“Myriad trans-Atlantic labor connections spring to mind for us as Latin Americanists participating in the largest strike in the history of Britain’s higher education sector. The fracas began in late February and will involve at least 14 days of strike action over four weeks at 61 universities across the country. Our battle is over pensions in the first place, but it also concerns the future of public higher education, the labor movement, and the wider struggle against austerity in the country.
“‘The university pensions dispute,’ University of London Professor Brendan McGeever pointed out, ‘has underscored the transformative capacity of strike action…At ‘teach outs’ and picket lines across the country, the question of pensions is being located in a much wider conversation about the nature of the university and the marketization of higher education,’ he said. The strike ‘has revealed itself to have the capacity to enlarge collectivism and deepen critical thinking.’
“…The commodities boom, which had financed much of the social spending and progressive policies of Pink Tide governments across Latin America over the previous decade, unleashed a crisis of legitimacy for many Left and center-Left governments in the region when crisis struck. Rather than shift the costs of collapsing state revenues into capital through more aggressive taxation or appropriation, Pink Tide governments, in an ill-fated attempt to remain ‘credible’ to large private investors, instead adopted austerity measures that hit the poor and working classes hardest. And as they alienated erstwhile supporters, capital returned to its traditional political home in center-Right or hard-Right political configurations, emboldening conservatives to retake power through the ballot box in Argentina, Peru, and Chile and through thinly veiled coups in Paraguay, Brazil, and Honduras.
“…At the heart of ongoing strikes in the U.K. are proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), one of Europe’s largest collectivized pension funds. Last year, a review of the fund by USS trustees ostensibly revealed a £7.5 billion ($10.4 billion USD) deficit. To ensure the fund’s viability, trustees determined that an increase in combined contributions by employers and employees from 26% to 37.4% of income was required. In response, Universities UK (UUK), which organizes groups of higher education employers, proposed to effectively eliminate guaranteed pensions by directing all contributions to the stock market, passing on risk from employers to employees. According to an independent estimate commissioned by the University and College Union (UCU), which represents university faculty and staff, the proposed changes would slash the pension of a typical faculty member by over £200,000 ($275,000 USD).
“…Gauging from the first two weeks of strikes, this is a different fight from prior experiences. Three earlier pension-related strikes by the University and College Union (UCU) over the past decade had uneven support, gained little momentum, and ended with union leaders caving to employers’ demands. But this is a new moment. Nationwide turnout is massive; students and staff have joined pickets in large numbers, organized petitions, and written letters to university councils, local politicians, and university presidents. And unlike previous moments, this time UCU leadership has continued to support strike actions even as negotiations are underway, understanding them to be critical leverage to achieve a just deal…”
For the complete article, From the United Kingdom to Latin America, Striking for Pensions in the Age of Austerity, click here.