Monday, 28 October 2013

Why no national action in November?

After three well-supported joint regional strikes by the NASUWT and NUT unions, teachers were expecting the NUT Executive to confirm the promised date for national strike action in November. Instead, a joint press release has been issued calling off any action before Christmas. Teachers will be asked to lobby their MPs at the end of November instead.

The official reason for this decision is that Michael Gove has confirmed that he is “willing to discuss a basis for genuine talks on the unions’ trade disputes”. However, even if that were true, it would have been far better to have announced a firm date for strike action, so Gove knew what to expect once it became clear that he wasn’t offering serious negotiations.

Our well-supported regional strikes were starting to put Gove onto the back foot. His failed educational policies, not least free schools, are increasingly exposed. Yet the unions’ unexpected announcement will have given Gove renewed confidence to maintain his attacks on teachers and education. It makes it even more likely that he will press ahead with some or all of his threatened attacks on teachers’ working conditions in the New Year.

But Gove has already made his position on talks very clear. He wrote to both unions back in March saying that he was happy to talk as long as unions accepted that the “direction of travel” on raising pensions ages to 68 and imposing performance-related pay was “fixed”. Gove wrote again in the same vein in September, before the main round of regional strikes, making clear that he was only offering talks “about the implementation of these changes”.

This is the reality. Yet NUT members are being told that the action has been called off because, thanks to the regional action, Gove has “offered talks”. No doubt it’s a story that will have encouraged some teachers. However, that relief could easily turn to anger once the truth emerges.

Many union reps will already be angry. After the retreat in 2012, when no further regions were called into action after the London NUT regional strike over pensions, it seemed that momentum was building again. Now they are going to have to explain another setback to their members.

The only way to successfully build further action is to be honest about the real reason that the action was called off. It wasn’t because Gove was having a change of heart – the threat of a serious program of ongoing strike action will be needed to achieve that. It was because, for whatever reason, the NASUWT Executive had withdrawn from their commitment to strike action this term and the majority on the NUT Executive felt they could not call action without them.

In response, NUT and NASUWT members need to meet jointly in every school and demand that escalating national strike action is put back in place in the New Year and that no unacceptable deals are struck on the basis of Gove’s ‘fixed’ policies on pay and pensions.

That’s also why a minority of ten members of the NUT National Executive supported my objection to the Officers’ Recommendations calling for the NUT to proceed with strike action on November 27. Of course joint action with the NASUWT would have had a greater effect but we’re in danger of having no serious campaign of action at all from either union.

This setback has the potential be a lot more serious than just a few months delay in calling national action. It sends a signal to both Gove and union members that perhaps their unions are not serious about winning this dispute. If we are, we should have been making plans to escalate our action after Christmas, perhaps to a two-day strike. Instead, teachers are offered only the possibility of a one-day national strike around the beginning of February followed by further regional strikes.

That’s not a serious escalation and, if we’re not careful, teachers will start to question whether it’s worth losing pay to support such drawn-out action. The bitter reality facing classroom teachers means that they are willing to sacrifice a great deal to defeat Gove’s attacks – but only if they think their leaders are leading a serious battle.

NUT members at least have an immediate opportunity to show their anger at the postponement of action and to vote for new leadership when they receive their ballot papers this week to elect two new NUT National Vice-Presidents.

As my election statement says “I called for continued action on pensions in 2012. Instead, union hesitation encouraged Gove to attack our 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”.

I would ask everyone who agrees with that statement to call on NUT members across England and Wales to VOTE POWELL-DAVIES 1

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