On Friday 7 September, the National Union of Teachers announced the result of its ballot on industrial action over a whole range of attacks on including excessive workload, pay and cuts.
There was a 93% vote for action short of strike action and a 83.4% vote for strikes. The aim is to force the government to end its pay freeze, abandon regional pay, and agree an acceptable contract which reduces teacher workload. On Monday 10 September, the union announced that the action short of strike action will start on 26 September. The campaign is being conducted jointly with the NASUWT, the other large teachers’ union in England and Wales.
The overwhelming support for both forms of action is impressive given the confusion and demoralisation sown by the failure to build on last year’s huge pension strikes. Also positive is the action instructions issued by the NUT to all members this week. They empower members to refuse a whole set of demands from managers covering all the key workload pressures such as observations, meetings, cover and the submission of planning.
Also they point to an element of workers’ control of the job by instructing members to “refuse to implement any existing or new management-led policies and working practices which have not been workload-assessed and agreed by the NUT”.
Activists in schools and in NUT branches should work to implement this action on the widest possible scale.
The first step should be a meeting in each school, ideally called by the NUT and NASUWT reps, to discuss which of the list of 25 instructions most apply and how they intend to implement them. Similar meetings should be held for reps across divisions and associations (branches). We should try to win agreements from school managements and local authorities to working practices and conditions acceptable to members in schools.
Where there is any victimisation of members for taking any of the action it is crucial that we argue for a move to strike action as soon as possible. In fact, where an employer persists in trying to frustrate the action both unions have indicated they would support escalation to strike action in any school without the need for a further ballot.
The possibility of escalating to national strike action will depend to a significant extent on the level of engagement in this action. The NUT action instructions are headed “Phase 1”. “Phase 2” is the move to national strike action which is planned if there is no indication from government that they will meet the unions’ demands.
This, after all, is a dispute with the Secretary of State, who has the power to impose an improved contract on all schools including academies and to lift the pay freeze and abandon regional pay. The government needs to feel the action, not simply hear of it from disgruntled headteachers.
It would have helped that strategy if the two unions had announced a date for strike action as part of the launch this campaign. It is not a particularly hopeful sign that it proved impossible to do that.
More worrying, though sadly not surprising, is the absence of any reference to a return to strikes to oppose the pension proposals.
The position of the two main teacher unions is now quite complicated.
The NUT did not need to include pensions in this latest strike ballot as the ballot which delivered support for strike action in June and November 2011 remains valid.
The NASUWT already had a ballot to sanction strike and non-strike action on pensions and the other conditions of service issues. This latest NUT ballot means that both unions are in the same place in terms of the ability to take various forms of action to resist a wide range of attacks. The danger contained in this is that the specific issue of pensions gets lost in the plethora of other issues.
It is still more than possible for these two unions to defeat the proposals to make teachers work until 68 and pay more for a worse pension. Together they represent over 85% of all teachers in England and Wales and they now have a legal mandate for discontinuous strike action.
All the evidence shows that members of each union are much more confident about taking action when the other is called out too. It isn’t the law, the willingness of teachers, or the lack of industrial muscle that prevent us defeating the appalling pension changes. It is now down to the union leaderships to call and co-ordinate renewed strike action on pensions.
They should do it now on the basis of their own campaign slogan that “68 is too late”.