. They cannot in good faith make us an offer that would see defined benefit preserved at the current rate under the current scheme valuation because their member institutions would revolt. Re-valuation is the way forward, and this deal presents a serious attempt to frame a re-valuation that cannot be a complete stitch-up.
Of course we should be worried about demobilising.
Of course we should be worried that our employers are trying to circumvent the largest display of solidarity across the sector since the tuition fee marches.
But I have yet to see much evidence that those arguing for the third way are not just worried about the first way: the distinct possibility that this proposal is good enough for most union members. If it wasn’t, then we would vote it down in our branches before any ballot happened.