As the majority of teachers take a well-earned break, a minority of activists head to their annual conferences. They have already started grabbing headlines in greater numbers than in many previous years. The ATL has passed a motion of ‘no confidence’ in Michael Gove and Sir Michael Wilshaw and the NUT and NAS/UWT are certain to do the same. Secretaries of State for Education are rarely top of teachers’ Christmas card lists but such universal opprobrium must be unprecedented. What is also exercising journalists is the very real prospect of the two larger unions initiating a series of rolling strikes, and a clear confrontation with a Secretary of State who, tauntingly, has offered to meet them despite making it clear he has no intention of negotiating over his plans for teachers’ pensions and pay arrangements. How is all this going to pan out?
Strikes are never popular with parents, a fact Christine Blower, NUT General Secretary, has acknowledged and the government will no doubt exploit in the inevitable ‘war of words’ when it comes. Ed Miliband will be challenged to condemn the strikes and he’ll dance around, neither condemning nor supporting. The fact that the strikes are specifically about pensions and pay will also be turned to the government’s advantage as ‘generous’ pensions and automatic pay rises will be contrasted with the experience of those in the private sector. The poll conducted on behalf of the NUT showing poor support amongst parents for the government’s education reform opens up the prospect of a wider campaign, spearheaded by teacher strikes. But I fear the NAS/UWT, which has always viewed itself more as a traditional ‘trade union’, there to defend members’ interests, will not go along with this and the ATL will not, of course, be striking at all.
I have to say, I am not entirely convinced of the value of strikes as a weapon. In the middle of the last century, when workers were trying to force a recalcitrant employer to do the decent thing, it made sense. That employer, weighing up the pros and cons and looking at the bottom line may simply have concluded it was in his interests to concede. In the public sector, issues are clouded by the identification of ‘the government’ with ‘the public interest’ and whereas the inability of an employer to make and sell his goods may be one thing, the withdrawal of a public service inconveniences masses of people in a short time. And can a government be seen to ‘give in’ to what amounts to a threat? In those rare cases where strikes in the public sector can be represented as having ‘worked’ the outcome will have been hedged around with lots of ‘fudges’ to enable the government of the day to claim its own ‘victory’.
Defeat of Gove over teachers’ pensions and pay, and on the wider educational front, with regard to his proposed changes to the curriculum and the academies/free schools/privatisation agenda, can only occur if it is linked to the discontent felt across the country over health service and welfare reforms, the evident failure of austerity measures and the ideology behind it all. Not only do we need the NUT and NAS/UWT to stay united, we need them to join with the as yet disparate elements of opposition to the Coalition. Time will tell whether they will be able to swallow their pride — and differences — to unite in the common good.