University staff strike on Freshers’ weekend over pension cuts

UNION members have gone on strike for four days over Freshers’ Weekend (Friday 19th-Monday 22nd) over Aberystwyth University’s decision to close the Aberystwyth University Pension and Assurance Scheme (AUPAS).

Photo - Alex Tanton

Photo – Alex Tanton

Union, Unite, UCU and Prospect members have taken industrial action over the closure of the AUPAS pension scheme and its replacement, which is a scheme that will see staff facing cuts to their pensions of up to 50%.

AUPAS is a pension scheme for those on pay grades 1-5; from minimum wage to about £26,000 per annum. Those on a higher wages are part of the national pension scheme USS, which is far superior but not open to lower paid staff. USS is in a worse financial situation than AUPAS but the changes it is facing are, union representatives claim, far less drastic. Aberystwyth University is the only UK university to close its pension scheme to existing members.

The unions are striking over the move-in weekend for new freshers, although they have agreed to a skeleton staff for health and safety purposes.

A rally took place on Saturday morning (20th), with a march from the station up the hill to Penglais Campus attracting a good turnout and stopping traffic, before culminating in a rally at Penglais Campus which included speeches from speakers such as Plaid Cymru candidate Mike Parker.

A staff member, who wished to remain anonymous, said that “they gave us a 2% pay rise and now they’re taking it back from our pensions”.

Dic Griffiths, Branch Chairman for Unison, stated that “as far as we’re concerned we’ve got no other options.” Jen Jones, Campaign Organiser for Unison, added that “this is purely a penny-pinching exercise at the expense of the lowest paid workers.”

Simon Dunn, Unison Regional Organiser said:

“We have timed the strike action to coincide with the start of the new academic year, and the arrival of new students to Aberystwyth. It is a crucial time of year for the University, who will be hoping to make a good impression on new students as they arrive to begin their academic career. All the unions thought long and hard before deciding to take strike action at the beginning of the new term.  The University relies on student fees to fund its activity.”

“If Aberystwyth gets a bad reputation, it will damage the University. Our members want to see the University thrive, to be a fantastic place to study, but we cannot accept that this should be done on the back of massive cuts to our members pensions. Aberystwyth needs to be a good place to work if it wants to provide an excellent service to students. All we want is a fair system, where half of the staff aren’t treated like second class citizens. We hope students will understand why we have to take action over this issue, and will support our fight with the University. Aberystwyth University employees are fighting for a pension to live on, and not just survive.”

Martin Wilding, UCU Aberystwyth branch secretary, said:

“The university depends greatly on the contribution of all its’ staff, irrespective of their pay. We have concerns over the damage that these pension changes will have on the services within the university and the damage that will be caused. This is not that way to encourage new students or high level services within the university.”

Wynne Ebenezer, UNITE branch chair, said:

“We don’t believe this change to pensions is necessary, but what we do know is that the proposals will mean our members being much poorer when they retire.  Why should the lowest paid staff be made to suffer when we know there is an alternative?”

A university spokesperson stated that:

“The University is extremely disappointed that a small number of staff have said they intend to take industrial action. Whilst fully respecting an individual’s right to strike, to target the weekend that the University welcomes its newest students goes against all the hard work undertaken by colleagues during the past year to build relationships and attract students to Aberystwyth.  After a successful Clearing campaign, and news that Aberystwyth is within the top 20 UK Universities for “the best first impression”, this action attempts to hit the core business of the University. This is a potential threat to the University’s future sustainability, and aims to create concern for new students, who may be away from home for the fist time, and their families.

Following full consultation with staff and trades unions, the University Council took the decision to close the Aberystwyth University Pension Scheme in June. The University will not be reversing this decision and we welcome the current involvement of trades unions in the procurement of a new scheme. The industrial action cannot have any impact on this decision, which has already been taken, and many colleagues will be working hard to minimise any disruption to the welcome for our new and returning students.”

Union ballots ranged from 84-100% in support of industrial action.

Photos by Alex Tanton