Students are being urged to support a strike by university staff this Friday.
Up to 89 members of the trade union Unite are expected to walk out over changes to their pension scheme. Union stalwarts say it will be the first strike over a local dispute in the university’s history.
Those striking mainly comprise computer technicians, lab assistants and estates staff. It is unlikely that services will be severely affected and Unite has said its members will respond to emergency callouts if people are in danger. But the union also warned that it was in for the long haul if the strike did not bring university management to the negotiating table.
The workers held a lunchtime rally in Library Square last Thursday to launch their campaign. Laura Tazzioli, USSU President, told the rally the students’ union supported the strike. She said “Students are the workers of tomorrow. We are a campus community and we will win this fight as a community.”
Support staff are protesting because university management have told them it will close their ‘final salary’ pension scheme to new members, offering them instead a riskier and lower paying ‘defined contribution’ pension scheme.
The support staff feel the change is particularly unfair given that academic staff are offered a much more secure final salary pension. Jim Guild, honorary secretary of the lecturers’ union UCU, contrasted the position of the support staff with that of the Vice-Chancellor, who earns £155,965 a year. Mr Guild told the rally that university management were trying to take money “from the members of staff who are most vulnerable and, in their view, least likely to resist. We need to say that an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Union officials said they were forced to ballot for strike action as a last resort after university management refused to negotiate. Seventy percent of Unite members voted in favour of striking.
The final salary scheme provides staff with a pension linked to the amount they earn at the time they retire. The new defined contribution scheme would pay workers less and leave them vulnerable to economic conditions that could wipe the value off their pension by the time they retire. The change would make Sussex one of only three UK universities that do not offer a final salary pension for all staff.
Trade unionists said the university was trying to transfer the financial risk of economic turmoil onto individual staff members – a move they said was unfair. Jeremy Maris, chair of the Trades Union Liaison Committee, said “The university can take the long view and absorb risk over a period of time. Individual staff can’t.”
After learning of the strike ballot, university management wrote to all staff on pay grade six or below urging them to vote against industrial action. It said they would be asked to declare that they would not be participating in the strike to avoid having their pay docked. Paula Bartle, branch secretary of Unite, said the university was trying to intimidate staff and that it could not legally dock the pay of staff simply for not signing a declaration.
However, staff who are recorded as absent on the strike day are still expected to have their pay docked. Unite has set up a strike fund and said it would be appealing for donations.
The strike will be the latest sign of the disillusionment with university management among staff and students. Last year hundreds of students joined staff to protest against the Vice-Chancellor’s plans to make the university more market-oriented.
Unison, the trade union representing clerical support staff, said it supported the strike but has not balloted for industrial action.
Tom Hickey, secretary of the lecturers’ union at Brighton University, said the outcome of the pensions dispute would affect students. He put the dispute in the context of a wider political agenda of privatisation in education, which he said could mean students paying higher tuition fees.
‘Why you should support the strike’ – talk for students 6pm Thursday in Arts C133. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org