Delegates will meet at the National Union of Teachers Conference in Manchester this month (21-24 March) in the middle of the union’s first national strike ballot for 22 years. Most activists are expecting a strong yes vote to endorse the union’s opposition to a 2008-10 pay deal which offers three further years of pay cuts.
Tory-era trade union laws on balloting have however made it much harder for workers to take part in union ballots and much more likely that they will not even receive a ballot paper. Such conditions may effect turnout in this ballot. Should the ballot be successful, however, the union is planning to call members out on a national one-day strike on Thursday 24 April.
A teachers strike against a below-inflation pay award will be a tremendous boost to all public sector workers facing the threat of pay cuts under the governments plan to limit rises to around 2%. Inflation continues to sit at around 4% with the costs of some major essentials, such as housing and energy bills, surging way ahead of that. While any suggestion of increasing taxes on business or wealthy individuals is dismissed by Gordon Brown, workers who deliver services on which the whole of society depend are expected to accept without a murmur that their living standards should decline. A collective trade union response to this has been long overdue.
Attempts by local government and health workers to force their unions to take a lead last year failed. A positive ballot result and teachers strike on 24 April must be used to revive and re-energise efforts in other public sector unions.
In recent weeks teacher trade unionists have seen evidence of the mood amongst other public sector workers on pay — some of it from an unlikely source. When London NUT organisers opened talks with the police about a march and rally on 24 April they were asked to explain the purpose of the strike day. When they explained that it was to oppose a below-inflation pay award they were told “you can have what you want”! It is likely that the London strike march will go down Whitehall, past Downing Street to Central Hall Westminster.
In Nottingham NUT members took strike action at Bilborough Sixth Form College on Tuesday 11 March over workload and class size. The picket was good and when the Royal Mail van arrived with the post the driver, before being asked, said “no post today for the college then” turned round and drove off.
Millions of public sector workers are angry at the way they are underpaid, overworked and undervalued. A significant revolt against that by a major union could ignite the generalised campaign of opposition that is sorely needed.
Teachers are likely to be joined in action on 24 April by further education lecturers from the University and College Union (UCU). It is also important that other school-based unions do everything they can to support the NUT action — eg refusing to undertake work normally done by strikers, insisting on closure where health and safety is at risk. Mark Serwotka was quoted in the Metro on 11 March indicating that PCS may name their next strike day for workers in the Department of Work and Pensions as 24 April. Whatever can be done to make this a day of substantial protest at the government’s attack on working class living standards should be done.
But 24 April is only the beginning. Further action will almost certainly be needed to win a decent pay rise for teachers. The newly-elected NUT Executive has seen a small but significant shift to the left which should make it more likely that the argument for a new ballot can be won. In reality the chances of this happening depend on two key factors. The first is a successful ballot and a popular well-supported day of action on 24 April. The second would be a clear indication that other public sector unions are prepared to join the fray and build a campaign of co-ordinated action to oppose New Labour’s pay freeze.
Delegates in Manchester should send a message to the incoming Executive that, should the one-day strike ballot and day of action be a success, they need to draw up plans for a programme of action after 24 April and co-ordinate that wherever possible with other public sector unions — not just through the TUC but through bilateral co-operation with those unions prepared to join us and through public sector alliances built at the local level. That way we can hope to see the launch of an effective and serious fight-back on public sector pay.