Saturday 26 October 2013

National action postponed - an honest appraisal of yesterday’s setback

The strategy as it had been declared on the National NUT website
I have waited until today to post my report on yesterday’s debates at the NUT National Executive to keep a commitment that I made to the NUT DGS to allow the NUT and NASUWT to issue their official press release first.

Regrettably, I now find that, instead of just reporting on a genuine disagreement over tactics, the mistaken vote of the majority on the NUT Executive has been compounded by a less than genuine spinning of the reasons why both unions are now withdrawing their commitment to national strike action before Christmas.

Of course, in any dispute, trade unions want to put across as positive message as they can but they also need to be honest with their members about decisions that have been taken. If not, then lack of trust and cynicism can all too quickly eat into morale and confidence.

Regrettably, I think it is far from clear that Michael Gove has agreed to “establish a basis for genuine dialogue”. As press coverage as long ago as March made clear (e.g. Michael Gove has always maintained the pretence that he is prepared to talk to unions – but only to talk to us about the implementation of his fixed plans, not to properly negotiate. Gove wrote a very similar letter again to the unions on September 17, again making clear that he would be happy to talk “within the parameters” that “the Government’s policy direction on pay and pensions is fixed”. Is this a basis for genuine dialogue?

Even if Gove had made a more genuine offer of talks, it would still have been better to announce the date of our next strike action in order to maintain pressure during those negotiations.

At yesterday's NUT Executive, as in any genuine debate, not everyone reached the same conclusions. I respect the fact that not everyone will agree with what I argued either. However, rather than "spinning a story", I am giving my honest explanation of yesterday’s decision, and why ten of us voted to oppose it, in this post today.  

A serious strategy to defeat Gove’s attacks 

Yesterday’s decisions and debates can only be explained by making clear that, for whatever reason, the NASUWT had made clear that they were going to renege on their commitment to national action in November. That, of course left the NUT Executive facing a difficult choice. 

The advantages in taking action alongside the NASUWT are obvious. That’s why I had made clear in advance that, even if action were postponed to a definite date in January that, while this delay would still be hard to justify to members, there would be no alternative but for the NUT to postpone as well.

However, I cannot agree, as was argued by one member of the Executive yesterday that “unity with the NASUWT takes precedence over all other considerations”. As a physics teacher, I know that two forces should give you more strength than one. However, if the forces aren’t pulling in the same direction, then the resultant can be even less than one force acting alone. 

A judgement about the advantages and disadvantages of following a common strategy has to be made at each stage. There are times, and yesterday was one, when we have to challenge the NASUWT’s mistaken tactics. Otherwise we risk leading both unions, and teachers as a whole, to a defeat that would leave members facing unbearable pressures that will force many out of the profession.

Of even greater importance is to make clear to members, and to the Secretary of State, that their unions are confident in their strength and serious about defending teachers and education. We had every reason to be confident after the October strikes. Gove's educational policies are becoming increasingly criticised. Regrettably, we have now sent entirely the wrong signals to Michael Gove and given him renewed confidence to maintain his attacks.

As I stated in moving the objection to the Officers’ recommendations that were presented to the Executive yesterday, I do not believe that they set out a sufficiently serious strategy to present to either our members - or to make Michael Gove think that he needs to start rethinking his plans.

Yes, there is now a promise that “in the absence of sufficient progress, a national strike in England and Wales will be held not later than 13 February 2014”. However, there is no definite date set. Indeed, to try and get at least some clarity, a further amendment was agreed asking the “NUT/NASUWT negotiating teams to identify some possible dates when the action might take place ... and to bring these dates to the December Executive meeting”. 

Let's be clear that this means that further action is now postponed until late January or early February. That’s when we should have been looking to escalate to deeper action , perhaps a two-day strike, not another isolated national strike, seemingly  as part of a drawn-out campaign up to the next General Election. In addition, all that was agreed as a plan for further action beyond that was "rolling regional action", our proposal to also add "escalating" and national action" being defeated.

