The case for USS strikes in autumn 2020 rather than this academic year

According to this UCU leaflet urging members to vote Yes to strike action over USS pensions:

It is vital that we get this issue sorted now. If we wait and hope for the best, the progress that we fought for and won in last year’s strikes may be lost. Failure to insist now that the scheme is properly valued or that the employers at least pay for any unjust increases in contributions could lead us back down a path towards the downgrading of benefits and even the reprise of proposals to end the guaranteed pension.

I am genuinely open to the case being made that, in order to sort out the upcoming 2020 valuation, the most effective time to go on strike is between the 15th of November and the 30th of April, which is the period covered by the mandate of the current strike ballot. I also think there’s a good chance we’ll need another big strike in order to protect our defined benefits from cuts arising from the 2020 valuation. But I don’t see how it will be possible to get this issue sorted now, via strikes this academic year. Moreover, it’s essential that the union gets the timing right, because it will be hard to call members out for more than one more big USS strike during the next two years.

For the following reasons, a threat of sustained and highly disruptive strikes in the autumn of 2020 is more credible than a threat of such strikes between mid-November and the end of April of this academic year. Autumn 2020 will be the first teaching term (during which strikes are most effective) by which things will have crystallised sufficiently for members to know what is at stake, regarding the extent of the threat of cuts to their benefits and increases in contribution levels arising from the 2020 valuation. Strikes this academic year, by contrast, would have to be over perceived UUK failure to make best endeavours in the process leading up to the 2020 valuation whose outcome can’t yet be determined —among other reasons because we cannot know in advance what the value of the scheme’s assets and the gilt yield will be on the 31 March 2020 date of the upcoming valuation.

Not going on strike this year need not amount to waiting and hoping for the best. Rather, markers can and should be laid down during the months leading up to autumn 2020, regarding the specific outcomes that would and would not be acceptable, as a clearer picture emerges. A credible threat of sustained and highly disruptive strikes in autumn 2020 would concentrate the mind of UUK in the months leading up, to exert the maximum influence they can bring to bear on USS over the 2020 valuation.

By contrast, UCU risks coming across as unreasonable if they launch strikes this academic year in pursuit of their formal ‘no detriment’ demand for a return to 8% member contributions both until and beyond October 2021.

A demand for 8% until October 2021 will appear unreasonable because it will involve the disruption of strikes for a relatively modest two-year decrease in member contributions, in exchange for an even larger 4.7 percentage point increase in employer contributions than the 3.6 percentage point increase they have already offered.

A demand for 8% beyond October 2021 will appear unreasonable because employers cannot responsibly commit to that in advance of knowing how challenging the financial and other conditions of the 2020 valuation will be. In advance of knowledge of what the value of the scheme’s assets will be on 31 March 2020, and the gilt yield, etc., it would be — and would come across as — unreasonable to demand that employers make an open-ended come-what-may commitment to an 8% member rate combined with no cuts to defined benefits arising from the 2020 valuation. This is because it cannot be known now how high an employer contribution rate would be required to sustain such an 8% member rate.

But that’s what strikes on behalf of the union’s formal no detriment demands between mid-November and the end of April would involve. Given the apparent unreasonableness of the strike demands, they won’t end up imposing much pressure on UUK, among other reasons because it will be difficult to sustain the outrage and sense of injustice necessary to fuel prolonged strikes, in response to the employer’s failure now to agree to 8% beyond as well as until October 2021.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’ve got things very wrong in the past, regarding the effectiveness of industrial action. The 14 days of strikes in February and March of 2018 were, for example, far more effective than I had anticipated and a resounding success. But, if what I say above is mistaken, it should be possible to point out why above and beyond claiming that my analysis should not be relied on, because I’ve got things wrong in the past.

Click here for a Twitter thread that discusses some reactions to the above post.

This post builds on the following earlier Twitter threads, which one might want to consult for further details:

August 23: Thoughts on yesterday’s JNC decision to adopt @USSEmployers proposed #USS Option 3 👇 & the impending @ucu strike ballot calling for a redistribution of the contributions to members. 1/14

August 30: This @UCU poster 👇 calls on members to “insist now that the scheme is properly valued” & urges members to vote Yes to #USS strikes on grounds that “It is vital that we get this issue sorted now”. Below I explain why this timing is off kilter. 1/

September 8: A DILEMMA for @ucu members: the #USS strike ballot is a call for industrial action over either too little or too much. (The ballot against @USSEmployers opens on Monday 9 Sept.) 1/16

September 12: The current @ucu HEC is much more committed to calling members out for long strikes in pursuit of ambitious goals than the HEC that made the decisions regarding #USS strikes in 2018. 1/21

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Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, Logic & Scientific Method, LSE

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