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Our response to the VC’s most recent statement

Dear Staff and Students,

 

The UCU@UEA committee wished to respond to the most recent message from our Vice-Chancellor.  In his correspondence this morning, Professor Richardson claimed that he was ‘in regular contact with the lead negotiator at Universities UK (UUK) emphasising the need for talks with UCU to resume, in order to avoid the damaging strikes scheduled to start next week’.  However, in the same message – sent to staff – he directed colleagues towards the open letter from UUK and UCEA.  This hostile letter reprints a number of half-truths, such as:

  • The claim that employers have made ‘huge efforts’ to negotiate which includes ‘abandoning previous proposals to reform [pension] benefits’ without mentioning that this only happened because colleagues took an unprecedented 14 days of unpaid strike action to force UUK to accept the Joint Expert Panel, which subsequently exposed ‘wide-ranging flaws’ in the methodology used to create the large deficit in the 2017 valuation and justified our action and our anger last year.
  • Claiming that their commitment to ‘paying 65p in every pound of increased cost’ was in order ‘to protect member benefits in full’ rather than the legally mandated backstop position that is reached whenever UCU and UUK cannot agree a fair distribution of contributions.  The failure of UUK to agree to shoulder increases in pension contributions – which UCU maintains is unnecessary – until the second report from the Joint Expert Panel is published is the reason that this backstop was automatically triggered.
  • UUK claim to have committed ‘to work jointly with UCU and USS to develop and deliver greater transparency, governance reforms and to agree shared valuation principles’, but they have failed to join UCU in calling for the reinstatement of whistleblower Prof Jane Hutton, who was sacked from the USS Board of Trustees when she raised concerns about the Board’s transparency and the approach it was taking to the valuation of our scheme.  They have also failed to join UCU in calling for the full publication of any evidence against Prof Hutton so she can be afforded the opportunity to defend herself against all charges.

 

We do not believe that an individual can both call for meaningful negotiation and accept the numerous flaws contained within this open letter.  We call on Prof Richardson to reject the open letter and join UCU and the Vice Chancellor of Essex University in calling for meaningful, positive discussions on how to manage the transition to a new and more transparent valuation process for the USS scheme.

 

There are also a number of factual errors or misstatements within the FAQs published for students.  For instance:

  • The fact that contributions are ‘less than they would otherwise have been under the original proposals’ is once again the result of hard lobbying and negotiation by UCU and not the generosity of UEA as an employer or UUK as the employer’s representative body.  UCU continues to believe that the original proposals were flawed and that a full implementation of the proposals laid out by the Joint Expert Panel would further reduce the contribution increases we and our employers are being asked to make.
  • The FAQs also claim that the University is ‘mindful of the need to maintain a good long-term relationship with UCU members at UEA’.  However, the Executive Team has consistently negotiated with UCU@UEA in bad faith during the run up to this action, promising certain positions within meetings and then circulating written guidance that directly contradicts those positions.  The UEA UCU branch has also had to rewrite elements of the employer’s own FAQs on the strike and challenge threats of disproportionate deductions from staff members who participate in lawful industrial action.  Indeed, these threats were so severe that the Branch overwhelmingly passed a motion on Monday that will call on UCU to introduce academic boycotts of all institutions that take disproportionate deductions from members participating in action short of strike (ASOS).
  • In section 11, the VC laments that we are striking after ‘there have been lengthy negotiations already’.  We lament this too.  Having been forced to take 14 days of unpaid strike action last year to prove that the attack on our pensions was the result of poor valuation calculations – since vindicated by the first report of the Joint Expert Panel – those of us who voted to suspend the action in 2018 are filled with more than just ‘very much regret’.  We would like to make it clear that no member of UCU wishes to lose more pay to refight the same battle.  We are tired of having to defend ourselves against unfair attacks on our deferred pay.  This is why UCU has called on UUK to meet with us in good faith to find a way to avert this action.  They have refused to do so.
  • Section 11 also states that the increase in our pension contributions is only ‘a small increase in cost to staff’.  The increases forced on members of the USS pension scheme this year means that they will, on average, lose more than £500 a year for no increase in retirement benefit.  £500 may be a small amount of money to the VC, whose total benefits package for the year is over £300,000 (p. 28), but it means a lot to our members.  Indeed, for those joining the scheme, this contribution increase means losing well over £15,000 during the lifetime of their scheme, rising to over £30,000 if the proposed increase in contribution levels to 11% happens in 2021.
  • Section 11 also asks that UCU call off the strike action and join UUK to ‘work towards governance reforms of USS and alternative options for future valuations’.  To do so, however, we would need to have faith that UUK intends to engage in meaningful and positive discussion.  Unfortunately, their behaviour over the past 18 months has not assured UCU members that this will be the case.  For instance, if UUK wished UCU to accept the offer, recently referred to in the Lasdun, to reduce employee contributions from 9.6% to 9.1% for two years, then why did they ask union members to forfeit their right to strike during the same period?  If we can trust UUK to handle the second JEP report (due to be published in late 2019/early 2020), then why would they ask us to remove the only tool that we have at our disposal to challenge their recent attacks on our pensions? The notion that we would halt strike action for a period of two years would have been unprecedented, essentially asking union members to disarm themselves as the Union prepares to enter negotiations on the long-term structure of the scheme.  To do so, we would need to have full faith in UUK.  We do not.  To present that offer without the context in which it was made is highly disingenuous and we wish to assure colleagues and students that UCU is willing to accept any proposal which we believe has the best interests of our members at heart.

