Saturday 30 March 2013

Call to start campaign with national strike narrowly defeated at NUT Conference

NUT Conference in Liverpool today voted overwhelmingly to back the priority motion on "Protecting Teachers, Defending Education", thus endorsing the plan of action agreed with the NASUWT. This means that, at long last, a calendar of strike action, starting with a regional strike in the North-West on June 27th, is now set to begin. However, the main debate was over an amendment proposing that we start our action with a national NUT strike on June 26th.

After an impassioned debate, in which the evenly-divided applause for respective speakers left everyone guessing as to the final outcome, the amendment calling for this initial one-day strike was eventually narrowly defeated on a show of hands.

As proposer of this strengthening amendment, I am clearly disappointed that Conference rejected this opportunity to urgently engage and involve the whole membership through national strike action next term. However, we will now have to make sure that we build the joint action that has been agreed as strongly as we can, despite it meaning that some areas will have to wait a further six months before they take part even in regional strike action. With Gove out to divide schools and to steal thousands of pounds from teachers' incomes through his pay and pensions attacks, we have no choice but to act - and to act as boldly as we can.
LANAC meeting starts to fill on Friday evening
The text of the amendment, seconded by fellow NUT Executive member, Anne Lemon, had been agreed at a packed meeting of the Local Associations National Action Campaign (LANAC) meeting on Friday evening, with nearly 200 delegates in attendance.

LANAC will be meeting again on Monday evening to discuss how we can make the best of the plan that has been agreed. That has to include the urgent production of campaign materials, joint union meetings in schools and collections for hardship funds - initially to support colleagues striking in the North-West.

To confidently build that regional action, details of the proposed calendar of action after the summer break also urgently need to be announced by the NUT and NASUWT leaderships.

The LANAC amendment took nothing away from the jointly agreed plan. However, it sought to add two key points. Firstly, it sought to make clear that "the objectives of our campaign are to reverse these significant attacks on teachers’ pensions, pay and working conditions and, in doing so, to defend education".

In other words, we wanted members and Ministers alike to recognise that the NUT was engaged in a serious campaign with serious aims. We are not trying just to persuade Gove to sit down and talk to the unions in the hope of gaining some limited concessions. We should be serving notice that we will continue and escalate our campaign until he has withdrawn these attacks altogether.

The other clause of our amendment stated that "in order to increase the pressure on the Secretary of State for Education to meet our demands, Conference instructs the Executive to strengthen our campaign of action by calling a one-day national strike on 26 June and to seek to co-ordinate that action with other trade unions facing attacks on pensions, pay and working conditions".

Why would that national strike have been such an important start to the campaign?

1) Because Gove has, already, rejected our demands for even just a suspension of his performance-pay plans out of hand. Osborne had announced that he planned to make 'substantial savings' from blocking pay progression. As I asked Conference from the rostrum, "are we simply going to accept such a slap in the face?" If only Conference had responded by upping the ante - and voting to call national strike action next term!

2) Because we  urgently need to engage and involve every member, in every region, next term. Next month, take-home pay will be cut again through higher pensions contributions. In just a fortnight from today, the performance-pay regulations will be legislated for in Gove's new School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document. If we are not just going to get caught in a quagmire of isolated battles over school pay policies, but are instead to make clear to teachers that we are also battling to reverse these regulations, we need to raise members' sights and confidence to oppose these attacks. Stunts and rallies alone are not enough. A campaign for a national strike could have achieved that involvement.

3) Because we don't want to be just hitting the headlines in the North-West in June, we want to be hitting the national headlines - as really only a national strike can achieve. If we had voted to start the campaign with a national strike on June 26, we could also have hit the headlines tomorrow by making this bold statement that we were responding to Gove's arrogant rejection of Union demands by announcing a national strike next term.

Regrettably, that strategy was narrowly defeated at Conference.  The main argument - indeed really the only argument - used to oppose the amendment was to frighten delegates with the prospect that the NASUWT might walk away from the joint plan altogether if the NUT were to announce that we were going to also strike nationally on June 26. Yet would the NASUWT really have been able to get away with pulling out of the joint plan in the face of such severe attacks on teachers and education? Just because the NUT had called for an additional day of national strike action? Surely both unions are more serious about fighting to defend teachers and education than that?

Given the factors outlined above, I would have hoped that the NASUWT could have also been persuaded to participate in an additional national strike in June. Even if they had only felt able to stick to the previously agreed plan, the NUT would not have been acting alone on June 26. We could have sought to co-ordinate the action with other unions, not least the PCS.

Unfortunately, and in an intervention that may have played some part in the eventual outcome, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka did not call on the NUT to join with other unions in taking co-ordinated strike action on June 26. Instead, at a fringe meeting following the LANAC meeting, he intimated his support for the joint NUT/NASUWT plan of action and cautioned against Conference taking any decisions that might jeopardise that plan. Regrettably, those arguments were taken up by the National Executive speakers opposing the LANAC amendment today to help argue against joint action with the PCS.

So, barring any significant change of circumstances - for example if Gove's new Pay and Conditions
Document is even worse than feared - it is now unlikely that national NUT/NASUWT strike action will take place until November 2013. The  North-West regional strike on June 27th will, however, still see a start to at least some kind of calendar of action, with further regions taking action in September and October. We must make absolutely sure that this is, indeed, just the start of an ongoing and escalating campaign, continuing until our objectives are achieved.

Those on the NUT Executive who cautioned against an initial one day national strike have a particular responsibility to make sure that this joint plan is fully rolled out - and continued - as promised. In truth, it will be those of us in LANAC who called for this strengthening amendment who, while being narrowly defeated at Conference today, will now work as hard as anyone for the agreed plan of action to succeed.

With the new legislation shortly to be on the statute books, the battle will have to start locally with efforts to secure acceptable pay policies in schools, Academy chains and Local Authorities - policies that at least go some way to neutralise the worst of Gove's performance-pay plans. Despite the lack of the national strike action in June which would have helped involve and unite members in preparing for struggle, LANAC can play an important role in encouraging Local Associations and school reps to engage in that battle, and to seek to co-ordinate local strikes across schools and Associations where employers try to impose unacceptable policies.

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