Support staff at the University of Manchester have voted overwhelmingly to take strike action over plans to cut and close their pension scheme - 89% voted for industrial action in a consultative ballot organised by UNISON. A formal strike ballot will now open tomorrow (Friday) and strike action could take place in December.    

Cleaners, catering staff, security staff and administrators are amongst those threatened with changes that would cut their retirement incomes by 20%. Over 3,000 current scheme members stand to lose out, along with future employees of the university who would no longer be able to join the defined benefit scheme.       

A security guard earning £22,000 would lose £1,375 per year in retirement, while a cleaner on £14,000 would lose £875 each year. 

The planned pension raid has been criticised by local MPs. Angela Rayner, Labour MP for Ashton-under-Lyne, said: “I am deeply concerned by these proposals, which would leave thousands of people across Greater Manchester, including in Ashton, significantly worse off in retirement.

"Decent pay and working conditions for those who work in education are vital to the success of the national education service that Labour is planning, and support staff are every bit as important as other educators. It is especially worrying if the lowest-paid staff, mostly women, are being targeted for the worst cuts, and I want to be clear that we stand with them in demanding fair treatment at work and security in retirement. 

“I urge the employer to think again, and get back round the table with trade union representatives to find a solution that protects their staff and makes sure that the university continues to provide an excellent education.”

The planned changes would involve pensions being calculated on a ‘career-average’ basis, which would reduce the retirement income further for staff who are promoted at any point during their career. The plans would also mean that the scheme would be closed to new members and new staff, and replaced with a riskier ‘defined contribution’ scheme.     

Holly Knight (34), a student support officer at the University said: “One of the things that makes the university a good place to work is the pension scheme. I love my job, but I don’t want to be having to still do it when I’m 80. These pension changes are going to cost me a fortune over the coming years.  

“But it’s the new starters who I feel most sorry for. They won’t be able to join the same pension scheme as the rest of us, so their future will be a lot riskier. 

“I hope the university will look again at these cuts and keep the scheme open. The staff feel very strongly that this is wrong.  We might not be lecturers, but we do important jobs in the university and I don’t think they should be attacking our pensions.”      

There was strike action at universities across the country earlier this year as lecturers walked out over proposed cuts to their national scheme. A subsequent joint expert panel has been established to look into that scheme and has criticised the incorrect financial assumptions that were the basis of the proposed cuts. 

UNISON believes that the University of Manchester is now being similarly pessimistic and hasty in seeking to cut and close its local scheme for non-academic staff. 

Neelam Bhambra, UNISON North West area organiser said: “The work that these staff do is vital to the smooth running of the university and for students’ experiences of academic life and living in Manchester. They are the lowest paid staff in the university and they deserve to have a decent income when they retire. 

“The university is not a cash-strapped organisation. It has plenty of money for vanity projects and to pay very high salaries for some. 

“We have seen the lecturing staff go on strike recently to protect their pensions. Support staff are angry and upset about these swingeing cuts to their retirement incomes, and they would be wholly justified in taking strike action to stop this raid on their pensions.”    

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