 

It is clear to UCU that UUK wishes to undermine and belittle our concerns about the future of our own pension scheme.  We refute the notion that over £500 a year is a “small increase”.  We resent the implication that members are taking action – and losing pay – because we are unwilling to enter in to good faith negotiation with our employers.  Finally, we thoroughly reject the implication that we do not have the best interests of our students at heart.  We do not believe that students are a “unit of resource”. We do not agree that any 20-year plan at UEA can be achieved if it comes at the expense of the staff who make this University what it is. Let’s Do Different and encourage our VC to do the same.

 

With best wishes,

 

The UCU Committee.

Why are we striking?

Dear student,

Have you heard?

Beginning Monday Nov. 25th, staff at nearly 60 universities in the UK will be going on an 8-day strike. UEA is one of those. The strike action is being taken by members of the Trade Union UCU (University and College Union).

Your lecturers, tutors and support staff DO NOT want to strike or to cause upset and worry to students. Striking always and only ever a last resort. Our working conditions are your learning conditions, so the things we are fighting for affect your future and the future of Higher education.

Why the strike?

First, let’s get the elephant out of the way. No, this is not a paid holiday.

All striking members will lose pay for every day they strike.

If the strike lasts all 8 days, striking employees would lose about 40% of their monthly income. The sacrifice and stakes for striking employees are high.

So why bear this hit?

 

The strike at UEA is about Pensions:

Sadly, this is a continuation from the 2018 strike. As one of the outcomes of the last strike, it was agreed between the Union and the Pension Scheme Provider that a Joint Expert Panel would be set up to determine a fair level of contribution from employers and employees. Both sets of negotiators agreed to abide by the evaluation of this panel. However, despite the conclusions from the Joint Expert Panel that the increases in payment that the pension scheme has imposed are unnecessary and unfair, they – along with support from university management teams – have decided to press ahead anyway. Despite attempts to resolve the issues since the last strike, we have lost faith in the leaders of our universities to put people before profit. We’ve lost faith in Universities UK (the organisation who represents all UK Universities) to engage in good-faith negotiation with our union UCU on the future of our pension scheme.

All UK employers are required, by law, to provide a workplace pension plan to their employees. This is a way to help people save a sufficient amount of retirement income. Without adequate savings, people are required to stay in employment longer and/or are likely to face financial hardship if and when they do retire. This situation may also have a detrimental effect on overall employment rates.

Pensions are not a freebie or an arbitrary perk. They are part of earned income. Pension savings are made up of direct contributions from employee pay as well as contributions from the employer as earned benefit.

All UK universities have a responsibility to ensure staff have a decent pension for when they retire. Our last strike action was to do with to the UUK’s attempt to restructure the pension scheme from a defined benefit to a defined contribution scheme. This means that our Employers want to end guaranteed pension income, so our final pensions would depend on how the stock market performs. That means huge uncertainty and a reduced retirement income for all.

Having now rolled back that proposition, the UUK has demanded that employees bear a substantial increase in contribution to keep defined benefits – despite an evaluation by a Joint Expert Panel that such an increase was unnecessary and unfair. This is especially true for younger and newer employees who stand to pay £40,000 more in contributions for £200,000 less in retirement. Higher contributions from employees also means that staff on insecure contracts and/or lower pay will be priced out of the pension scheme. We have to take action again now, to protect our pension scheme for all levels of staff now and in the future.

