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Deal or No Deal?

The UK university strike has put management on the defensive. Now UCU members will have to decide what counts as a victory.

Main reading room at the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, 2014. Cavie78 / Wikimedia

That mixed verdict sums up the feelings of many academics, technicians, and academic-related staff who have fought a fourteen-day strike at over sixty British universities to defend their pensions.

Universities UK (UUK), the representative body for British university managers, offered an initial deal to the University and College Union (UCU) on March 12. The strikers rejected it. No capitulation, they cried — and then mobilized to ensure their union did not capitulate.

On March 23, UUK offered a second deal. It’s too early to say whether enough UCU members will accept the new deal, which they will vote on next week. But it isn’t too early to think about what the consequences of acceptance or rejection might be — or to think about what could and should happen next if victory is ours, and is seen to be ours.

The New Deal

The second deal has its advantages. Where the first deal eviscerated all aspects of the existing pensions scheme and left open the possibility of further eviscerations to come, the second deal returns to the status quo as it stood before the UUK first proposed its changes to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS): no further changes to the USS, in terms of contributions paid in and benefits paid out, until April 2019. Of course, that is less of a concession than it seems at first: none of UUK’s proposed pensions changes would have kicked in before then anyway.

In the twelve-month window between now and April 2019, UUK and the UCU will appoint an equal number of pension experts to look at the future of the scheme and suggest further changes. Their report will be guided by both sides’ explicit desire to keep the USS paying benefits “broadly comparable” with current arrangements.

The UCU, at least, has interpreted this clause as defending a defined-benefit scheme — that is, a system where the level of benefits is guaranteed, as opposed to a defined-contribution scheme, where it is the level of contributions, not benefits, which are defined in advance.

What’s more, the report’s implementation must depend on approval by a majority of the experts involved in it. The current dispute was in part triggered by the fact that the “independent” chair of the joint negotiation committee, which was otherwise composed of an equal number of delegates from UUK and the UCU, came down on the side of management in respect to their proposed pension changes.

These points represent a clear improvement over the last deal, and an even greater improvement over UUK’s original proposals. On that basis, the fourteen-day strike must be counted a success.

Hence the exclamation mark at the end of the word “victory.” But the question mark is rightly there as well. The deal offers a technocratic solution, brokered by a clutch of experts and advisors. There are perils in resting all our hopes on the acumen and persuasiveness of a small number of people. The whole strike has shown that the UCU’s power rests much more on the solidarity of its members and their student allies than on their technical arguments. While the experts are encouraged to respect the desire of UCU members for the continuation of the USS as a defined-benefit scheme, they are also encouraged to investigate alternatives, some of which operate as defined-contribution schemes.

And there is a further complication. The publicly run Pensions Regulator could still render the deal irrelevant if it decides that the parties to the dispute haven’t sorted out the future of the USS by June 30. The regulators previously qualified their position, saying in 2017 that “’we are mindful that in complex and late stage negotiations some slippage in timelines can lead to better outcomes” — but if they decide not to extend the deadline, some version of the first deal or UUK’s original proposals might then be imposed on UCU members.

UUK and the UCU must agree to extend that deadline if the improved aspects of the deal are to have any real meaning. In any case, pension experts and financial managers are not exactly workers’ natural allies. Nor are they in recent years the natural supporters of defined-benefit schemes, which many of them think of as expensive and out-of-date.

Many UCU members believe, as I do, that the new deal has serious flaws. They suspect that the UCU leadership might be too quick to support this deal, any deal, to end the dispute for good. Calling for a quick consultation now, at a time when UCU members are dispersed over Easter and not concentrated on picket lines, as they were at the time of the first deal on March 12, has further solidified those suspicions.

The UCU’s General Secretary, Sally Hunt, has not allayed those suspicions either. She announced the UUK proposal on Friday afternoon, then planned a meeting of the union’s Higher Education Committee on Wednesday, March 28. That did not leave local branches much time to consider the proposal, let alone debate or oppose it. The Committee then recommended that the UUK proposal be put to a union-wide vote without any substantial changes to the UUK offer.

That is the situation as it now stands. And where UCU members solidly rejected the first deal on March 12, with #nocapitulation as their slogan, they have not proved so united against the second. They are unsure with good reason. There is enough ambiguity here to paint over all the new gyms, giant TVs and other boondoggles that universities have built with borrowed cash in their mad rush to attract fee-paying “customers.”

Dilemmas

The deal comes at an awkward time for all parties involved. Teaching has paused for the Easter break at pretty much all the affected universities. At some of them, all or almost all teaching for the academic year has now ended. At others, teaching will continue for some time after the break. This mismatch between the various university calendars may well have a bearing on the thinking of management and union members alike.

Vice-Chancellors at the universities subject to strike action must be looking with horror at union plans for further strike action after the break — and a boycott of exams and of the conferral of degrees after that — if the dispute remains unresolved. They face lasting damage to their reputation, especially in the lucrative international “market.” Chinese media, for instance, has focused on the disruption to students from overseas, who do, after all, pay fees so excessive that the price faced by EU and UK citizens for a British education starts to look almost reasonable. University managers certainly do not feel like they’re winning.

