Thursday, 9 January 2014

Strength in United Joint Action

Published in Education for Tomorrow.

Around 16 months ago, the National Union of Teachers declared a dispute with the Secretary of State for Education over pensions, pay, working conditions and jobs, and balloted its membership for strike action and action short of a strike on the three latter issues. This built on an existing dispute and ballot in relation to pensions and linked with a dispute declared by sister union NASUWT on all four issues less than one year previously.

This is, of course, a clear trade dispute in terms of the issues raised with the Secretary of State and is the subject of legitimate industrial action, even under Britain's restrictive anti-union laws. But the changes to teachers pay, pensions and working conditions, and the onslaught of job losses, particularly at local authority level, are part of a much wider programme of change which extends way beyond the bounds of national policy.
Education International has identified a coherent set of policy developments in education globally, which it refers to as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). The key policies of GERM are competition, choice, standardisation, test-based accountability, performance-related rewards. This agenda is being pushed by national governments (of a variety of political hues), the World Bank, OECD and transnational corporations.

In Britain, this manifests as the most ambitious privatisation programme ever mounted in education; one that Thatcher could only have dreamed of. Clearly, as part of that process of privatisation, issues like final salary pension schemes, national pay frameworks and the right to a qualified teacher (all of which stand in the way of the main income-generating mechanisms - employing fewer qualified teachers on less money), have to be dealt with.

It goes much further than that, though. There is a fundamental attempt to reconfigure education, to change both the culture of schools and the wider approach to education to fit the needs of 21st century monopoly capital. Hence the drive towards a narrowed curriculum, quantitative measures of performance, increased differentiation and segregation within the state system of education. This process of redefining what education means, whilst at times less tangible than academisation and privatisation, is no less real and just as worrying.

Since September 2012, the NUT and NASUWT have conducted a joint campaign of action which has included both non-strike action on workload conducted at school level as part of the national dispute and, more recently, strike action over pay changes, pensions and workload.

This strike action, conducted regionally on 27th June, 1st October and 17th October has been very well supported and has shown the strength of feeling amongst teachers. It has also prompted a letter from Michael Gove regarding holding talks to resolve our dispute.

Now there is a big difference between sending a letter and actually wanting to engage constructively with unions representing over 85% of the teaching profession. Michael Gove's most recent letter of 6th November, in which he suggests a meeting of all teacher unions to discuss implementation of the new deregulated pay system, amounts to little more than a provocation.

So, the NUT and NASUWT have set a clear deadline for genuine talks to materialise. If this does not happen, we will be calling national strike action on of before 13th February.

The big question for us as education activists is, does this mean we sit back now and wait for talks to occur and progress to be made?

The answer must be an emphatic NO. We have a window of opportunity to do two things crucial to the progress of this campaign.

Firstly, we need to build the campaign at school level. This means engaging with members at schools across the country to bring forward action short of strike actions and, where necessary, strike action to protect working conditions and to deal with any attempt to impose pay policies which are not consistent with Union guidance.

Secondly, we need to be taking the wider arguments that surround this dispute out into local communities and developing real community campaigns to defend education. Students and parents have as much to fear from these changes as teachers do and need to play an equal role in the struggles ahead.

All of this work must be seen in the context of a long-term strategy to develop one union for all teachers, school-based and rooted in local communities. Ultimately, that is how we will succeed in protecting teachers and defending education.

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