MPs support striking Sheffield University staff

Protest: Unison and Unite members take strike action at Sheffield University.
Protest: Unison and Unite members take strike action at Sheffield University.
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SHEFFIELD’S MPS have hit out at a decision to slash the pensions of hundreds of lower paid staff at Sheffield University.

Their backing to the campaign against the move was revealed as hundreds of porters, cleaners, security and office staff walked out on strike yesterday demanding the University Council rethink proposals to close their current pension scheme.

The unions say the university’s lowest-paid staff, some who earn between just £3,000 and £16,000 per year, will now be given the chance to join a new Cash Balance Scheme which will see their already meagre pensions halved.

But those on higher salaries - including Vice Chancellor Keith Burnett who earns £294,000 per year - will continue to benefit from membership of the Universities Superannuation Scheme and its final salary pension provision.

Sheffield MPs Clive Betts, David Blunkett, Paul Blomfield, Meg Munn and Angela Smith have written to Mr Burnett stating: “It seems fundamentally wrong to discriminate between different grades of staff in the way the university is proposing to do. This proposal seems both divisive and unfair.”

A spokesman for the university said the rising risk and cost of pension provision means the scheme is no longer sustainable.

He added: “The changes follow a lengthy and thorough process of review and consultation with staff and trade unions.

“The university is aware that the trade unions have concerns over the changes to the pension provision, however we have also had to take into account the realities of rising pension costs and risks being faced by major organisations across the public and private sectors.”

But the MPs say in their letter: “The package goes significantly further than the proposals made by Lord Hutton for public service pensions in general.”

On the picket lines yesterday union officials for Unite and Unison claimed consultations with the university Council had been meaningless.

Sue Cresswell, Unison Branch Secretary whose members were taking industrial action for the first time in 15 years, said: “We have presented several different options to the cash balance scheme - none of which has been considered by the University Council.

“I am extremely disappointed that the university is planning to treat its lowest paid staff so shabbily, particularly as 70 per cent of these staff are women.

“The university ethos has always been equality and recently won an award for the way they support women in academic roles. The hypocrisy is stunning.”

Unison Regional Organiser Phil Booth added: “In the 1990s the university’s pension scheme was over-subscribed and they allowed themselves a ‘holiday’ from making their contributions for eight years.

“The support staff continued to pay their contributions but were told that if ever there was a deficit the university would meet it.

“Due in part to the contributions “holiday” there is a deficit of £31 million.

“But rather than deal with that directly, the university is trying to make the lowest paid employees pay.”

Staff plan to stage a further 24-hour walk-out next Friday.