If the teaching unions are to develop a strategy to win, then the joint action must be preserved and extended
The opening weeks of this school year have not been good for the Secretary of State for Education. Michael Gove has faced two days of joint regional strike action by the National Union of Teachers and NASUWT. His department and its policies have been repeatedly exposed in series of gaffes and errors that can only indicate deeper seated problems.
Throughout this period, Gove has failed to give any substantial response to his critics or to indicate any re-think of his core policies. Gove’s silence should not surprise us because whatever resistance or troubles he has faced so far, the momentum of this government’s project to privatise schools and education is substantial and has been building for some years.
We need to bring to a halt the repeated attacks on teachers, children and schools that have been the hallmark of Gove’s reign. Of central importance here is getting to grips with the dynamics underlying the recent teacher strikes.
The fact that an agreement between the NUT and NASUWT over strike action actually exists is significant for obvious reasons: united action by unions representing 80-90% of teachers is preferable to minority action by either one of the unions. Any action by a minority or section of teachers, by contrast, is bound to be far weaker.
Whatever past differences between the teaching unions, or the worries of a layer of more militant activists that action will be held back, the benefits of united action must be recognised. Beyond the obvious benefits of unity itself, united action between the NUT and NASUWT can only have come about by a mutual recognition between the leaderships of both unions that ‘something has to be done’.
Such recognition reflects the sharpness of the attacks on teachers' pay, pensions, workload and conditions of service - and also of a very real mood within the union membership.
The nature of this ‘mood’ is best evidenced by the strikes themselves. A quick survey of the hugely successful ‘Teacher ROAR’ twitter feed from the day of the most recent strike reveals comments which combine anger at both the economic and political aspects of Gove’s assault on education. For example: “It's not just about pay - we don't want an education system based on profit” and “I am on strike for the future generation of teachers’ and students’ rights”. Coupled with these comments from teachers were an impressive array of solidarity messages from parents, grandparents, retired and former teachers.
This theme was repeated in demonstrations and strike rallies across the affected regions where the wider political issues surrounding schools were in the foreground. The slogan ‘Stand up for Education’, together with chants of “Gove Must Go”, exemplified the feelings of both teachers and wider population.
Another important feature of the demonstrations and rallies was the relative youth of those taking strike action. With women comprising over 70% of the NUT membership, for instance, it should not be surprising that young women activists played an active and visible role in the recent strikes. However, this level of participation stands in stark contrast to the ‘same old faces’ routine that mark some labour movement mobilisations.
The impact of the strikes in terms of the participation, number of schools closed or disrupted, the size of demonstrations and rallies, and the levels of solidarity exhibited by non-teachers, represents a significant step-change. Concerns that regional action would not attract the same levels of support as national action have proved to be incorrect.
Perhaps the best summary of the nature of the recent strike action is this: whatever the underlying economic factors or legal basis for the strike, they were essentially anti-Gove and anti-Tory mobilisations.
The modern pattern of union opposition to the government is one-day strikes, accompanied by protests and rallies. This a period where the assertive class combativeness witnessed in the trade union fightback against the Tories in the 1970s is largely missing. The reasons for this will not be rehearsed here but experiences in recent years have shown some limits in resistance by teacher trade unions - and other public sector unions - when faced with attacks on pensions and pay.
More positively, the conditions now exist for the teaching unions to score some real victories in the short term. Whatever the momentum built up behind Gove’s plans to hand schools over to profit making businesses, we have seen that Gove himself is not immune. Recently we have seen the political impact of ongoing, coordinated protest actions – not least in the defeat of plans to wage war on Syria, a defeat that Gove reacted to with incandescent rage.
The NUT and NASUWT have a potentially massive prize within reach: Gove’s scalp. The steady build up of disaster stories around the Free School and Academy programme, the sometimes wacky but often reactionary statements from his own department, etc, combined with building resistance from the unions has put Gove on the spot. For as long as he refuses to negotiate with the unions or for as long as he fails to respond to the disasters building around him, Gove puts himself in greater and greater peril.
The NUT and NASUWT should now be focussed upon holding a national strike day before Christmas, and the announcement of further days of action in January or February.
It is absolutely vital that the unions remain united because any deviation from the pattern of successful actions already established will confuse and disorient the vast majority of union members. It is feared that NASUWT leaders will wobble over the timing of a national strike. We should apply maximum pressure to deliver joint, united national strike action this term.
A strategy to win
Understanding the limits and the dynamics of the dispute as it stands is not the same as taking your eyes off the prize. We need a coherent and determined strategy across the union movement - including co-ordinated strikes - to stop the government rolling back most of the major gains the working class has previously won for itself. Education – one of the biggest untapped markets in the world – is a gain we must defend.
If the teaching unions are to develop a strategy to win, then the joint action must be preserved and extended to the level of nationwide action. Even if Gove is not forced out of his position, he could be driven to the negotiating table – something he has refused up to this point. Even this small move would be a victory of sorts. Not much should be expected from any negotiations but with this in mind, the main teaching unions should be ready to build upon any and all victories.
Likewise, if continuing action by the teaching unions –together with building pressure from elsewhere – forces Gove out, then the unions should be ready to escalate to a coordinated plan to not only put an end to the figurehead but to the entire agenda of this government.