Catalonia Motion passed by NU UCU Committee

Newcastle University UCU branch committee notes the lengthy prison sentences handed out to nine Catalan pro-independence leaders of between 9 and 13 years for sedition. In Spanish law sedition means “rising up publicly and tumultuously” against the law and/or the authorities.
By trying the defendants for sedition rather than the more serious charge of rebellion, there is now the prospect of reopening extradition warrants for those who have been exiled including Professor Clara Ponsati of St Andrews University.
UCU has a policy towards Catalonia carried at Special Congress 18 Oct 2018 and adopted at UCU Congress 2019 which recognises the Catalan people’s right to self-determination and to call for the release and acquittal of all political prisoners.

As these trials cannot be seen in any other way than political in nature we ask our general secretary to:
a) Write to the Spanish Ambassador in London expressing our shock at the handling of a sensitive political issue in this heavy handed manner and for the immediate release of all nine political leaders
b) Convey our solidarity to the prisoners via the All Party Parliamentary Group on Catalonia at the House of Commons
c) Restate our support for Professor Ponsati and pledge our opposition to any attempt to extradite her to Spain.

More information here

Chris Bambery – Catalonia: The Biggest Civil Liberties Issue in Recent European History

Key member updates

UCU announces eight days of strikes starting this month at 60 universities
5 November 2019
Sixty UK universities* will be hit with eight days of strike action from Monday 25 November to Wednesday 4 December, UCU announced today.

Last week UCU members backed strike action in two separate legal disputes, one on pensions and one on pay and working conditions. Overall, 79% of UCU members who voted backed strike action in the ballot over changes to pensions. In the ballot on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads, 74% of members polled backed strike action.

The union said universities had to respond positively and quickly if they wanted to avoid disruption this year. The disputes centre on changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and universities’ failure to make improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads.

The overall turnout in the USS ballot was 53% and on pay and conditions it was 49%. The union dis-aggregated the ballots so branches who secured a 50% turnout can take action in this first wave. The union’s higher education committee has now set out the timetable for the action.

As well as eight strike days from 25 November to Wednesday 4 December, union members will begin ‘action short of a strike’. This involves things like working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘The first wave of strikes will hit universities later this month unless the employers start talking to us seriously about how they are going to deal with rising pension costs and declining pay and conditions.

‘Any general election candidate would be over the moon with a result along the lines of what we achieved last week. Universities can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling on these issues and we will be consulting branches whose desire to strike was frustrated by anti-union laws about re-balloting.’

Last year, university campuses were brought to a standstill by unprecedented levels of strike action. UCU said it was frustrated that members had to be balloted again, but that universities’ refusal to deal with their concerns had left them with no choice.

Last month, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner called on both sides to get round the table for urgent talks. She said she fully supported UCU members fighting for fair pay and decent pensions and called on both sides to work together to find solutions to the disputes.

New USS Brief — reasons to vote YES

Please see below for a clear explanation as to why it is essential to return your ballot paper with full YES votes in defence of your pension. (Sam Marsh is a UCU negotiator on the JNC.)

Why it is essential we vote YES

The promise to implement the Joint Expert Panel’s decisions as the basis for ending industrial action has been betrayed by your employers as they circle wagons to protect the USS patriarchy. Only a renewed threat of action will save your pension.

If you are expecting a ballot paper and have not received one then please let the UCU office know.

USS Jargon Buster

If you are baffled and exasperated by the terminology or need a concise key to the dispute about your pension, read on.

Contribution rate: The proportion of your salary that goes into the pension scheme, coming from the employer and from you.

Deficit: Despite headline-grabbing ‘deficits’ in 2011, 2014, and 2017, USS is growing, making an annual surplus and currently has massive assets, £72bn of late August. The deficit is a hypothetical calculation based on assumptions that the USS executive has manipulated to its own ends. If the Joint Expert Panel recommendations were applied to the March 2018 valuation, the deficit would vanish.

Defined Benefit or DB: how most pensions used to be. You and your employer pay in during your working life, you know what proportion of your salary you will receive on retirement. These are mutual or collective schemes. There are currently still 10 million people in a DB scheme. The pensions industry and its regulator want to shift risk and costs of pensions onto individuals so they are keen to move people onto Defined Contribution schemes. Final Salary Defined Benefit schemes calculate your pension on your salary at retirement. Career Average Defined Benefit Scheme averages your salary over time to determine your pension.

