Teachers struck on Tuesday 5 July in a well supported national strike for guaranteed terms and conditions across all schools, increased funding to schools, and the resumption of negotiations on teacher workload.
The strike saw large protests. The march in London was overwhelmingly young, and many young teachers told Solidarity sellers that they had joined the Labour Party in the past year.
The government claims two thirds of schools remained open. However that figure masks a whole range of partial closures, and the increasing use of cover supervisors and support staff to keep schools open.
The demands of the dispute have been unclear despite the dispute conference motion calling for a national contract for teachers.
Without a clear demand that teachers are fighting for a national negotiated, contract which applies in all schools, academies or not, it will become difficult to mobilise teachers beyond the level generated by desperation and anger at the situation in schools. It will be particularly difficult to mobilise teachers in academies if the strike is not seen as applying to them.
Clear arguments were made on the day about school funding, and the huge cuts faced by schools in the next year. The NUT must fight redundancies on a local level, and go on the offensive against funding cuts. The NUT executive on 29 June agreed to make it clear that further strikes are planned for after the summer if the government does not back down. However, this was not clear on the day. Unison local government conference on 19-21 June voted to seek to ballot members and strike alongside the NUT over funding cuts and for a national contract for all support staff.
Unjust, sexist pay and casualisation
Last week, 51 universities saw strikes by UCU in the ongoing campaign over pay, with many disrupting open days or examination boards (which ratify students’ marks).
On Tuesday 5 July, UCU members at another 33 universities were set to walk out to coincide with the teachers’ national strike against school funding cuts.
UCU is demanding: a 5% pay increase to begin reversing the 14.5% real-terms cut since 2009; action to close the 12% gender pay gap by 2020; and a roll-back of casualisation. An estimated 54% — and rising — of UK university academic workers are on some sort of casual, insecure contract. 21,000 teaching staff are on zero-hour contracts, and women and black workers are disproportionately affected. The union is demanding a reduction in the use of these contracts and that casual workers are paid equally and in full for their labour.
Surveys by workers at universities like SOAS have shown that many teaching assistants are unpaid for as much as half of their work hours. The UCU’s last campaign over pay ended in a disappointing de-escalation and climbdown by the leadership.
Demands against gender inequality were quietly dropped, and a derisory pay increase was sold to union members as a win. This time, there has been a concerted campaign by activists to raise the profile of the gender and casualisation issues and make them too big for the union leadership to drop.
Fighting Against Casualisation in Education — a grassroots network of local campaigners — has created a social media buzz and sparked conversations in branches and on picket lines. In May many branches specifically devoted strike days to each of these demands. The Brexit vote, however, poses two challenges for the campaign.
First, for many migrant workers in the sector, their most pressing concern is not now pay injustices but their right to remain in the country at all. They were not helped by the UCU’s silence during the referendum. The dominant left faction in the union is led by the Socialist Workers Party, which backed a “Lexit” position and prevented the union coming out against Brexit.
Second, some union members have asked whether the demands, particularly against pay cuts, are sustainable in the newly “uncertain” climate. The UCU must urgently launch a wholehearted campaign in defence of free movement and migrant workers and students — as a universal demand, not just a sectional request for special treatment of higher education. European research funding is now uncertain, as well as the overall state of public finances. Employers, the rich and the Conservative government will want to make the working class pay for any crisis, through cuts to pay, jobs, benefits and services.
We should not accept this without a fight. The labour movement, and UCU as part of it, must fight for the financial consequences to be borne by the rich, not by us. These two campaigns can go hand-in-hand. A fight in defence of migrants and for secure, decently and equally paid jobs for all workers — part of the wider struggle to reverse the widening inequality and deprivation hitting workers of all origins, on which nationalism and anti-migrant sentiment has been left to feed.
Rolling local strikes are set to continue through July alongside an ongoing work-to-contract, with the potential for further national strikes and assessment boycotts later. Unison and Unite, which represent other groups of workers in higher education, are considering joining in with industrial action.