Unions continue to be bullied through the courts

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, reports on the unfair treatement of her members over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU)

The current trend of trade unions being bullied through the courts has now spread to higher education. Five members of my union, the University and College Union (UCU), have been warned they face High Court action in a row over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension.

The individuals in question sit on the USS joint negotiating committee as representatives for the 120,000 strong union. Last month they received a letter from DLA Piper, lawyers acting on behalf of the USS board, warning they will be personally liable for legal costs after they refused to turn up to a meeting in March.

It is absolutely outrageous that the second largest private pension scheme in the country is turning its full force on five individuals who are simply standing up for the pension rights of thousands of people in higher education. The lawyers should immediately withdraw the threat to go after the five individuals financially.

For those of you unfamiliar dispute with the USS dispute, here is a bit of background information. The USS pension scheme is in good financial health. However, employers are proposing changes that will see an end to the final salary scheme and see new entrants lose 30 per cent from their pensions.

USS members have every right to feel angry about these proposed changes, and last month took strike action to defend their pensions and the pensions of future USS members at more than 60 universities in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland.

In a separate ballot of over 31,000 scheme members, 96 per cent said they did not support the employers’ proposals. However, this too seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The Employers Pension Forum, who are looking to introduce these changes, don’t seem to be interested in the democratic will of USS members.

With a court summons looming, UCU has been cast as an obstacle to progress but that is simply not the case. UCU representatives took the decision not to attend a meeting where the employers had made it clear that they were not prepared to negotiate. The UCU representatives’ belief was that the independent chair would again vote with the employers. This would mean that their attendance would merely ensure the meeting was quorate and in effect rubber-stamp the changes.

That is why UCU has suggested using the conciliation service ACAS to break the stalemate, but this offer has been rejected by the employers. Instead, much to their delight, the USS board have instructed their lawyers to threaten members of my union. The prevailing wisdom would seem to be ‘why talk to staff when you can sue them?’

This undignified spectacle is in no-one’s interest and sets a worrying precedent for the future. The issue of pensions will be in the news a lot in the coming months, following the Hutton review. The government has signalled its intention to wind-up final salary pensions and the race to the bottom that has began in the private sector looks set to continue in the public sector.

Staff, and the trade unions that represent them, must have recourse to defend workers’ pensions. Individuals mustn’t be threatened with legal action for simply standing up against punitive changes.

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