Defined contribution or DC: how pensions increasingly are. You know how much you pay, you have no idea what your pension will be. You accumulate an individual pension pot of shares, which you receive on retirement. At retirement, you would have to buy an annuity, which would provide you with a regular income (so it is in the interest of the pensions industry to get people onto defined contribution pensions).

‘De-risking’: USS, the Department of Work and Pension and the Pensions Regulator are ideologically committed to ‘de-risking’: moving high yielding equities into government bonds or ‘gilts’, thus weakening performance of the scheme and in-creasing deficit, creating more pressure to move to a DC scheme or increase contributions.

Employer Covenant: The: a credit rating based on a subjective assessment of the employers’ commitment to the pension scheme. Because the USS is backed by multiple employers on a last-person-standing principle it has a uniquely strong employer covenant. The ‘deficit’ jumped from September to November 2017 after a consultation in which employers were asked what their ‘appetite for risk’ was by USS to which they replied that they did not like risk. Consequently, the pension’s regulator deemed the covenant to be ‘tending to strong’ rather than ‘strong’ pushing the ‘deficit’ up.

Joint Expert Panel: this body was established through agreement between the UCU and UUK during the pensions dispute of 2017-8, in order to look at the calculation of the ‘deficit’ (the 2017 valuation of the scheme) and the governance of the USS. It reported on the former in Sep 2018 and it is soon to report on USS governance. The USS executive has effectively ignored the findings of the first report.

Joint Negotiating Committee: The: the negotiating body between the UUK and UCU regarding the USS.

Option 3: Rather than challenging USS to implement the Joint Expert Panel’s recommendations, which, if applied to the March 2018 valuation, would have led to no increase in contributions, the employers opted for a stepped increase in contributions, starting at 9.6% of salary for employees and increasing to over 11% in 2021.

Pensions Regulator: the ‘independent’ watchdog for the pensions industry. But this is a government appointee fully committed to the liberalisation of pensions and has done next to nothing to protect those who have suffered from pensions injustice such as those at Carillion, BHS, British Steel and the Miners Pension Scheme. Bill Galvin, now CEO of USS, was formerly the Pensions Regulator.

Technical Provisions: The technical provisions liabilities must be calculated every valuation (every 3 years) and is a measure of the assets the scheme requires to pay off all its liabilities (i.e. members’ pensions). The estimate depends on life expectancy, inflation, and the ‘discount rate‘. The latter is a major source of contention, with the USS Executive having misrepresented the regulator about this rate.

Test 1: This calculates the assets the scheme will need in 20 years’ time if it is to be closed. The Joint Expert Panel, among others, have debunked Test 1. The Joint Expert Panel report noted that Test 1 drove investment strategy to-wards a low return on investment, higher deficits and greater contributions. Despite being discredited in the Joint Expert Panel, USS used Test 1 in its latest valuation.

USS Executive: The scheme managers who should administer the USS increasingly act in an entirely unaccountable manner. These are finance industry insiders. Bill Galvin, the CEO of USS, is the head of the executive board.

USS Board of Trustees: Because the USS is a mutual scheme set up through agreement between the employers and the union, the board allows for representation for both parties and independent experts. Jane Hutton was recently suspended from the USS Trustees after exposing the fact that the USS Executive had been systematically misrepresenting the position of the regulator on discount rates.

UUK: the university employers’ organisation.

Valuation, 2011: Supposedly designed to protect pensioners from the Robert Maxwell scenario, the pensions’ legislation imposed triennial valuations and has led to one defined benefit scheme closing after another. In 2011, the ‘deficit’ was £2.1bn. Our retirement age raised to 65 and was pegged to the state retirement age. Employee contributions increased from 6.35% to 7.5%. It introduced career average scheme for new entrants.

Valuation, 2014: £5.3bn deficit. From 2016, employee contributions increased to 8% and there was a £55,000 bar upon the final salary scheme, with contributions above this figure going into the Defined Contribution Scheme.

Valuation, 2017: a deficit of £7.5bn. The employers pro-posed a defined contribution scheme.
Valuation, 2020: the scheme is due another valuation ac-cording to the triennial approach