BLOG Neal Alexander

NWR Issue 116

The Picket Line Blues

It’s not long after eight in the morning and my coffee has begun to freeze. I’ve never known this to happen before. The sky overhead is electric blue and yesterday’s snow lies scattered at our feet. There are four of us now, each wrapped in motley layers of jumpers, coats, scarves, and socks. We take turns stamping our feet, telling anecdotes, and listening for birds. Dunnocks, chaffinches, and blackbirds mostly; a few days back we saw goldcrests in the pines, and later on we’ll pause to watch a lone lapwing cross the blue screen of the sky.

This is day five of the strike, and the coldest yet. A neighbour cycling to work stops to say his garden thermometer is reading minus five. We look at each other: could be worse. After a couple of hours, though, the cold will get into our feet and begin its slow rise. We know this from experience. Passers-by are mostly sympathetic, but don’t stop for long, if at all. A few cars pass, and kids on their way to school. The morning wears on.

By now, Lloyd and I are regulars on the School of Art picket – first to arrive, last to leave. Lloyd’s a librarian and I’m a lecturer. We’re both members of UCU, the University and College Union. So is Gavin, who arrives early in a handsome flat cap, and Simon, who is giving up a day of his hard-won research leave for the picket line blues. Tom, Neil, and Calista join us a bit later on. We’re striking to defend our pensions, and getting better at explaining why our pensions need defending to anyone who will listen.

The short version goes something like this: our employer, Aberystwyth University – along with sixty other universities across the UK – is trying to force us to give up our current USS pension scheme, which gives us a guaranteed, predictable income following our retirement, for another that would be one hundred per cent dependent on the vagaries and fluctuations of the stock market. Employers like this idea because it allows them to shift the financial risk from them to us, their employees. It will also enable them to reduce their contributions to our pensions from the current rate of 18% of salary to 12%. A study by First Actuarial, commissioned by UCU, estimates that the result will be a 20-40% loss in future pension value, with a typical new employee losing around £200,000 in pension on retirement. The employers’ own actuaries, AON, paint a rosier picture of only 10-20% losses for employees by factoring the state pension into their calculations.

Reading this, your attitude might be similar to our take on the Siberian weather: could be worse. And in some places it is. When the retail chain BHS collapsed in April 2016, with the loss of 11000 jobs there was also a £571 million hole in the company’s pension fund. Nearly a year later, BHS’s former owner, Sir Philip Green bowed to pressure from the Pensions Regulator and agreed to pay £363 million into the fund, in a bid to save his billionaire’s knighthood. It didn’t escape the public’s notice, however, that during the period of his ownership Green, his family, and his shareholder friends appropriated £580m from the business in dividends, rental payments, and interest on loans. Nor is it much of a surprise to find that this figure almost perfectly matches the size and shape of the hole in the BHS pensions fund.

Or take the example of thousands of former and current steel workers who were poorly advised and, in some cases, deliberately misled into transferring out of Tata Steel’s new pension scheme when the old British Steel Pension Scheme was deemed unsustainable and wound up in December 2017. Some workers claim they have lost as much as £200,000 as a result. Others, including many elderly or sick retired workers, who failed to make a decision on which pension scheme to join, were automatically transferred to the least generous option.

Examples might be multiplied: in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for public sector employees to double their contributions to the state pension fund, while accepting a 40% cut in benefits; the UK coalition government sought to force fire-fighters to work five years longer, pay higher contributions, and accept lower pensions; and, before its spectacular collapse in January 2018, the construction giant Carillion attempted to raid £225m from its employees’ pensions in an effort to remain solvent.

On the picket lines, when we’re not discussing the Six Nations rugby or singing the blues, these are the stories we tell or listen to, nodding our heads like horses in a field. And every day, we talk about our students: their enthusiasms and bon mots, baffling habits and ability to surprise or perplex us; but also, more often, we shake our equine heads at their rising levels of anxiety and the silent burden of accumulated debt they carry. Last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that the average student at an English university would graduate with debt of £50800, and that three quarters of all students would be unable to pay off their debts. In Wales, the level of debt is lower – an average of £19200 per student – but it’s estimated that 5 out of 6 will never be able to pay it off.

None of us on the pickets think this is fair, and none of us regard our students as customers. Inevitably, we compare our experiences of the marketisation of higher education, the proliferation of temporary and zero-hours contracts among new colleagues, and our managers’ odd habit of referring to us as ‘human capital’. Sometimes we tell stories of the good old days, and then we catch ourselves on.

The School of Art picket isn’t exactly where it’s at, though we all like the trees and the birds. In spite of the camaraderie and the biscuits given us by kindly strangers, none of us want to be here. Some of us are already worrying about how we’ll pay our bills if this goes on much longer. But we’re here because we need to be, because the picket line is also the front line in a larger struggle for fair treatment in work, a decent standard of living, and some measure of security in our old age. We’re all living longer these days – by 2034, 23.3% of the population will be over 65 years of age – and there’s a well-documented crisis in care for the elderly, as well as the accompanying strain upon an already overstretched and under-funded NHS. This is one of the factors that make pensions a flash-point. The other is an increasing awareness of the pervasive, sometimes obscene levels of inequality in our society. Bankers’ bonuses are an obvious example, but the soaring pay of university Vice-Chancellors has also entered into the public awareness. The average salary of a UK Vice-Chancellor is now £277,834, more than six times that of the average member of staff; at 23 British universities in 2015-16, the VC’s pay packet increased by 10% or more. For purposes of comparison, the UK Prime Minister’s annual salary is £149,440.

Explaining all of this to students and sympathetic colleagues isn’t easy, but it’s another reason why we’re here. On the first day of the strike, Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, tweeted: ‘Some excellent lecturers are going to work today. I salute you.’ The implication being, of course, that those who are not going to work are both inferior (not ‘excellent’) and insufficiently committed to their students. This is a particularly painful charge to make, because – frankly – many of us feel deeply ambivalent about going on strike precisely because of the effect that industrial action will have on our students. Most of our working lives are spent trying to ensure that these young people get the best possible opportunities to learn and the support they need to thrive. So, it feels very odd, and not a little uncomfortable to be standing on the pickets at the time that you would have been teaching a class. Few of us can resist commenting on it, and always in a tone of regret. This is something that we’re eager – perhaps too eager – to get across to the students who stop to chat, or come out to ask questions. Many are warmly supportive but a bit confused; some are indifferent; a few rush past, heads bowed, earphones in, not knowing what to make of us or what we are doing.

A wee dunnock is singing on his perch by the main gate. Overhead, fleecy clouds are drifting towards the sea. At the back of Argos someone is unloading boxes from a lorry. Lines from a Bessie Smith song are playing in a loop in my head: ‘Nobody knows you when you’re down and out, / in my pocket not one penny, and my friends, I haven’t got any.’ Bessie sings these lines with such soulful, defiant gusto that I can’t help but smile when I hear them. They don’t describe my situation – at least not yet – but they catch the mood perfectly. A melancholy high. It’s a strange cocktail of emotions, and takes some getting used to, but it’s the signature of the picket line blues.

Neal Alexander is a contributor to New Welsh Reader and a lecturer at the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.


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