Around 200,000 teachers in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) will receive ballot papers from 28 February asking them to vote for strike action on pay.
The importance of a yes vote and a good turnout in this ballot cannot be overstated.
A good result would lead to the first national teachers’ strike in over twenty years. The strike is planned for Thursday 24 April. More importantly, teachers are the first group of public sector workers to respond to a pay offer for the 2008 pay round. A successful ballot and strike action could set the tone for more widespread action across the public sector.
On the other hand, a set back could be used by public sector union leaders who have been determined so far to avoid any fight over pay. The lecturers’ union UCU is planning to ballot in March for action to coincide with the NUT on 24 April. If these two unions strike together we should use that to put pressure on other union leaderships to pull their fingers out and take action on pay.
Teachers have been told that we will get a 2.45% increase from September 2008, with 2.3% increases in both 2009 and 2010. This at a time when inflation is over 4%, and after two years of real terms pay cuts. For 2006-8 teachers had 2.5% rises with a promise that, if inflation devalued that award, we could seek a fresh pay review. In the event inflation averaged 4% and teachers experienced a pay cut, but the government refused to agree any review.
The strike action call has come about because of this prior pay cut and the threat of three further years of the same treatment.
Education Secretary Ed Balls tried to spin the pay award as a real-terms increase by using the consumer price index, which does not include housing costs. Claiming the inflation was 2.1%, he insisted that we were doing well. The measure accepted by government and employers in the past for upgrading inflation-linked pensions and in wage bargaining has always been the retail price index (RPI). When the government accepted the principle of an inflation trigger mechanism in the last teachers’ pay award, they agreed that inflation would be measured by the RPI.
Even more blatantly for a lot of younger teachers (or the parents of recent students) the Government recently increased the rate at which graduates have to repay their student loans to 4.8% and justified this by claiming that this figure reflected inflation. So when they increase our pay, they use the lower inflation rate, but when we have to repay them they use the higher rate!
Teachers, like many other groups of public sector workers this year, will need to take action just to avoid having their living standards reduced, and no amount of New Labour spin should be allowed to hide that basic fact.
NUT branches around the country are working hard to ensure that we get support for action. Leeds NUT is holding a meeting for school reps on 5 March mailing “Vote Yes” postcards to every members home address during the first few days of the ballot and emailing and phoning members with reminders to vote and vote yes. It is also visiting as many schools as possible to argue the case for action; and hoping to hold a joint pay rally with the UCU and to involve activists from other public sector unions who may be brought into struggle on pay later in the year.
Of course it will take more than one day of strike action to defeat the government’s pay limit. The original position of the NUT was to ballot for “discontinuous” action (allowing a number of strike days to be called) but this was reversed at the January Executive and replaced with a call for a one day strike “in the first instance”.
It is still the case that more action will be needed, but the prospects of that taking place will probably depend on two key developments: a successful ballot and an effective, well-supported strike on 24 April; the emergence of other unions willing to challenge the similar pay cuts being imposed on their members in the public sector.
Civil servants, health workers, local government employees and others are also the victims of Brown’s policy of keeping wages below inflation. If their union leaders follow the example of the NUT, we can still hope to build a cross-sector campaign of action to defeat pay restraint and protect workers’ living standards.