Why trust should not be the issue in the ballot

Trust has become a major theme in the current UCU ballot. In particular, trust in our employers, UUK, and specifically in their language has been a generator of more memes than any other aspect of this dispute. Who would have thought that “broadly comparable” would provide such a rich twitter vein? I would agree there are many reasons not to put our faith in UUK, so we now need a pathway to an agreement on pensions that we feel is enforceable, irrespective of trust. However, I don’t see a lack of trust of UUK as defining our next step along that pathway, namely how we vote in the current UCU ballot.

We could try to get that enforceable agreement now by further striking, maybe for no detriment, though we could ask for more. At least 18 UCU branches passed motions making a commitment to no detriment a condition of putting the proposal to ballot. However, UUK have unsurprisingly said they are unwilling to make such a commitment. Those that asked for a commitment by UUK to a no-detriment clause as a precondition for a ballot are effectively asking for no ballot.

In fact it’s now clear more strike action would be necessary for no detriment prior to any expert review, and that action would have to be very strong: it would have to persuade USS and the Pensions Regulator (TPR) as well as UUK that a commitment to no detriment is politically the best option. I believe it is therefore entirely appropriate to ask members on those terms whether they want to reject the UUK proposal, and I don’t see how those 18 branches can object to such a ballot: it would demonstrate the strength of our resolve in getting precisely what they have asked for.

The alternative is to use the expert review to get to such an agreement. I’d agree with those that believe asking for such a review is inconsistent with a no-detriment precondition. I am also unpersuaded that the revisions requested by some branches, putting to one side no detriment, are materially necessary for a meaningful expert review to be conducted. Indeed, if you don’t trust UUK, how valuable can their further commitments be? Those asking for additional statements from UUK show more faith in them than I’m prepared to give.

The only way to keep UUK to the commitment of an expert review that is meaningful on our, not their, terms (and “broadly comparable” on our, not their, terms; and a “guaranteed pension” on our, not their, terms, etc.) is through the threat of strong and concerted industrial action on our part. Everyone, however they vote in this ballot, can surely unite in their willingness to use our newly found industrial muscle against UUK if they try to undermine what we believe is a meaningful expert review. We need trust in the strength of our action, not UUK’s word, to enforce a fair process.

Of course we cannot guarantee what comes out of this review, even if we are willing to enforce as necessary that it is performed fairly. But the outcome of the expert review is now the recognised lever we have to shift USS and TPR in our interests, as acknowledged by USS and TPR themselves.

We should feel extremely proud of achieving the position we now have in this dispute. Any ballot will produce opposing positions, and I think it is very important to recognise on what grounds we disagree rather than accusing those who take contrary positions of showing bad faith. Also, and of critical importance, I think the ballot as framed allows all of us to unite behind the result, whatever it might be. I believe it would be a mistake to think that a lack of trust means we have to reject now moving immediately forward to an expert review.

Do I trust UUK to play fair? Not for a moment, and I don’t have to. It is only through the demonstration of strength to date that we have acheived our current position. Rather than any faith in UUK, I now trust that all of us in UCU will be more than willing to demonstrate the consequences if UUK try to undermine what we see is a fair, expert review, one that is capable of shifting USS and TPR to endorse the pension scheme that we expect and deserve.