Monday, 9 April 2018

My argument for #VoteNO in the USS dispute

I spoke today at the Sussex UCU branch meeting in favour of #VoteNo. This is a transcript of my speech. And here's a podcast of it.

I went on strike to protect my pension. Not just the idea of defined benefits pensions, but size of it. This offer does not do that. If this had been the offer in place at the time of the ballot, I would still have voted in favour of strike action.

Before looking at the detail of the offer, I have serious concerns about the process by which it came to us. This offer is UUK’s first draft. It was given to our general secretary. Our negotiators were not given an opportunity to work on the offer. We have negotiators for a reason. Negotiations have a tried and tested process. It is bad negotiation practice to take the first offer as it stands and send it out to ballot. Our negotiators would have sought to tighten up the wording significantly, so that we could be balloted on something that was certain, that was not open to speculation about its meaning. Irrespective of this, it is important to remember that we have a process for a reason, and that it should be an exceptionally good justification for ignoring that process. I do not one anywhere. Given this lack of respect for a process designed to ensure democracy in UCU, and that we are asked to consider the best negotiated offer possible, I am deeply concerned about approving this offer. I am sceptical about the manner in which this offer will be implemented, and for that reason, we must have the detail locked down in writing.

The detail, then. Words matter. Specific words have specific meanings, and specific interpretations. If there are too many possible interpretations, or speculation as to the meanings, then the words are meaningless. A collection of meaningless words is no protection at all if we needed to reignite the dispute. If we agree to something that can have multiple interpretations without confirming which one is preferred, then we have agreed to ALL possible interpretations. So we must think of the worst possible interpretation and work out whether we are happy to agree to that.

I think the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) is a great idea. And a significant concession from UUK and USS (if they agree). But the lack of details around its relationship with USS is deeply problematic. We don’t know if the trustees will be bound by the JEP’s report. We don’t know whether they will even agree to read it. We don’t know whether the JEP will be able to investigate and report on issues that will actually change the way that USS is run. We don’t know whether the JEP could or would look at the wider oblique governance issues that surround USS and UUK. It could be that the JEP sits in a room reading and writing for a year, two years, and then writes a report, which USS never reads, which has no impact at all on the way in the fund is run. There is nothing in this offer that guards against that. Information in a letter sent to HEC from Alistair Jarvis is meaningless in this context. If it’s not in the offer itself then it cannot be relied on.

There is a lack of detail on what is meant by the continuation of the status quo in relation to contributions and benefits. The status quo is the highly contested November valuation that shows that the fund is in deficit. If the valuation methodology is accurate then we cannot expect that there can be a status quo in contributions. If contributions remain the same, then the deficit will increase, dramatically. In order to maintain the status quo, it would seem that we have to accept the premise of the November valuation and institutional contributions will have to increase, dramatically. We know that many institutions have stated that they cannot afford this increased contributions even in the short term. Unless we have clarity on what continuing the status quo means, we must assume the worst. Unless we can be sure that this commitment to the status quo means putting the November valuation on hiatus, we cannot be sure that the status quo can actually be maintained. The side issue then, is that accepting this offer seems to require us to accept the November valuation that our fund is in deficit. But this is one of the cornerstones of our industrial action. We do not agree that our fund is in deficit. We do not agree that it needs aggressive restructuring.

Finally, the offer states that USS and tPR will be approached for their approval after we have agreed to offer. No. This is not good enough. Despite evidence of past lenient practice, tPR would be within its power to reject this new arrangement and impose the recovery plan based on the November valuation. We need to know in advance whether this is something that tPR and USS will agree to. If there is no chance of them agreeing, then the offer is not worth the paper it is written on.

In summary, this offer is too flexible to have any concrete meaning at all. And the conduct of the negotiating parties has been such that we cannot rely on anything beyond what has been written down. Words matter.

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