School teachers at their spring conferences have voted to hold a ballot on strike action over pensions. In an unprecedented display of anger, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers heckled schools minister Nick Gibb when he tried to tell them that they needed to accept huge rises in contributions and cuts in entitlements.
The ATL is now making common cause with the National Union of Teachers in balloting members for a joint strike day in the summer term and possible further action in the autumn. ATL members in selective and private schools, where the union is stronger, have been attending joint regional meetings with the NUT for the first time.
A teachers’ pensions loss calculator on the NUT website is energising young teachers, who have the most to lose with the combined effect of increased contributions, the change from using the Retail Prices Index to the Consumer Prices Index as the measure for calculating the yearly uprating of pensions (CPI is consistently lower than RPI), the move to change from final salary to average salary pensions, and the increase in the retirement age. Taken together these constitute a massive attack on teachers, whose pension scheme is rated as sound by even the pensions hawks.
Unlike some areas of the public sector, teaching remains heavily unionised, and membership of the pension scheme is high. Clearly the government wants to put an end to this situation and wants a fight.
The planned teachers’ strike is scheduled for 30 June. The NUT and the ATL will be joined by members of the University and College Union in adult, further and higher education, whose members have already voted in a ballot for rolling action. And now the civil service union PCS is to ballot to join in. In the autumn, the teachers’ union NASUWT and the senior public servants’ union FDA are likely to enter the pensions fray.
Careful and innovative thinking about strategy is desperately needed. At the NUT conference a motion was passed calling for a general public sector strike (walking straight into a government trap). Apart from the need to build the fight carefully, conducting it in a manner that will conserve and not fritter away our power, using our strengths and possibly taking in the second phase creative forms of action not necessarily just guerrilla forms of strike, the “general strike” strategy ignores the realities of patchy union organisation on the ground and the varying situations in different public sector unions.
We don’t want to follow a recipe for failure with the “activists” who call for it then blaming everyone but themselves as usual. Rather we want to create a dish of well organised, tactically agile discontent that will force the government to retreat. ■