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Building a new union leadership
DELEGATES WILL be gathering at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) annual conference in Gateshead this Easter, buoyed by the union's decision to hold a ballot for a one-day national strike to oppose the attacks on our pensions.
Martin Powell-Davies, Lewisham NUT conference delegate
But the threat to raise our pension age to 65 is just one of a series of attacks facing education. Conference delegates have a responsibility to make sure we widen our action so that the union can protect teachers from an unbearable workload and fight the cuts to pay and jobs that this cost-cutting government wants to impose through "workforce reform".
Enthusiasm for the strike ballot will be tempered by the knowledge that NUT general secretary, Steve Sinnott, and others in the national leadership, only finally gave national action their blessing when the pressure from below left them with no option.
Socialist Party Teachers and others in the Socialist Teachers Alliance played a vital role in pushing the NUT executive into considering action. But the failure of some of the Left to back an immediate ballot for national action gave the right-wing majority in the National Officers' Group the chance to issue a confusing multi-option "survey" instead.
But the determined mood in schools meant that the survey results from Divisions across England and Wales, town and shire, north and south, showed the strongest support for strike action.
Even then, Steve Sinnott urged caution and proposed strikes only in selected areas. But a national meeting of NUT division secretaries was having nothing of it. Even officers who had backed Sinnott in the general secretary election understood that the union had to stand firm together, uniting the strongest and the weakest schools.
Sinott will be put under pressure from the newspaper editors, government ministers and no doubt some other union leaders, all trying to persuade the NUT to hold off before a general election. But conference needs to push the fainthearts in the NUT leadership in the other direction!
New Labour needs to be left in no doubt that the NUT will not back down until the government has fully withdrawn its attacks. And that means not just winning this first ballot for a one-day strike, but also holding a further ballot for discontinuous action so that we can join with other unions in a continuing campaign to defend our pensions.
Building such a continuing campaign also means that delegates need to support moves to update the union's rulebook. We need to change existing regulations that mean that action lasting longer than a day can only be held if the union exceeds completely unrealistic thresholds for turnout in a postal ballot.
But if the union is now fighting to stop the government lengthening teachers' working lives, years of inaction have allowed teachers' working week to reach well over 50 hours. That's why delegates need to back demands that the union draws up toughened action guidelines that will allow NUT members to enforce a meaningful limit to their working week.
We must also maintain our clear opposition to non-teacher qualified staff being bullied into doing teachers' work on the cheap as part of the government's 'remodelling' agenda.
That struggle is going to be brought to a head this September when new regulations mean that schools have to include a minimum 10% planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time in every teachers' timetable. However, many primary schools simply won't have the funding to employ the additional teachers needed to take classes while their colleagues are released for PPA.
At the same time, schools will be starting to reorganise their salary structures under new regulations agreed by the government and, disgracefully, by the other teaching unions. These are clearly intended to reduce schools' wage bills.
Some teachers presently awarded a 'Management Allowance' for additional responsibilities will be told they are not going to be awarded the new 'Teaching and Learning Responsibility' payments that will take their place.
These attacks are all part of a generalised attempt by New Labour to cut the public sector in general, and school funding in particular. That's why Socialist Party Teachers will also be calling for the NUT to set up a political fund so that it can expose the failures of the establishment parties and help build a trade-union backed mass workers' party that can offer a real alternative.
We will also be calling on the union to ballot for national strike action to demand the money schools need so that they can provide proper pay and conditions for all school staff and decent educational opportunities for all young people.
From the experience of these struggles, starting with a one-day pensions strike, a new generation of teachers will be emboldened to help build a new union leadership that can stand firm at last against the attacks that teachers and education have suffered for too long.
In The Socialist 19 March 2005: