Wednesday, 23 October 2013

November's national action hanging in the balance?

After the well-supported joint NUT/NASUWT regional strikes, teachers are now awaiting news from their unions about what follows next. A commitment had been made that the regional action would be followed by a joint national one-day strike before Christmas. However, when the NUT Executive meets on Friday, it is not clear whether a strike date in November will be confirmed or whether the recommendation will be to postpone that action.

Although discussions are reportedly still continuing between the NUT and NASUWT, there are worrying rumours circulating that the NASUWT might not be willing to proceed with the joint action this term. 

Nothing is yet certain but, if this proves to be the case, any such back-pedalling would be a bitter disappointment to all those who gave up a day’s pay to strike and demonstrate in such determined fashion on October 17, and in the two previous regional strikes. The possibility that the national action might now be postponed until sometime in the New Year was met with stunned anger by a meeting of Lewisham NUT reps this week. “Incandescent” was how one very typical primary school rep described her feelings. That anger should not be underestimated.

Any postponement would risk signalling to teachers and ministers alike that unions lack confidence and are backing away from their announced plan of action.  There is no need to lack confidence. The energy and anger at all the rallies last Thursday showed that there would be clear support from teachers for a clear plan of continuing strike action.

If this rumour is confirmed when the NUT Executive meets on Friday, then, as Alex Kenny, the other NUT Executive member for Inner London has put it in an email to our Local Associations “In broad terms the NUT Executive may have to decide between calling a national strike without the NASUWT this term or agreeing to a strike at a later date with the NASUWT”.

If we are left with these choices on Friday, then clearly neither option is the choice that we would have wanted to have been making. However, unless the NASUWT and NUT are able to give notice now for an agreed and specific joint strike date in January, then I believe that the NUT Executive has no choice but to go ahead with giving notice for our own national strike at the end of November.  

We should announce our strike date and also immediately approach other unions like the CWU, FBU, PCS and UCU to discuss whether they would co-ordinate strike action on the same date. For teachers, such co-ordination, if it could be agreed, would not be as concrete as co-ordination with the NASUWT, but would help to strengthen the action, the publicity, and the pressure on the Government.

If we delayed, what justification could we give for our decision?  Some may be hoping that we might be given the offer of ‘talks’ by Gove and could sell this as a gain that we have won. But Gove has always said that he is prepared to offer talks, but talks on the basis that his ‘policy direction’ on pay and pensions is ‘fixed’.  What can we expect to win out of ‘talks’ based on Gove’s fixed parameters? Firm national strike action this year - with the threat of more to follow in 2014 - is what is required to force Gove into serious negotiations.

If Gove wants to play at offering ‘talks’ to try and wrong-foot union opposition, then we should accept his offer but make clear that our strike goes ahead unless those talks lead to Gove conceding to our demands on pay, pensions and conditions. This would allow us to go into those talks from a position of strength, not from a position of weakness.

Some are arguing that it might be better to delay action until after the Review Body has reported on conditions at some point in the New Year. Firstly, this hands timescales over to Gove and the Review Body who are notorious for delaying the announcement of their decisions.  They could simply delay while the unions’ campaign loses vital momentum.

Secondly, it means abandoning the strategy that has been correctly followed up to now – of putting maximum pressure on the Review Body BEFORE it makes a decision. If that pressure still fails to convince the Review Body to pull back on suggested attacks on directed hours, holidays and other working conditions, then we should step up our action in the New Year. Delaying now would only encourage Gove and the Review Body to maintain their attacks.

So, the only argument that could be made, but undoubtedly one that would be strongly made, is that we have to postpone our action to maintain a united front with the NASUWT.

There’s no doubt that taking action alongside the NASUWT has strengthened the impact of our action and boosted the effect of the strikes, especially in areas where the NASUWT has a larger base of support. Having to strike without the NASUWT would be disappointing. However, going along with a postponement to an unconfirmed date would be worse.

Firstly, as discussed above, it would be hard to honestly justify the postponement. The confidence and expectations of teachers, raised up by the regional strikes, would suffer, and doubts could set in about how serious the unions are in defending teachers and education. This would make it harder, not easier, to build the next action when it is called. Momentum would be lost and Gove would be able to gleefully welcome the new-found ‘responsibility’ of the unions – while pushing ahead with his attacks.

If a firm date for a joint national strike were set for January, then, whilst there would still be some hard questions to answer, at least members could see that there were concrete plans made to continue the battle. However, if no firm January date could be announced, then the NUT would have no choice but to continue with the national strike that members are expecting in November. Such a decision would maintain the campaign’s momentum, keep up the pressure on Gove and make clear that the NUT is serious about fighting these attacks. 

If the NUT Executive has to reach this decision, unity between the NUT and NASUWT would clearly have been temporarily broken but, on the ground in schools, I think most NASUWT members would be asking questions of their leadership, not the NUT’s. From those debates, and from joint meetings of NUT and NASUWT staff in schools, we could still prepare for further joint action again in the New Year. This might lay the basis for a more genuine unity, not one where it seems that the NASUWT can have the final veto over plans for action.

Regrettably, this post won’t come as a real surprise to many active NUT members who have been following the debates within the Union over the last three years. It’s not without good reason that, at the beginning of October, I submitted the following warning in my election statement going out with the Vice-President ballot papers next week: “I called for continued action on pensions in 2012. Instead union hesitation encouraged Gove to attack pay. We have taken regional action in 2013. Now a calendar of national strikes must follow. Further hesitation would invite further attacks. Gove needs to know we are standing firm”.  

Let’s hope that Friday’s NUT Executive can still send the message to Gove that we ARE standing firm.

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