If all goes to plan the conference of the National Union of Teachers (22-26 April) will vote to ballot union members on taking strike action to defend pension rights.
If they do there is every chance that they will be joined by college lecturers’ union UCU and civil servants’ union in co-ordinated strike action. The NUT may also be joined by other teaching unions, ATL and NASUWT.
We will have put in place the beginnings of a trade union coalition prepared to take action. We will need, however, to move onto the next hurdles very quickly. The first is to deliver a huge vote for action and build up confidence and militancy amongst the membership. The second is to develop a strategy that can win.
Delegates from our union will need to go back and immediately organise briefings for school reps to put the case for action. We will get a big yes vote for action — the survey work done by the union shows that to be the case. The real challenge will be to achieve a strong turnout. If other teachers’ unions decide to take action, the prospects of a good turnout and overwhelming yes vote will be massively increased.
We cannot enter into this battle with the idea that we are simply “making a valiant stand”. This is not demonstrative protest action in the way that, for the most part, the 2008 pay strike was. We need to win.
If the government get away with increasing the retirement age on a sliding scale (65, 66, 68 then 70), making us pay more even though the pension scheme is in not financial difficulty and reducing the value of our income in retirement. the impact on the living standards of teachers will be unprecedented.
Tens of thousands of pounds lost during retirement, a huge levy taken from our wages and we will spend most of our sixties in the classroom. But we all know, as do the government, that most teachers will not really be able to remain in schools until 65-70. Instead they will retire early, either on much reduced pensions or on no income, while they wait to collect their pensions at the increased normal pension age. To lose this battle is, in short, to consign teachers to an old age lived out in poverty.
If one of the most organised, highly-trained and better-paid sections of the working class can be forced to accept those conditions the outlook for the rest of the public sector will be bleak indeed.
• A national strike day co-ordinated with as many other unions as possible. It looks like this will be 30 June.
If it can be earlier we should continue to keep that option open.
• Name in advance at least one further national strike day before the end of the summer term. Having done all the careful and difficult work of building the momentum for action it is crucial to maintain it at a high level.
• To use selective action to maintain momentum and keep the pressure on government. If that can also be co-ordinated with other public sector unions, that is good.
• To take control of access to schools by, for example, providing “emergency cover”. This will give us more control of our dispute and help maintain parental and public support.
• To convene regular school reps’ councils for the duration of the dispute.
• To encourage local assemblies of workplace reps from all unions involved in the action to ensure the maximum effectiveness of all joint action.
The Coalition has set about attacking the welfare state using the tactic of “shock and awe”. We can learn from this. Most successful industrial disputes win quickly — most long drawn out disputes lose. The Coalition need to be reeling from the effect of our action on pensions as soon as possible.
If we are serious about this action we can win. And if we win the attempt to make public sector workers pay for the economic crisis with more years of wage slavery and lower pay followed by poverty in retirement will be in tatters. If we organise this fight seriously we send a signal to the rest of the labour movement that the government’s austerity agenda does not have to be accepted and isn’t inevitable — collective action can still defend our conditions and our rights.
That’s a prize worthy of our maximum effort. Let’s go about it with a determination worthy of the cause.