For their part, UCU members know that industrial action will be less effective if not all affected universities are disrupted by it. They further know that an exam boycott and interruptions to graduation will risk alienating students, whose passionate solidarity with their teachers and other university workers has proved one of the most uplifting and, perhaps, unexpected elements of the strike. Some strikers remain complacent about this support, as if they simply deserve it by right — and perhaps they do. But there are only so many deals you can reject before your support starts to melt away, whether that support comes from students or fellow strikers, some of whom might start to return to work.

That is the puzzle that UCU members must solve. They can reject the new deal because it doesn’t fully resolve the pensions dispute and leaves their fate in the hands of a technocratic working group. The second deal, after all, was better than the first, which was itself an improvement on the original changes. Why not wait for a third deal, which would surely represent yet another improvement on the second, or would even dispense with pension changes altogether? Supporters of this approach usually go by the hashtag #nodetriment.

There are good grounds for this view. The only time the strikers’ resolve has wavered so far was when they thought their union might accept a bad deal. More and more university managers, on the other hand, have placed themselves in public opposition to their own representative, UUK. Project that equation into the future and you arrive at a third, better deal.

“Reject” is the option that I will vote for next week. But I do not reject out of hand the arguments from UCU members on the other side of the debate. They say this is the best deal we can get, that it meets our concerns in a way that the first deal did not, and that we risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They think we should accept the new deal.

Those on the “accept” side argue that student solidarity cannot be extended forever. Enough UCU members might consider the deal sufficient and return to work, which would isolate those who want to continue the struggle. Enough Vice-Chancellors might then dig in their heels and refuse to go further.

A third, compromise option briefly appeared between the March 23 proposal and the March 28 meeting of the UCU’s Higher Education Committee. Termed “revise and resubmit,” this view called for clarification of the many ambiguous phrases and unclear provisions in the UUK proposal. Supporters of revise and resubmit anticipated that the strike would stay on until these clarifications were made, and then they would accept the deal.

Yet the Committee ruled out this option. The ballot that will go out next week gives UCU members a choice only between the first two options — accept or reject.

So what now?

Momentum is key. It now rests with union members and their allies, and there are good reasons to believe they will retain it over the Easter teaching break. There are also good reasons to think that a further extension of strike action might yield further gains. But the perils and pitfalls that could come from a new wave of strikes must be borne in mind before “no capitulation” hurtles again around social media, and around picket lines come mid-April.

Victory and Defeat

The West Virginia teachers can serve as a template. They too rejected a bad deal. They finally ended their strike as victors, and they were seen to be victors. The result: the extension of teachers’ militancy to other states, and a new optimism around the American labor movement and the American left.

Of course, there are always those who say that any deal is not good enough. Some even say that the West Virginia teachers were betrayed not just once, but twice, and that talk of their victory is mere cover for another step back. That is obviously a mistake. The question is not whether the deal is perfect, but whether it is good enough — whether it raises the possibilities for new struggles or whether it forecloses them.

And the stakes are high. Accept a deal too soon, and we might yet rue the gains we might have made had we rejected a lesser deal. Hold out too long, and momentum could switch in favor of university management, with demoralization to follow.

Above all, we need to see the strike as part of a process, not as a discrete event with a clearly defined start and finish. That process has gone on for a long time, and since 2009 it has been characterized by a series of defeats. We need only think of pay stagnation, the casualization of academic work, past retreats on pensions, the outsourcing and underpayment of cleaning, catering, and other crucial university labor, and paralysis in the face of tuition fee rises. These trends all indicate the direction that universities have traveled these last ten years.

The strike has raised our hopes that this direction might now reverse. Not only have UCU members taken sustained industrial action on a scale never seen before, but their action has forced university managers to rethink and climb down from what had seemed like a resolute stand in favor of sweeping pension changes. UCU members have also forged links with students, who have their own grievances and have shown that they are willing to act to redress them. The strike weapon has worked.

Victory in this dispute raises new possibilities for action on other fronts. After all, this dispute may have been sparked by a row about pensions, but it is now about much more than that. The battleground has now shifted to the way that British universities are run, to their operation as businesses and not places of learning, to their treatment of students as mere customers and their employees as so many interchangeable factors of production. UCU members all over the UK have drafted manifestos and planned campaigns and small revolutions on these issues.

Yet these plans and programs can only be enacted if the current strike ends, as that of the West Virginia teachers did, with a victory for the strikers. There is no chance of rolling back casualization in an atmosphere of demoralization, amid recriminations between UCU members. In the wake of a defeat, reversing recent increases in tuition fees would prove equally unlikely, at least without the help of a Corbyn-led Labour government. The UCU would not retain sufficient strength to protect the pension scheme from repeated raids and rundowns.

This strike is part of a process. Right now, the process has begun to turn in our favor — but that should not make us complacent. Right now, we should not solely ask whether the deal is in its technical aspects a victory for them or for us. We should really ask: who in fact thinks they have won?

If we can prove we have won, this will be the start of a series of other battles across British higher education — battles that we will have shown we can win. If we can prove we have won, it will further encourage workers in other industries who are mustering the courage and numbers to fight. If we think we have lost, our chances of winning the battles to come are much lower, if we even retain the strength to start fighting them.

Will this strike halt our retreat or speed it up? The answer to that question lies with UCU members. They — we — will decide if the strike ends or goes on, and they will decide if the struggle gains new momentum or loses it. We can only hope that that decision, whatever it is, ends in victory. A win here would be the best way to repay the solidarity we have received from students, from much of the British public, from teachers in West Virginia, and from workers all over the world.