Monday, 18 March 2013

NUT / NASUWT joint action welcome - but proposals fall short of what's required

Plans for joint action announced – but firmer action needed to protect teachers and education 

The announcement at today’s joint NUT/NASUWT Press Conference that plans are being put in place for joint strike action between the two main teaching unions, the NUT and NASUWT, will be welcomed by teachers who have been waiting since Christmas for national action to be called to oppose Gove’s plans to impose performance-related pay. However, as the details become clearer, we think that many members will feel, as we do, that these plans have to be strengthened if we are to successfully oppose Gove’s attacks on our pay, pensions and conditions.

Download an edited pdf version of this article from the Lewisham NUT website:

A school-term lost without action being called

It was in early December that Michael Gove made his announcement that, under legislation to be imposed after Easter, fixed incremental pay scales will be abolished and all future pay-rises would be tied to performance. In addition, teachers moving to new posts face the risk of huge pay cuts as their existing points on the pay scale will no longer be protected. This huge attack will leave teachers’ livelihoods dependent on arbitrary judgements of ‘performance’ and on the health - or otherwise - of an individual school’s budget. As the history performance-pay has always shown, it will also have a deadening and demoralising affect on education as a whole. All of this comes on top of the ongoing attacks on teachers’ pensions and the relentless workload still being imposed on staff.

Given the scale of the attack, and the speed at which these plans were being imposed, a minority on the NUT National Executive, including ourselves, have argued that national strike action should be called THIS term - in time to try and persuade Gove to back-down before legislation was enacted. Regrettably, and despite contrary evidence from elections, surveys and most Union meetings, we have been told that members weren’t ready to support strike action, and certainly not unless the NASUWT took joint strike action too. Strikes have not been called for this term and nor has a serious enough campaign begun to explain the threats facing teachers’ pay in order to build for that action.

Can we fight off these attacks school-by-school?

This term’s delay means that legislation will now become law before unions have taken action. As a consequence, all schools will be expected to adopt new pay policies that link pay rises with performance by the summer.

Regrettably, instead of starting with unifying national action, the battle will now be starting with school-by-school struggles to persuade governors to adopt pay policies that circumvent most of Gove’s plans. Given where we are now having to start from, the plans announced today for the NUT and NASUWT to publicise a joint pay policy are correct. However (and we have not yet seen the details of the policy ourselves), even the best policy will not be able to protect teachers moving to other schools where governors have refused to guarantee to protect existing pay points. Short of winning withdrawal of Gove’s legislation, unions will therefore need to mount a battle that can persuade the vast majority of schools to adopt an acceptable pay policy. How should that be done?

The NUT and NASUWT have also announced today that the ‘Action Short of Strike Action’ (ASOSA) campaign, launched jointly in September over workload, observation protocols and appraisal policies, be extended to cover pay policies too. The threat of non-strike action, escalating to strike action if required, has succeeded in making gains in well-organised schools groups and Local Associations. However, even then, compromises over the finer details of observation policies were sometimes made in order to reach agreement. The same may well happen over pay policies. 

The real weakness of such a school-by-school action approach is that, faced with intransigent management at a school and/or Local Authority level, some teachers will not feel confident in taking isolated action. In addition, even the best-organised Association will struggle to have the capacity to monitor and support members across all the individual schools in their area. The danger will be that less strongly unionised schools become isolated and only a minority adopt acceptable pay policies.

In order to overcome this isolation, action will need to be co-ordinated across as many schools as possible and, where Local Authorities refuse to recommend acceptable policies, across the whole Association. However, this requires that both unions adopt a far more urgent approach to warning teachers about these pay threats and in encouraging ‘ASOSA’ than has been seen up to now. But the best way to overcome isolation, and to show both teachers and governors that unions are serious about opposing these pay attacks, is to launch a vigorous campaign of national strike action. This should be combined with a bold public campaign to explain how Gove’s plans threaten education.

These plans are not strong enough to defend teachers

In our view, the plans announced today for joint action do not show Michael Gove, our members or Heads and Governors that we are taking this battle as seriously as we need to be. The plans suggest that there will be no national strike action in the summer term, just the beginning of rolling regional action in one area, on 27 June in the North-West of England. The indications are that this should be followed by further regional strikes in the Autumn – but with no national strike action being called until nearer Christmas.

As in March 2012, when Martin, as a NUT National Executive member for Inner London, went all-out to help build a regional strike called in the capital city alone, we will work hard to build action that is called. However, then and today, many teachers will have understandable doubts about this proposed plan of action. Yes, regional action spreads out the ‘pain’ of pay deductions but, as London teachers questioned a year ago, will such a slowly unfolding regional action have sufficient impact?