But why should students suffer?’

You shouldn’t!!

The ‘suffering’ argument relies on pitting the wellbeing of students against the wellbeing of staff – as if the two are in conflict. Employers continually appeal to, or question our sense of duty towards students while simultaneously eroding the conditions under which we can fulfil these duties. 

It also assumes that students have narrow interests – that they care only about classes and grades; that they don’t think about the world outside and beyond their role as students, or that they are uninterested in and unaffected by the wider social and political world. We know this isn’t true. If we allow unfair and unreasonable conduct by employers to go unchallenged, then this also affects your experience and rights as future workers too.

 

So what can you do as students before the strike?

There is another way. UUK can chose to change its position before our strike action takes place. Our VC feeds directly in to UUK. If you wish to support our action and avoid this strike, please email D.Richardson@uea.ac.uk and let him know that you support our cause and want pension justice for UEA employees. Our employment conditions are your learning conditions. Whatever happens in the upcoming weeks, we want you all to know that we have the long-term interests of this University at heart. People make UEA, not buildings. We understand the difficulties that universities are facing in the current climate, but we do not believe that students are a “unit of resource”. We do not agree that any 20-year plan at UEA can be achieved if it comes at the expense of the staff who make this University what it is. Let’s Do Different and encourage our VC to do the same.

What can you do if strike action does go ahead?

The most important thing students can do in the event of strike action is to send messages of solidarity to staff members who have chosen to take action. Staff on strike will not be reading their University emails, but messages of solidarity can be sent to ucu.office@uea.ac.uk, tweeted to @UEA_UCU, or passed on in person to those who attend the daily pickets. Choosing to go on strike is often an agonizing decision, and the support we received last year from students was invaluable in raising morale and keeping our minds focussed on the end goal – to improve learning conditions at UEA.

 

With our thanks and best wishes,

 

The UCU@UEA Committee

The results are out!

Dear UEA@UCU Members,

It’s time to Get The Vote Out

UEA, and UCU nationally, has consistently voted in favour of industrial action to preserve our pensions and fight for fair pay.  Unfortunately, due to regressive legislation aimed at impeding the work of trade unions, we have been unable to take action when this mandate has come from less than 50% of our membership.  It is vital, therefore, that members take part in the current ballots that have been circulated on USS and the national pay dispute.

To this end, UCU@UEA is holding a series of events and will also be knocking on doors, sending emails, and ringing members to encourage everyone to have their say in one of the largest democratic exercises in our Union’s recent history.

GTVO Events

9th October: UCU@UEA Ordinary General Meeting (LT3, 13:00-14:00): This is a general meeting of all UCU members that will focus on aspects of the current disputes.  If members would like to propose motions to the OGM or raise matters for discussion, please contact ucu.office@uea.ac.uk for advice on how to do so.

14th October: Anti-Casualisation GTVO Meeting (Arts 0.29, 16:00-17:00): This meeting is open to all members on RA, AT, and Fixed Term contracts who would like to discuss issues of particular relevance to casualised staff with members of the Anti-Casualisation working group.

28th October: Discussion with Jo Grady (LT3, 13:00-14:00): The General Secretary of UCU, Jo Grady, will be at UEA to discuss a range of issues with members and take questions about what might come next for UCU and the sector more broadly.

For more information about the 2019/20 pay dispute, check out our section on Pay Inequality in HE.  Similarly, if you want to know more about the USS ballot, check out our pages and resources on the USS Dispute.

If you have already voted, please let us know via this link and make sure to encourage other members to vote too.  If you need to request a new ballot because your’s has been lost or gone to an old address, the last chance to do so is the 23rd October.  You can request a new ballot here.

If you would like to help the local committee to get the vote out here at UEA, please contact the branch office (ucu.office@uea.ac.uk) or reach out to your rep.  If you do not know who your rep is, email the office and we can make sure that they get in touch with you directly.

UCU General Secretary Election 2019 – hustings in Norwich

Come and hear from the UCU General Secretary candidates in person at the UEA Hustings:

Tuesday 7th May; 12.15-13.45 Congregation Hall 01.19

https://www.ucu.org.uk/GS-election

UCU General Secretary election