The pensions battle continues on May 10 when civil servants and health workers will take strike action. John Westmoreland argues that teachers and lecturers need to be out with them.
The next round in the public sector pensions dispute is going to be May 10th when civil servants in PCS and health workers in UNITE take joint action. Teaching unions are considering whether to join the protest and strike.
The strike coincides with a protest march by the Police Federation against spending cuts and the Winsor Review, and has been timed for the day after the Queen’s Speech, which is expected to outline legislation to amend public service pensions.
Clearly this is going to be a very important protest strike. Activists need to use the opportunity to get the pensions dispute back on track and keep the pressure on the trade union leaders to call another national demonstration against austerity, despite the Labour party’s acceptance of the cuts.
In the education unions we face a battle to get the union leaders to call further action, and also take our members with us. The gap in activity since the 30th November strike has confused many teachers and lecturers, and the decision to call a selective strike in London in March was interpreted by many as a scaling down of the action. The trade union leaders are treating the pensions issue as simply another trade dispute, and are aware that there is not a burgeoning rank and file confidence that industrial action will save our pensions.
It seems that many of the trade union leaders are oblivious to the difficulties facing the government. Everything they touch falls apart the minute they announce it. The budget was a political disaster for the Tories and is a key factor in why George Galloway swept to victory in Bradford West. The current injustices of the pensions dispute – making people pay more, work longer and get less – are at one with other attacks on the working class like the ‘granny tax’, the ‘hot pasty tax’ and the caravan tax. Just this week it has been announced that the decision to cut free school meals will affect 350,000 children. The Children’s Society argues that a lone parent with three children earning just below £7,500 a year would need to get a pay rise of 60% or £4,500 to compensate for the loss of free school meals under the new benefit allocation.
Suddenly the base of opposition to the government has widened and the enemy is reeling. This is why we can win another layer of teachers and lecturers to fighting back if we begin with the general picture. Many lecturers will argue against striking on May 10th because it will hit the students at the start of the summer exams. They will say that we will lose another day’s pay, but will not save our pensions. They will argue that with increased competition between institutions we will damage our own colleges and lose the support of colleagues.
To counter this we need to point out a few simple truths. Firstly, unless we show the strength to fight, the government will press ahead ever more smartly with their plans to privatise , and deregulate education. This will impact on our students who face unprecedented youth unemployment and debt. We need to defend pay, pensions and education itself for the next generation, so we are fighting alongside students not against them.
Secondly, we need to link our pensions dispute to the general anger against the government. May 10th is not going to win as industrial action, but will be a very effective day of protest which will add to the woes of Cameron and his millionaire cabinet.
The final argument is the strongest. Schools and colleges have the joy of year on year cuts to look forward to. Yet as budgets are cut, we are asked to improve results. We are being asked to prove to the general public that the cuts are actually improving education, and we are thereby providing political cover for the Tories, and inviting further cuts. The new Ofsted regime (dubbed Ofstapo by some) is making it easier for grossly overpaid principals and head teachers to bully and sack their staff. As contracts are torn up, casualisation is increased through part time variable hours contracts and the bureaucracy mushrooms we are fighting on all fronts. On May 10th we will either show strength or weakness and we can expect the government and their bullying leaders in education to act accordingly.
The decisions taken by the trade union leaders in calling action and demonstrations, has so far been the main feature of the anti-cuts movement in Britain. The 2011 TUC demo in March last year had 500,000 people on it. We could have a bigger demonstration this year. But mobilizing millions, as in the Stop the War demonstration, is about political argument. George Galloway in Bradford and Jean-Luc Melenchon in the French Presidential election are confirmations of the possibilities. The Coalition of Resistance has the crucial role to play in the current situation. CoR has the potential to link the student fears for the future to the anger of teachers and lecturers, and to connect the pensions dispute to the battle to save the health service and fight back against benefit cuts.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.