The week planned for the November national strike will now, in the words of a message from the NUT GS and DGS be used to lobby MPs “including a meeting at the House of Commons, to urge MPs to put pressure on the Government to resolve the dispute”! As we pointed out yesterday, the only real way to make sure that members can turn out to a Lobby of Parliament in big numbers is to call a strike! 

The best way to influence politicians is to maintain the programme of escalating action agreed by NUT Conference and to go out and explain our case to parents and everyone in our local communities.

The NUT GS and DGS have also said that “additionally the NUT and NASUWT will work together to increase the number of schools taking sustained strike action where their pay or appraisal policies do not meet our checklists as a further route to pressurise the Secretary of State”. That’s a welcome move and a strategy that I and school reps in Lewisham NUT are already starting to put into practice. However, we all recognise that even the best school pay policy will only offer limited protection. The only real guarantee of protecting members' pay-progression is to take national action to reverse Gove’s performance-pay legislation. That’s what my reps are calling for. 

The objection proposed at the Executive 

For the reasons discussed above, this is why I tabled the following proposal as an amendment to the Officers’ recommendations, seconded by Patrick Murphy, also one of the LANAC National Officers:

Add new recommendation 1 and renumber accordingly:

1.       The NUT Executive regrets that it has not been possible to reach agreement with the NASUWT over a date for national strike action this term but having considered
a)       The support shown by members for the regional strike action,
b)      The commitment made to members to call national strike action this term,
c)       The need to make clear to the Secretary of State that we are maintaining our escalating pattern of strike action until he withdraws his threats to pay, pensions and conditions, threats which have such serious consequences for teachers and for education,
we agree to give notice to employers for NUT members to take one-day national strike action on Wednesday November 27th combined with the proposed Lobby of Parliament. We will continue to invite the NASUWT to also participate in this strike action on that day whilst also approaching other unions involved in national disputes including the NAPO, PCS, UCU, FBU and CWU to seek their support for co-ordinated strike action as well.

In 5. (new 6) Reword to state: “A further escalating programme of national and rolling regional action be drawn up, in co-ordination with the NASUWT and other unions, including consideration of a two-day national strike.

In 7. (new 8) Insert after “People’s Assembly” “,campaigning activities by school groups and Local Associations in their local communities”

Regrettably, while 10 voted for this objection, 26 voted against with 1 abstention. As one of our opponents called for a recorded vote, then the voting record will be made public by the Union. 

Perhaps some felt that it was to their advantage in the Vice-President election for this to be in the public domain. The ten Executive members in support of this amendment were happy to see our votes recorded. At least now the choice facing members in the National Officers Election has been put into sharp focus.  

Don’t mourn, organise – and use your vote for Vice-President 

Morale and confidence were high after the determined response to the regional strikes. NUT members had been assured that there would be a further national one-day strike before the end of term. As we warned yesterday, postponement of that action is a setback which risks undermining that confidence and disorientating particularly our most active members who are key to union strength.

The Local Associations National Action Campaign, set up after a similar setback when the NUT failed to maintain pensions action in 2012, will again work hard to make sure that this is only a temporary setback. A LANAC steering committee is being called for Saturday November 23 at the International Community Centre on Mansfield Road, Nottingham from 12 noon to 3pm.This will be an opportunity to take stock and organise for the escalating campaign of action that has to take place after Christmas. 

The solidity of the October strikes would have been starting to put the pressure on Gove. However, yesterday’s postponement of national strike action makes it even less likely that any meaningful concession will be offered to the unions in the next few weeks.  

We must guard against any suggestion that unions settle for some unacceptable ’deal’ that leaves most of the threats to teachers’ pay, pensions and conditions still in place. We have to build for a serious strategy of co-ordinated escalating action that can force Gove into a serious retreat. We have a responsibility to our members, and to the students we teach, to stand firm and defend teachers and education.

NUT members who are unhappy with yesterday’s decision also have an immediate way of showing their discontent – by using their vote in the National Officers’ Election which opens later this week. 

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 that everyone who agrees with that statement now calls on NUT members across England and Wales to VOTE POWELL-DAVIES 1

* The ICC is just north of town, about 400 metres up Mansfield Road from the entrance to the Victoria Shopping Centre. Postcode: NG1 3FN

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