PREPARE FOR A MASS CAMPAIGN OF ACTION
The July Meeting of the NUT National Executive met as most teachers were looking forward to a hard-earned summer holiday. However, this could not be time for the Executive to take a break. The combined attacks of Academies and Free Schools, the axing of 700 BSF school building projects, pay cuts and job losses meant we had to be preparing for mass action in the new academic year.
On top of these attacks, and perhaps the issue that will cause the biggest outcry from classroom teachers, comes the fast-developing threats to public sector pensions. The decision to link pension increases to the lower-rated Consumer Price Index rather than the Retail Price Index will already lead to significant losses. But former Labour minister John Hutton is preparing even bigger attacks when his pensions commission makes its initial report in September.
As the motion agreed by the Executive for the TUC Congress reminds Government, “in previous years, when contributions exceeded pensions in payment, it simply kept the money. The Government has had a cheap loan from public sector workers’ contributions but now baulks at paying the pensions that are due”.
The threat of co-ordinated joint union action forced the previous Labour Government to retreat over pensions. The same united challenge can force this Government to think again too – and there should be no doubt that this is what we must urgently prepare. That’s why I spoke up to make sure a phrase suggesting we take action “where necessary” was removed so that the final motion clearly seeks to instruct the TUC General Council to “support and co-ordinate public sector unions in campaigns including co-ordinated industrial action and a national demonstration in defence of pensions”
We must not accept cuts that will destroy jobs, services - and the economy. A mass national trade-union led demonstration would be a big step towards building the joint strike action needed to really make the government think again. The sight of tens of thousands of trade unionists and community campaigners on the march would also start to lift the confidence of all those workers who are being told that there is ‘no alternative’ but to accept cuts and job losses.
When the effect of those cuts starts to become clear, trade unionists will respond. The big turnout at a Lobby called by Lewisham NUT the night before the NUT Executive - to protest against a £60M cuts package that could slash 1 in 4 council posts - had shown how a mood to take action can quickly be built if a lead is given. The same needs to be repeated nationally.
As I also pointed out at the NUT Executive, the harsh lessons from Ireland have to be learned. By holding back from action, trade unions had encouraged the Irish Government to make bigger and deeper cuts to pay and pensions.
While it is a mistake to rush too far ahead of members, the main danger at the moment is that the TUC is lagging dangerously behind events. A fortnight earlier, I had witnessed the angry disbelief of workplace reps when a SE Region TUC meeting was told of the TUC’s plans to delay any national demonstration until the Spring of 2011! Unfortunately, this is still the position being supported by most of the members of the TUC Public Services Liaison Group, with just an unspecified ‘week of action’ being called around the time of the Public Spending Review on October 20th when the Government reveals more details of its savage cuts plans.
The NUT had been one of the minority of unions, alongside others like the PCS (civil servants) and FBU (firefighters) that had called for a national demonstration in the Autumn. The PCS are concretely proposing Saturday October 23rd as the day for mass demonstrations in England, Scotland and Wales.
I asked whether, if the TUC failed to act, the NUT would organise separately with others like the PCS. NUT General Secretary Christine Blower, made clear that the NUT will continue to push for an earlier date but that, if that failed, she would indeed look to co-ordinate with other unions and campaigns such as the National Pensions Convention in calling an earlier demonstration.
Ballot for National Action
A motion was unanimously passed warning that the attacks we face “represent the greatest challenge to our members for 80 years” – referring to the last time cuts of this were tried – in the ‘Geddes Axe’ of 1922. This was, of course, soon to be followed by the 1926 General Strike!
The motion called for a “mass national week of protest” in October – making clear that we didn’t just want small token protests, but a real mobilisation. It also called for “a coordinated action strategy up to and including national and local strike action”.
These flexible phrases now need to be turned into concrete plans. Importantly, it was also agreed that the September Executive, which is normally a brief meeting to prepare for TUC Congress, will include a proper debate on our strategy for the year ahead.
Despite the unanimous motion, there are of course a range of opinions on the Executive about exactly how far and how fast we can go. I think that delay will invite aggression from the Government. It’s time we showed our strength. That’s why I will be arguing for the policy agreed unanimously at the Lewisham Association meeting – for a ballot for national strike action. A mass national demonstration can be an important step in building for a successful ballot.
The Government has pushed through the Academies Bill at such a speed that it looks likely that, after all, it will be law before September. They have, at least, been forced to concede that schools have to ‘consult’ over any proposals – a limited concession but one that local campaigners must use where they can.
A Lobby of Parliament on Monday July 19th – quickly called to protest against the BSF cuts – will also coincide with the Second Reading of the Academies Bill.
A number of schools have been involved in disputes over workload. For example, a strong 17-1 ballot result in favour of strike at Morningside School in Hackney is putting pressure on the school to accept an agreement that would enforce some real workload limits and make “Work-Life Balance” more of a reality.