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UCU at Ulster Committee ballot guidance for members

April 12, 2018

We apologise for not arranging a members’ meeting to discuss the ballot which closes this Friday. The timing was unfortunate for us given Ulster University closes during Easter week. In the absence of a meeting, we are instead publishing our thoughts through our social media channels.

The UCU at Ulster committee communicated with each other by email last week and met this week, and have discussed at length our individual approaches to the ballot. The committee has not come to a consensus or a clear majority position on the ballot and as such cannot recommend an approach to members.

Of course it is each member’s individual choice how to vote, but the committee believe we have a responsibility to offer some guidance to you.  We have decided, therefore, to present briefly to you the arguments of your committee members who take each position.

We have no doubt many of you will have engaged with the debate on twitter and/or read a lot on the issue via other means. The points we make here are our own specific approaches, and reflect the discussions we have had in the absence of being able to share these with you at a members’ meeting.

We had also hoped that information from the USS meeting on 11th April would have been shared with UCU to shed further light on the situation. This has not happened.

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Arguments for voting ‘yes’.

When we began our strike action we had two main concerns. We questioned the assertion that the USS pension had a significant deficit and wanted a commitment from our employers to ensure that our defined benefits pension would be retained.

Through the strength of national industrial action UUK have moved their position considerably and have now agreed to convene a Joint Expert Panel, with equal representation from the unions and UUK to complete a valuation of the scheme.  UCU will be able to appoint members to sit on this panel, as well as a jointly agreed chair and will be working hard to secure our best interests.

Secondly there is a commitment in the UUK proposal to ‘provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements’. Whilst this is not a cast iron guarantee that defined benefits will be retained forever and certainly some members are concerned that the wording in the statement is not strong enough for their liking, it nevertheless provides a commitment to maintaining similar arrangements to what we have now.

It is only through our strong industrial action that we have come this far and a ‘Yes’ vote means that we can bank these gains and move forward. If any of the stakeholders in this process (UUK, the Pensions Regulator or USS) act in bad faith, we have proved that we are strong enough to oppose them and can reinstate our strike action if necessary. By accepting the current proposal, we will retain the support of our students and the wider public who will be more willing to support us again if our trust is subsequently broken.

Through our industrial action we are now a stronger union and the employers have seen our collective strength. The pensions debate has also focussed attention towards critical concerns of marketisation of education, casualisation of our workforce, REF, TEF as well as transparency, values and governance.  We can congratulate ourselves of achieving major concessions in this first round of the pensions debate and will continue the fight if necessary, whilst focussing our efforts now on these other crucial elements of our working conditions.

That is why we should vote ‘yes’.

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Arguments for voting ‘no’.

There is no doubt that UUK have shifted their position very significantly directly as a result of our first phase of strike action. However, the very fact that we are in a strong position means that we should not be unnecessarily settling for an offer that is less than it could be.

We are being asked to vote on a UUK proposal, not a negotiated position. UCU leadership should not have presented this to members, but should have sought more clarity or a negotiated position before doing so.

The proposal, whilst promising, uses vague language that leaves it ambiguous. For example, it talks about a pension ‘broadly comparable to current arrangements’ and says that UUK ‘does not intend’ to follow through the abolition of defined benefits that is currently planned for April 2019. The proposal suggests positivity of spirit, but guarantees us nothing.

Nor does the proposal contain the timeframe and deadlines it would need to make a difference. The last position stated publicly by USS was that the USS trustee intends to proceed without reference to the expert panel, and to finalise a schedule of revised contributions and benefits in line with the November valuation by the end of June, that is, to do what they were planning to do prior to our strike action.

The majority view of branches’ input to the last branch delegates’ meeting was to ask for the proposal to be ‘revised and resubmitted’ to improve the clarity of the proposal, yet the Higher Education Committee (HEC) were not given the opportunity to discuss or vote for this approach due to the way the HEC meeting was structured. Therefore neither the decision to ballot nor the options that appear on the ballot were arrived at democratically.

The ‘revise and resubmit’ approach of this branch, and many others, has been communicated incorrectly in the preamble accompanying the e-ballot. Some branches asked for ‘no detriment’ but many, including our own branch, did not. We simply asked for further clarification of what was being proposed. This was not the unrealistic approach likely to put UUK on the attack that it has been presented as.

If members vote to accept, we will be in a better position than we were before our strike action, but we could get, and deserve the right to fight on for, something better again.

We should therefore vote ‘no’.

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Colleagues, we hope that these arguments, in addition to other materials we have circulated, are useful to you in coming to your own decision on how to vote. We urge you to use your vote and ensure your voice is heard.

Yours in solidarity

The UCU at Ulster Branch Committee.

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