The vote for strike action over pensions is representative of the deep dissatisfaction that teachers have felt for years.
A survey on occupational stress, published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology (2005), ranked teaching as the second most stressful job out of 26 occupations.
The TUC unpaid overtime league table, published in 2005, ranked teachers top: as the occupational group carrying out the largest amount of unpaid overtime in the UK, at an average of 11 hours 36 minutes per week.
The profession is marred by excessive workload, relentless pressure to improve targets, a punitive inspection regime and a culture of management bullying. Added to this is the threat of academies and attacks on pay and conditions as teachers face job cuts.
That said, teaching has a high union membership density and three main teaching unions. The NUT is a progressive left union and there has often been a willingness to support action when requested by members.
NUT conferences have affirmed policy to support strike action against excessive workload, redundancy and academies. Few schools have requested official action and many members have felt isolated, weak and unable to take on aggressive management.
Things have started to change recently and there have been some significant strikes where education staff have taken on management. I wish to mention a few key disputes namely the fight against redundancy, academies and cuts.
Rawmarsh Community School in Rotherham is a brilliant example. When faced with 25 job losses, the NUT called a school meeting and the course for strike action was set. When the NASUWT refused to join the strike - eight members left to join the NUT’s action. The NUT National Executive offered full support. After nine days of strike action, management began to retreat. As the number of redundancies were reduced, the NUT escalated strike action. No NUT member now faces compulsory redundancy. This was not a 100% clear victory, and concessions were made. Staff in unions who did not fight or chose not to be in a union still face job cuts. There are numerous disputes in schools where members are challenging management and redundancies are withdrawn with the threat of strike action - the spectre of ‘Rawmarsh’ works.
The number of strikes against academies has increased. In Coventry, seventy teachers in the NUT and NASUWT unions were involved in the strike at Tile Hill Wood School and a further 30 NUT members striking at Woodlands School. More than 50 strikers picketed Bowland Community High School in Lancashire in May. The strikes have not ended in a decisive victory, sometimes concessions are won such as union recognition and continuation of local agreements. The strikes certainly strengthen union confidence and are a model to follow.
One of the most significant strikes this year is that of Tower Hamlets, on 30 March this year. It was the first joint union strike for 30 years and nearly 5,000 council workers walked out. Education staff also went on strike in Camden. The dispute is remarkable because many staff were striking against cuts in services. It wasn’t about defending their jobs.
The pensions ballot result is part of the process of renewed confidence and shows how widespread the anger is against this vicious attack. Socialist Teachers Alliance activist, Andrew Baisley, gives a useful analysis of recent NUT ballots for action. There have been four large NUT strike ballots over the last ten years:
Year Issue Result Turnout
2002 London weighting 86% 30%
2003 London weighting 80% 39%
2008 National pay (joint NUT/ATL/ NASUWT) 75% 32%
2008 National pay (NUT only) 52% 30%
2011 Pensions 92% 40%
Some critics have been keen to seize on the ‘low’ turnout. The argument is that if some teachers face a 25% cut in pensions, the attack should have provoked a more solid response. There are material factors to be considered.
The excessive workload and culture of bullying has made organising unions in schools difficult. Education has the highest trade union density in membership, but this can disguise the low level of trade union representation. The density of school representatives can be very low. Sometimes trade union representative density can be as low as 20-30% across schools in some areas.
There has been a slow but significant increase in union representation over the last two years. Where school meetings were held, members were convinced of the need for action. Postal ballots are not conducive to argument, and they reduce collective issues to a passive private sphere.
Although the NUT does not wish to reveal a detailed breakdown of the vote, for fear of creating another ‘League Table’, it is clear when talking to representatives in differing areas that the differentials in voting turnout are slight. This means that even ‘passive’ areas with a lower level of organisation and smaller activist base have also had a high turnout and voted in favour of the strike. It is clear that the pensions campaign has struck a nerve with members.
In the April 2008 pay ballot, 48,000 members voted in favour of a one day strike. In 2011, 78,000 NUT members voted to take industrial action. It is clear people are angry and many reps have worked hard to get a solid result.
There is genuine excitement about the strike. I attended my local Division Branch Committee as a local officer and the meeting grew to the point where we had to move to a larger area - 23 people attended. The mood was brilliant and teachers were determined to see schools close and get maximum solidarity.
There is a real feeling of new people coming through and an increase in confidence. Wakefield NUT is organising a joint protest with other unions on June 30, and similar action is being planned in other areas. The challenge is to maintain momentum and encourage teachers to take action over academies, conditions and redundancy.
It is important that we make the June 30 as big and united as possible. It is unlikely that the government will retreat after a one day strike. We want June 30 to encourage workers to take sustained co-ordinated action in the future and unite with everyone who has an interest in resisting austerity Britain.
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