Teachers are practical people. They will be prepared to put up with pay deductions if unions can show that this temporary loss is likely to achieve a victory that means that the long-term pay losses from the permanent imposition of Gove’s pay and pension robbery plans can be avoided. But the plans announced today are not yet up to the job. Both NUT and NASUWT members need to tell their Unions to go back and strengthen the proposed plan of joint action.

Unions should call national strike action next term

If, despite bullying from Ofsted and budgetary pressures, we are going to successfully persuade schools not to apply Gove’s wishes, then the planned action needs to be stepped up. If, and this is the only real guarantee of success, we are going to mount sufficient pressure on Gove to withdraw this legislation before the new rules lead to teachers’ pay progression being blocked from September 2014, then, again, a far more vigorous plan of action is needed.
Both unions need to raise their sights and shake off their timidity. We should have confidence that, when the scale of these attacks are explained to teachers, they will respond to a firm call to take national strike action. 

The NUT and NASUWT are right to call on the Secretary of State to meet with unions to discuss our demands over pay, pensions and workload and to suspend any implementation of his divisive performance-pay proposals.  But what are unions bringing to the table that is going to make Gove think again? Instead of starting with regional action, teaching unions should be calling national strike action next term, perhaps escalating from a one-day strike up to 48-hour strike action. That’s a program that would show that unions were deadly serious about defeating these attacks.

Defeating Gove or just influencing the General Election?

The problem facing teachers is that some of their union leaders, in both the NASUWT and NUT, are not confident about making a bold call to action. Some Executive members seem to be looking at the timescales for action in a very different way to us. We fear that some have wrongly concluded that unions cannot defeat the Coalition, and so think our campaign should be restricted essentially to localised campaigns over pay policies. In this scenario, wider strike action isn’t then really aimed at defeating Gove but, over a longer timescale, at influencing the outcome of the next General Election.

Firstly, that approach will leave many of our members suffering pay and pension losses, and ever greater bullying and workload thanks to performance-pay, before any General Election is called. Secondly, it’s clear that, whatever the result of that Election, we can’t rely on any of the main political parties to adopt policies that oppose the pro-cuts, pro-privatisation agenda that demands the imposition of performance-related pay. It’s a strategy that just postpones launching a serious battle, demobilising and demoralising our members – and risks serious defeat. Instead, that serious national struggle needs to be waged – and soon, before we run into a quagmire of local disputes.

This Government is not as strong as it seems. Instead of just hoping for the best from a future Labour Government, unions should be co-ordinating action now, rebuilding the momentum that has been lost since the co-ordinated national strikes of 2011, including building for a 24-hour General Strike that could really start to shake this Government off its present disastrous course.

NUT and NASUWT Conferences must call for a strengthened program of action

Teachers in both the NUT and NASUWT will be asking questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the plans announced today. There will be relief that a concrete plan of joint action has now been announced. However, we think many will fear, as we do, that the potential advantages of united action across both unions could be wasted if the joint program of action that is agreed upon is too weak to adequately defend members of either union.

Today’s Press Conference announced that joint rallies are being planned for April and May in a number of cities. Classroom teachers of both unions – and parents and trade unionists that might also be attending - need to be calling for a more vigorous campaign of action to defend teachers and education. But, in reality, it will be hard to change these plans unless delegates at the two unions’ Annual Conferences meeting this Easter have already voted to improve the plan announced today.

Of course, delegates will be urged to back the agreed plan and, particularly at the NASUWT Conference, that call to back the leadership will be influential. However, NUT Conference delegates need to make sure that a plan of action is agreed that is up to the task of defeating these attacks. If the NASUWT feel unable to call national strike action earlier than, say, November, then that must not stop the NUT Conference from deciding on additional actions besides those jointly agreed. 

There are other unions also calling for co-ordinated action at an earlier date. For example, at the TUC’s pre-Budget rally last week, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka publicly called for unions to take co-ordinated national strike action jointly with the PCS on June 26. As a minimum, surely that is a request that the NUT should support - and call on the NASUWT to do the same?

After months when calls for ‘confidentiality’ about talks between the two unions have prevented full and open debate within the NUT about the action that needs to be taken, today’s announcement needs to be the start of an urgent discussion leading up to NUT Conference, not a plan that is just presented as one that delegates are expected to rubber-stamp over the Easter weekend.

The Local Associations National Action Campaign (LANAC) will be seeking to aid that debate and bring together delegates who wish to propose a strengthening amendment to these plans. A fringe meeting on the Saturday evening of Conference in Liverpool (March 30) will be held to see if delegates can agree a common proposal to put to a Priority Motion expected to be tabled after this week’s meeting of the NUT National Executive.

Teachers should urgently discuss today’s announcements and let their NUT Conference delegates know what they think Conference needs to agree if we are to defeat Gove’s poisonous pay plans.

Martin Powell-Davies, NUT National Executive member for Inner London

Peter Glover, NUT National Executive member for Cheshire / Merseyside

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