On Thursday we will go out on strike for another fourteen days. This is a hard decision for us all. Over the last few weeks we’ve heard many of your concerns expressed to us via our reps and activists. We all worry about how cancelled classes will affect our students, or how our absence will affect our colleagues. Some of us worry about being able to pay the rent or make mortgage repayments. Many of us wonder whether taking this action will have any meaningful impact.
We hear you. But now is not the time to back down.
Striking now is about protecting our futures and the future of our profession. Collectively we have reached breaking point on many issues. We all know we’re working too long and too hard. We find ourselves spending evenings and weekends catching up on work instead of spending time with our loved ones. We find ourselves tethered to a career pathway that values performance indicators over people, that pushes us to the edge to meet unreasonable targets that are so often academically and pedagogically senseless. Or we find there is no career pathway at all, and we are stuck in roles that don’t value our experience. Some of us quit the profession; some of us struggle on through a series of short-term jobs; many of us face deteriorating mental health and work-induced stress. Those of us at more senior stages of our careers face declining and uncertain pensions at retirement. Those of us just starting out are caught in endless cycles of insecurity, with wages that barely cover the costs of our rent, not to mention a pension plan that may not exist when – and if – we get to retire. We all worry about what this means for the future of higher education – for our friends, our colleagues, and our students. Now is our chance to do something about this. Acting now is about protecting our future and the future of our profession. That’s why we must strike now.
Striking means raising our voices to defend our pensions. In 2018 we stood together in our tens of thousands, battling ice and snow to resist devastating cuts that would have seen many of us lose hundreds of thousands of pounds at retirement. The basis of the 2018 strike was a valuation we saw at the time was transparently and ludicrously flawed. But that same method of valuing the scheme persists, despite extensive criticism from the independent Joint Expert Panel, and now provides the rationale for our paying higher contributions each month. Our voices are being ignored by the scheme’s trustees and our employers alike; we have to continue fighting to make them heard if we’re going to keep defined benefits safe in the future. Our pensions are ours by right, but we’ve been left with no say in them at all.
We should be furious that our pay is being docked every month on such flimsy grounds. But there are deeper, more troubling consequences to this latest twist in the USS saga. Rises in contributions are pricing out the lowest paid and most precarious members of the scheme. For those of us in the early years of our careers, looking out on a darkening landscape of higher education, and looking down at our dwindling pay-cheques, it might come down each month to a choice between paying into USS or paying our rent. The fewer people that are paying into the scheme, the more unstable it becomes, and the greater the risk of future attacks on our benefits – or even the collapse of the scheme altogether. What our employers failed to take by force in 2018, they’re trying now to take by stealth. Only by ramping up the pressure on our employers can we secure a long-term resolution on USS, and a short-term reduction in the unaffordable contributions we pay.
Striking gives us strength in local negotiations. Our recent wins on casualisation here in Cambridge prove this. In the space of a year, we’ve gone from being stonewalled by our employer, who denied that casualisation really existed at this University, to securing substantial gains that will see hundreds of our colleagues moved onto more secure contracts. None of this would have been possible without going on strike last year. We know what’s wrong at the University. But it’s not enough to make compelling arguments, to write reports and submit formal claims. We have to be able to back this up with strength of feeling if we’re going to change things for the better. A national framework on pay, casualisation, workload and equality wouldn’t solve everything at a stroke. But it would renew and reinforce our local campaigns here in Cambridge, so we could force our employers to put that framework into practice.
Striking means we have more power. Striking helps us build the strength of the union in the University. We more than doubled our local membership during the 2018 USS strikes, and we’ve had additional increases in numbers this time around. On the pickets, we meet each other, share our experiences, and start to understand how we can campaign collectively on the issues that matter, and it’s there that we gain our strength for the fight ahead. By standing together, we bring the union into the everyday life of the university.
We all face a hard choice over these coming days and weeks. But we face this choice together. We are in a fight that will define the future of our profession. Now is our chance to stand up for our pensions, for fairer pay and safer jobs, and for manageable workloads that allow us space and time for living. We need to understand the importance of this moment not just for ourselves but for future generations of university staff and students. Together we are stronger, united we win.
See you on the picket lines.
This manifesto is the collective work of Cambridge UCU members, and is endorsed by the branch’s Executive Committee