The Great Pension Dispute of 2018: How the Bosses and the Union Officials Hoodwinked the Rank and File

In any trade union dispute but particularly in high profile large trade union disputes, the rank and file have two enemies to defeat, one external and one internal. The first is the bosses and the second is the bureaucrats within their own union. We’ve seen these battles play out in the last few months with UCU members battling to preserve their pensions.

In a situation where the principle at the heart of the battle is that pensions shouldn’t be altered to the detriment of those that have worked for them, the moment the union agrees to negotiate a detrimental outcome is the moment the union agrees to collaborate with the enemy and help them do what the rank and file were fighting to stop. That the union bosses received such a proposal and decided to ballot members on it is testament to the strength of the rank and file during the dispute.

14 days of industrial action across the country was been backed up with occupations and protests by students in support of university staff. This dispute has been a great reminder of what can happen when people pull together. The bosses, in the shape of Universities UK (UUK), cannot have expected the strike to be so solid. An initial proposal part way into the dispute was rightly met with derision by the rank and file, despite the union tops saying it was the best they could hope for. They were sent packing and told to do better. Then came the latest idea from UUK to break the deadlock.

This proposal seeks to set up a joint panel comprising of UUK and UCU representatives to work together on a new pension agreement, complete with ‘experts’. There would be no guarantee that such a body will produce a valuation that prevents an eventual agreement with no detriment to the pensions. The General Secretary, Sally Hunt, has sent out a number of messages from the head office of UCU to the effect that the rank and file are unlikely to get everything they want. Well, yes, that’s the problem with negotiating isn’t it? It involves give and take. We should place winning higher than negotiating any day.

The real victory for the bosses and the bureaucrats is in the detail. The devils have managed to reduce a solid, strong, striking rank and file to a split membership of would be pension experts. Academics like to play on being experts at the best of times but to see them pore over complex pension data has been a bit depressing. The moment anyone tries to understand this stuff they end up needing mathematicians to tell them what the situation is. Pension experts are called for, independent advice is requested and ultimately the top negotiators the union can afford. The rank and file become beholden to the experts very quickly once the principle is lost and negotiation becomes the order of the day. This was a masterstroke by UUK in an effort to quell the anger of the rank and file and no doubt the UCU bosses are pleased to be able to put it to eh members.

As each branch has its own little set of bureaucrats you can end up with a sad state of affairs at a local level too. Though they’re often drawn from the rank and file membership you can get people on union committees that stay in post for year after year, enjoying facility time and their own union offices. They also negotiate with local university bosses and so they come to see the position of the union head office in a different light. They recognise the give and take the union tops are faced with. I’ve observed events at Loughborough University with some alarm. So friendly is the union committee with the vice chancellor that he came to the picket line and had photographs taken with the strikers. Not that he was supporting the strike. He has managed to talk with two faces throughout the dispute. He kept pushing the message that he was against the level of the devaluation whilst saying the strikers should get back to work. This was a golden opportunity to highlight his impotence within UUK as he didn’t sway them and perhaps use that weakness for a local advantage. Instead he came to the picket and was embraced like a hero, pictured turning sausages on the picket BBQ. He was able to use such moments in his propaganda to staff and students, boasting of his good relations with individual UCU committee members. Other local branches have been more robust of course and there is a hope that they will continue to be. At places like Loughborough the hope is that more militancy can be encouraged among the new members that joined the union to fight for their pension.

The only way this dispute will be a win for the rank and file is if there are no detrimental changes to the pension arrangements of members and we know already that that principle has been compromised. The fact that members have now accepted the proposal is a clear sign that the rank and file have lost their way – understandable in the face of overwhelming propaganda from the top of UCU and those doing their bidding at a local level. Such strong and militant action has been followed up by a clear capitulation in the hope that expertise will win through, as if this was a dispute settled by the power of a rational argument, when in reality it was about principle and winning through political power. The UUK have won. 14 days of magnificent action have been reduced to a defeat dressed up as a great compromise and victory. Once again the rank and file have to regroup and prepare for the next onslaught.

Jon Bigger


Photo: Liverpool Students for Pensions