Workers Strike at 60 UK Universities Over Pensions, Pay

Union members balk at decision to raise employee contributions to 9.6% of salary.

Eight days of strikes at 60 UK universities kicked off Monday as University and College Union (UCU) members are protesting disputes over pensions, pay and working conditions.

Among the universities seeing strike action are the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, University College London, and the University of Edinburgh.

“It is quite staggering that the employers have allowed things to get to this stage and done so little to avoid the upcoming disruption,” UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said in a statement. “Instead of engaging seriously with us over the various elements of the disputes, they have been all spin and no substance.”

Last month, UCU members backed strike action in two disputes, one of which concerned the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension plan. The other concerned pay, equality, casualization, and workloads. The union said 79% of UCU members who voted favored strike action in the ballot over changes to pensions, while 74% of members polled backed strike action on pay, equality, casualization and workloads.

The main issue UCU opposes is a decision by the USS Joint Negotiating Committee to raise member contributions to 9.6% of their salary from the current 8%, with additional contribution hikes planned from 2021. The UCU offered a counterproposal that called for USS members to pay the standard rate of 8%, with employers covering everything else.

“We are incredibly disappointed they have pushed to burden members with unnecessary and unfair extra costs,” said Grady. “These increases have serious consequences and may force some members to leave USS, jeopardizing not only individual retirement plans but the future of the scheme as a whole.”

The union warned that additional strike action could follow in the new year with even more staff taking part if universities fail to make improved offers. UCU said it is consulting with its branches at other universities about being polled again to join further action.

The strike, which began Nov. 25 is expected to last until Dec. 4. It  involves issues such as working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues, and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.

Angela Rayner, the UK Labor Party’s shadow education secretary, said she supported the workers in their strikes.

“Fair pay, secure contracts, reasonable workloads and decent, affordable pensions should come as standard for all those working in education, including in our universities,” Rayner said in a statement. “It is time for the employers to put their students first and avoid any further disruption by bringing a reasonable offer back to the negotiating table.”

Last year, workers at 64 universities in the UK went on strike for four weeks over plans to end the defined benefit element of the USS pension plan.

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