Yesterday the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) held a special conference to determine where we go next in our pensions dispute. For those who haven’t been following the intricacies of it all I’ll attempt to briefly lay out where we were going into this meeting.

UCU represents academic and what’s known as academic related staff – that is IT support, librarians etc. – in both higher (HE) and further (FE) education. Higher education is then often, and indeed in the case of pensions, split between “post-92” and “pre-92” institutions (post-92 referring to the polytechnics and colleges that were awarded university status in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, pre-92 naturally referring then to older universities). Staff in pre-92 institutions are members of a pensions scheme called USS (universities superannuation scheme), which is a private pension plan with a dedicated fund from members and universities as employers. Staff in FE and post-92 HE are, instead, members of TPS (teachers pension scheme), which is a government programme also covering school teachers.

Both schemes are currently in the process of being altered in ways which will increase contributions from staff, increase the retirement age and leave members with smaller overall pensions. (To go through all the changes being proposed would take too long, so I’ll simply advise the interested reader to see here and here.) Changes to both schemes have also seen industrial action over the last year – first in March of 2011 over USS changes, then again in June of last year and finally on November 30th in coordination with other public sector unions.

That action forced some (small) concessions. The government’s “final offer” to the unions in December, which covered the TPS dispute, but not USS, offered a slight improvement in the accrual rate (the amount earned each year), an 8% increase in the “cost ceiling”, the maximum that the government is willing to spend on the pensions, and some protection for people near retirement. At approximately the same time the universities employers association offered to restart negotiations over USS. However, the changes to USS were already unilaterally imposed last Autumn and the new negotiations offered were for reviews of two specific areas that have been changed. Firstly, new entrants to USS are now placed in a different scheme than current members; current members have a “final salary” pensions where what they get in retirement is proportional to their final salary, new members have a “career averaged” (CARE) pension, which is proportional to a weighted (and inflation uprated) average of your salary. One review would consider the CARE pension and hopefully ensure that it ends up being no worse than what is offered to people in TPS. The other review would consider the abolition of the right for staff over 55 to take an unreduced pension.

This month a meeting of UCU’s national executive committee voted by a margin of 3 to 1 to reject the government’s offer over TPS and to continue industrial action in coordination with other teaching unions. The largest school teaching unions the NUT, NUSUWT and EIS have all also rejected the offer.

Which all brings us pretty much up to this week and the special conference for USS. Despite the general consensus that the offer for new entrants in USS is worse than the current offer for new entrants into TPS and the clear decision to keep fighting over those changes, our national negotiators recommended going into the meeting that we accept the offer, suspend action and re-enter negotiations. At the meeting three broad positions were laid out: accept the the negotiators position and suspend all action; return to negotiations but time-limited and whilst continuing our current work-to-rule action; or reject the offer and immediately escalate strike action.

Sadly, the delegates at the meeting voted (66 to 41) for the first of those options, suspending all current industrial action. There were, as slight amelioration, several amendments to that decision however. First, a commitment to ‘respond quickly and decisively’ with further action ‘if the review does not deliver improvements for our members in a timely manner’. Second, that by June of this year we have agreement on an accrual rate no worse than in TPS and full pensions for those made redundant. And thirdly, that Andrew Cubie, who chaired the original negotiations prior to the imposition of the agreement and used his casting vote to force the changes through, despite supposedly being independent of the two sides, should be immediately excluded from the negotiations. (It’s not clear at this stage what the result would be if the employers refuse to exclude him – would this lead to further action now? or would we just accept it?)

Personally, I think this is a serious mistake. The reviews will have as much management participation as the original negotiations which forced through these changes, and when the changes are already in place a settlement is really a victory for management – they have no need to negotiate except to stop us taking industrial action, which they have already succeeded in doing. At a time when other unions are taking further coordinated action, when we have momentum by making them offer ‘something’, on the back of November 30th it seems poor strategy to back down now whilst offered no independent arbitration, no guarantee of any improvement and almost certainty that anything that does come from the reviews will still be worse than what we had to start with, before these changes happened. Come June it will be too late to do anything which substantively disrupts management till the Autumn and there will be no chance to not mark exams (a tactic for which there is evidence from previous disputes of success) till the end of the year.

By suspending action we choose to disarm ourselves for no substantive gain. It baffles me that lay trade union delegates would vote to do that, but that is what they have done.