Teacher unions have yet to learn the lesson that real strength starts in the school...
Teachers’ pay and conditions are no longer determined by national agreement – our unions still need to catch up with that simple fact. National strike action is demonstrably not now an effective tactic, and indeed the government seems intent on goading teachers’ unions into that futile course of action. But there are other ways teachers can use their organisational strength to improve pay and conditions.
We have to understand our working environment to work out the best way to survive and prosper collectively. This responsibility applies to school teachers as much as to anyone else; we need to fathom out a convincing way to grapple with their problems and advance the cause of education, the profession and union organisation. Only then will we discover how to unlock the potential for change.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a huge surge of conflict over pay – without historical precedent – which spilled over into industrial action on several occasions. In those days the Burnham Committee (set up in 1919) was the national negotiating machinery for teachers’ pay and conditions of service, made up of representatives from teacher unions, local education authorities and government. But following the long bitter pay dispute of 1984–86, the Thatcher government engineered a crisis in order to abolish Burnham, which it did in 1988.
Overnight, teachers’ pay and conditions were imposed by the Secretary of State. By 1991 a review body appointed by government was established to make annual recommendations on pay, with the final decision taken by the government. National negotiations and Burnham were lost, but there was no real response from teachers.
Since the 1990s, the NUT has formulated endless pay policies but has had nowhere to press home the ideas. Newspaper adverts, commissioning research and lobbying got nowhere. Effectively, teachers have had no impact on pay for several decades.
The educational landscape has continued to change and deteriorate. Local Education Authorities were once exactly what the name implies, but successive governments have fatally weakened their locally elected powers to influence what goes on in schools. When the last Labour government removed “Education” from the name it was only reflecting the reality, as newly termed Local Authorities became mere enforcers for ever-changing national government education policies. The academies and free schools, the ending of the Pay Review Body, plans to dismantle national pay structure and extend performance related pay, have all utterly changed teachers’ situation – but somehow the mind-set of teacher unions has stuck stubbornly in a previous era.
Going through the motions
Our unions have refused to adapt, still going through the motions of how we used to operate though the world has moved on. Industrial disputes to change the thinking of government on pay when the powers have been devolved away serve little actual purpose and bring no gain. We must accept the gauntlet that was thrown down a long time ago. Our rulers are saying that national pay bargaining is dead (which in effect it has been since the late 1980s), national pay is dead, and power over pay is devolved to schools, whether state schools or academies or free schools.
Yet as a profession school teachers are still highly organised in unions. Of course there are stronger and weaker schools and areas of the country, but generally teachers do join a union – a huge potential source of working class power. Education Secretary Michael Gove has through his policies stated his intention to change that situation once and for all. He wants a set-piece, positional battle which teachers cannot win. Will our unions fall into his trap?
We must stop squandering our strength in national set plays of industrial action that will not force an outcome, stop pretending there is strength where there is not, and concentrate on building it in the workplace. We must raise the level of organisation and response in every school to force collective pay agreements that repulse the divisive move to payments linked to performance.
We must use the strength and resources of the union in a guerrilla way, building on the experience of the action short of strike. This has brought benefits to many school memberships who have used it to sort out pressing problems such as excessive inspection and observation. Each place of work must become the focus. If necessary, industrial disputes will be aimed at individual schools or academy chains.
Union structures need to be reshaped to service this type of work. Governments destroyed the national structures in the hope of weakening us. We must turn that upside down and turn school organisation into fortresses. This project will breathe new life and commitment into teacher trade unionism. Fight for pay where you work. ■