The Socialist 12 November 2008 |
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NUT leadership fails to call strike
In April, the morale of trade unionists across England and Wales was lifted when tens of thousands of teachers took strike action to oppose the years of below-inflation pay awards being imposed on them by New Labour.
Martin Powell-Davies, convenor, Socialist Party Teachers
Seven months on, despite all the doubts sown by both economic crisis and the failure of its leaders to follow up April's action for so long, members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) have concluded a new ballot, again giving a majority of votes for further strike action.
With a turnout of 30%, nationally 52% of votes were cast in support of ongoing 'discontinuous' strike action. Support was notably stronger in some regions, such as London.
However, the NUT's national executive has decided that the margin was too narrow to call further action. This will be a bitter disappointment to many active NUT members as well as to other trade unionists, particularly civil servants in the PCS union, who have been seeking to build united public sector strikes.
The news will be greeted with relief by government ministers who will be only too pleased to reinforce their message that trade unionists should act 'responsibly' in times of economic crisis. Of course, while teachers and other workers are left to struggle to make ends meet, the top bankers and greedy speculators who are really at fault will continue to pile up their wealth.
The NUT executive says that 'the campaign continues', as it must. But for now, action - or the lack of it - will speaker louder than yet more words. The School Teachers' Review Body reports in January on the pay award to be imposed for September 2009. There is nothing now to stop them recommending a fifth successive real-terms pay cut.
Of course, a call for action based on this tight ballot result would not have been without risk. Many of the officials and the right-wing on the executive, worried about members opposed to action leaving to join other unions, will have been only too happy to ditch the campaign. However, the decision to retreat risks demoralising the most active members and local reps who are so vital for any union.
But most of the Left - now nominally a majority on the executive - also decided that only a minority of members would respond to a strike call. Unfortunately, if the call had been made with the same lack of clarity that was apparent in many of the official ballot materials, they may well have been right.
Facts explaining how prices are outstripping pay rises are not enough on their own. To win wide support for action, the NUT needed to convince teachers that taking strike action could stop the robbery.
Letters that explained to teachers on a tight budget that 'unsustained action' meant going without pay, but which then failed to spell out the NUT's strategy to defeat the government, were unlikely to convince many teachers that the sacrifice was worth it.
In school meetings, classroom teachers often demonstrated a far more considered analysis of what was needed to achieve victory than their leaders. The apparent contradiction of teachers saying that: "I can't afford to strike, but if we have to, it needs to be for three days", was reported in several areas.
A determined battle needed to be prepared, including collecting for hardship funds to sustain the hardest-hit through extended action. For example, my own NUT association in Lewisham collected over £1,000 from members in April and had set a target of £2,000 to be raised if the action planned for November had gone ahead after all.
April's strike showed that, once action is called, more members will respond than those who voted for it, including some who voted against. Widespread action could have been built, even with this slim majority, but only if the NUT leadership had gone out to convince members that their union was serious about winning this dispute. Unfortunately, the prevarication since April had sent out the opposite message.
The delay was created by the NUT executive's initial decision to ballot for just a one-day strike, meaning that a further strike ballot then had to be organised if the campaign was to be continued after April.
The correct policy - of balloting for ongoing 'discontinuous' action - was dropped, in order to win the backing of right-wing faint-hearts. But, in doing so, a mechanism for fatally losing momentum was built into the strategy from the start.
This isn't just being 'wise after the event'. While on the national executive, Socialist Party member Linda Taaffe had warned against the Left's policy of making concessions to the Right to try and win 'unanimity' at all costs.
Her reward for pointing out such uncomfortable truths was to be manoeuvred off the executive by others on the Left.
At the NUT's annual conference last Easter, Socialist Party teachers tabled an amendment calling for the April action to be quickly followed by a ballot for further strikes in order to maintain vital momentum. However, most of the Left voted to close the debate just before the amendment was reached.
This meant that the possibility of striking alongside Unison in July, uniting teachers and school support staff, was lost.
Fortunately, conference did vote for a further strategy that Socialist Party teachers put forward to strengthen the campaign. Even the right-wing was forced to withdraw their opposition in the face of overwhelming support from delegates. Our amendment called for national action to embrace teachers' grievances over both pay and workload. But this agreed policy was mistakenly dropped by the national executive without any real explanation.
Widening the scope of our national ballot to include the NUT's pay, workload and class size demands would have significantly deepened support for action, uniting staff who see pay as their greatest grievance with others who see ending teachers' unbearable workload as an even greater necessity. It is a policy that must now be put into practice.
Critically, such an approach could also force the hand of the leadership of the other main teacher union, the NASUWT, who, while pretending to fight on workload, have shamefully entered into 'social partnership' with New Labour and refused to take action on pay.
The prospect of a joint struggle would enormously raise the confidence of teachers to fight in schools where the NASUWT is still the dominant union.
A bold programme of escalating national strike action, co-ordinated with other unions wherever possible, could force this embattled government to make concessions. After all, by threatening strike action, the PCS has just forced the government to offer negotiations over civil servants' pay.
Teachers need to be reminded of their potential strength, demonstrated in the wide publicity that the 24 April strike generated. That's because, as the British Chambers of Commerce has calculated, the strike cost businesses up to £68 million in lost working hours because parents had to take time off work or pay for extra child care.
The continual barrage of news about the gathering recession during the ballot period undoubtedly had an effect. Teachers voiced fears as to what the reaction of low-paid parents might be, and how the media would have falsely tried to portray strikers as 'greedy'.
The NUT leaders were too slow to explain that, unless we defend ourselves through action, workers will be made to pay the price for the bosses' crisis. By stepping back, teachers will not have helped a single friend or neighbour save their job.
On the contrary, taking action would have been the best way of raising the sights of other workers to stand firm to defend their livelihoods as well.
If these lessons are learned, the present retreat needs only to be a temporary setback. As New Labour looks to find savings to help pay for their banking bailouts, teachers' pay, pensions and conditions will come under further attack. Teachers will be forced to struggle. With a clear strategy, next time those struggles can win.