Sunday 16 May 2010

CON-DEM-ned to cuts ?… not if we organise joint union action

The May meeting of the NUT National Executive gathered only days after David Cameron had finally been confirmed as Prime Minister. Every teacher will be wondering what this Tory/Liberal coalition will mean for education, for our living standards and for the prospects for our students and their families.

The hard truth is that this will be a government of cuts, “savage cuts” in the words of ‘Deputy Clegg’. Even a Labour-led government would have been under pressure to make up for lost time and start the attacks on pay, pensions and public services that have already begun in countries like Greece, Spain and Ireland. Despite the serious risk of provoking a ‘double-dip recession’, a Cameron government will certainly push ahead with trying to slash the deficit – at our expense. The £6 billion worth of cuts that have already been declared will turn out to be just the tip of an enormous iceberg.

London’s Labour Councils will be under pressure from voters who elected them to fight the cuts - not to carry out Westminster dictats.

It’s true that both the Conservatives and Lib Dems have talked about creating a ‘pupil premium’ to support disadvantaged pupils. But, instead of finding extra funding, new initiatives may be paid for by cutting elsewhere. The Department for Education has already announced that £55bn allocated to Building Schools for the Future rebuilding plans is under threat.

Instead of genuinely funding additional needs, savings may be directed towards the development of so-called ‘free schools’, one of new Education Secretary Michael Gove’s favourite ideas. They will be publicised as allowing parents and charities to set up new schools. In reality, as Sweden has shown, it will be big education businesses that will really profit by being allowed to set up new chains of schools.

As well as ‘free schools’, the Tories will also want to accelerate the Academies programme, further privatising education and undermining teachers’ national pay and conditions. “It’s about getting local authorities out of the picture” as a ‘Whitehall source’ told the Guardian (May 15).

Pensions could also soon be in the firing-line. The coalition parties’ ‘negotiations agreement’ included a commitment to “establishing an independent commission to review the long term affordability of public sector pensions”. We discussed on the Salaries Committee how David Laws, Liberal Democrat millionaire and now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, had already suggested reducing the contributions that teachers’ employers have to put into the scheme. Teachers would presumably either have to pay more or see their pension benefits cut.

This is a sombre list of threats. But they are not inevitable – as long as we get organised. This ‘government of losers’ has no solid support for its cuts programme – cuts that were never spelled out in all the superficial ‘presidential debates’ in any case. Many voters simply opted for what they saw as the ‘least bad’ choice on the ballot paper rather than voting with any enthusiasm. Certainly many teachers who voted Liberal Democrat in the hope of ‘change’ will already feel let down.

Where European Governments have already announced cuts, teaching and public sector unions have responded with demonstrations and strike action. The NUT General Secretary, Christine Blower, has sent our support through ETUCE (the European teachers’ unions) to Greek teachers taking ongoing action to protect their pay and pensions. Spanish public sector unions have responded immediately to the announcement of a ‘surprise’ cut of 5% in salaries with a joint national strike on June 2nd.

We mustn’t sit back and wait for the axe to fall. Instead, we have to start to prepare for the same kind of firm action. That’s why I spoke up at the National Executive to ask that the Union sends out a clear message to members that we will be opposing Government attacks. We need to be putting in place the policy agreed at 2010 Conference that called for:

• NUT associations to approach other union branches to build united campaigns to defend public services. Every Inner London Association should be building those links and planning for joint meetings

• Approaching the TUC to propose a national demonstration to warn the incoming Government of our determination to act to defend jobs, pay, pensions and services.

Christine Blower confirmed that the NUT will be attending the TUC’s Public Services Liaison Group on June 8th to plan with other unions. The Union is also preparing a joint conference in the autumn to discuss how unions and campaign groups can work together to defend education from cuts and privatisation.

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