NUT Conference 2013 meets to debate how best to defend teachers at a time when our members, and education as a whole, are under fierce attack.
As the best organised teaching union, the NUT has a huge responsibility to use our strength to push back a Government determined to drive through its agenda of cuts and privatisation.
If teachers go out and explain how the ConDems' attacks on pensions, pay and conditions are part of a broader attack on education, large sections of the public can be won to support our action, just as they were when unions took national action in 2011. If we organise effectively and mobilise around a clear programme of action, then we can force them to retreat.
Gove has talked of declaring 'war' on the teaching unions because he knows our potential strength. When we take action, thousands of schools are closed, working lives and the economy widely disrupted, trade union opposition to cuts clearly displayed in every community.
This Government is not confident that it can push through its plans. It knows that, beneath the surface, there is massive discontent at the banksters and the super-rich that they represent. With its cuts packages threatening a 'triple-dip' recession, they are struggling to show that they have any solution to the continuing economic crisis.
Yet throughout 2012, the Con-Dems must hardly have been able to believe their luck. The retreat by unions like UNISON and ATL over pensions left other unions isolated and significant joint national action was not repeated again after November 2011. That retreat also left some in the NUT seemingly struggling with a crisis of confidence.
Instead of leading the way as the NUT had done in June 2011, last year saw only a London regional strike which, although confirming that teachers would take action when a lead is given, wasn’t then followed by further major action. For over three months after Gove announced his performance-pay attacks in early December, no strike plans were announced.
Even the publicity for members seemed strangely muted with leaflets having to be produced by Local Associations, ‘Classroom Teacher’ and others, from below.
The conclusion was drawn that the NUT can’t act alone - it has to make sure the NASUWT acts with us too. Of course unions acting together adds strength - that’s why the Socialist Party has been to the fore in campaigning for the TUC to discuss and build generalised strike action. However, there’s a balance to be struck at each stage between the benefits of taking joint action and the risks of having to go at the speed of the slowest partner.
The NASUWT remains a difficult partner to negotiate with - certainly at the top. Hopefully, out of joint action, links can be strengthened from below that can also put pressure on the NASUWT tops to maintain action.
The joint NASUWT/NUT 'action short of strike action' has won some gains and helped build union organisation in some schools. However, school-by-school action asks a lot of local union organisation and has inevitably been 'patchy'. Localised battles are no substitute for national strike action to win our demands.
On pensions, we need to reverse the increased pension ages and win a pay rise that gives us back what we have lost to inflation and contribution increases. On workload we need to win the 35 hour limit on working hours, with a maximum of 20 hours pupil contact time, listed in Motion 55. Immediately, we have to fight to reverse the severe attacks on pay that will soon be legislated for in the Pay and Conditions Document.
Those are very serious demands to make - and they will need a serious struggle to achieve them. That struggle is having to be fought without a ‘political arm’. If elected, Labour promises to be little different to the Tories. For now, we have to rely largely on our trade union strength and on support in our communities.
Immediately, we have to build and escalate action on PRP. The NUT/NASUWT program marks, at last, a return to action, but it needs strengthening. It should start with national action, linking with unions like PCS in June. The plans for Autumn Term need to be announced and dates set for further escalating action in 2014.