Ready to strike – a report from the NUT conference, part 1

The government’s forced academisation plans have caused outrage. Teachers are preparing to fight back. Andy N from Birmingham NUT reports on the recent conference.

image of the 2014 teachers' strike
image of the 2014 teachers’ strike

I remember an NUT conference sometime around the turn of the millennium where delegates from the conference floor fought the executive tooth and nail for the whole of the conference. We managed to get the motion for a strike passed on the last morning of conference, only to have the general secretary of that time then tell us that ‘the membership showed more wisdom in electing me than you’ve shown at this conference’, indicating clearly his intention of ignoring the vote, which he duly did.

Fortunately, this year’s NUT conference in Brighton was a very different experience indeed. Teachers are facing wholesale academisation, a process that means that every aspect of a teacher’s working life will be de-regulated – pay progression, length of day, length and timing of holidays, Saturday working, sick pay, all maternity pay above the statutory minimum – everything will be up for grabs by bosses of multi-academy trusts.

A priority motion to the conference recognised the seriousness of this challenge, and called for the widest possible mobilisation against the threat to our pay and conditions from the Tories’ latest white paper. Tactics mentioned included a national demonstration and lobby of parliament, and strike action to be taken if possible in the summer term. An amendment from the floor stiffened this in order to commit us to a definite ballot for strike action next term, even if other teachers’ unions don’t come on board, and all the indications are that that commitment will be put into practice. The utter contempt that both delegates and executive members had for the Tories’ plans was palpable in the course of the debate, a contempt which is leading to an absolute determination to fight as hard as we can.

The reason for the strike is the abolition of our national pay and conditions and the cuts in funding that are entailed by all of this. The Tories will challenge the legality of a strike and claim that it is a purely political act against the white paper. They did this over the 6th form college strike, where pages of tweets and Facebook posts from NUT members was used as evidence of it being an illegal political strike. They lost, but we need to learn the lesson – our leaflets and propaganda need to reflect the fact that the aim of the strike is to defend teachers pay and conditions. Obviously, we will all be very mindful of the fact that pupils education is inextricably tied up with that, but our propaganda about the ballot and the strike – including all the tweets, blogs and Facebook posts – needs to avoid giving the Tories legal ammunition.

On the last day of the conference, organisational plans started to come together. A briefing to delegates outlined the timing of the ballot. Ballot papers out in May, one-day strike in first week of July. Branches were asked to organise meetings for reps, and to ask for volunteers to staff phone banks to reach members at schools with no union rep. We don’t need to get the 50% threshold needed in the new anti-union legislation, which won’t have become law quickly enough, but the intention is to hit those levels of turn-out anyway if possible to shut down that line of attack from the Tories and their more obedient media supporters. Our branch held a quick meeting of delegates which set a day for a reps’ and activists’ meeting in April. We are facing a once in a generation fight and the stakes couldn’t be higher – so we intend to approach the issue with corresponding seriousness.

All to the good – but what are the pitfalls? Some have argued that the timetable of action does not lay out the strategy and number of days action to be taken. One delegate spoke against the motion for action on that basis, but got very little resonance in the hall, and when it came to the vote she voted for the motion as it stood. We do need to be very attentive to making sure that the problems of the pensions action – the chasing after other unions for joint action and the huge delays between strikes – don’t drag us down this time. Fortunately, the ease with which we won the position that we start the fight in July – alone if necessary – indicates that we won’t immediately face these problems.

To my mind, an additional task is that we need to build huge and visible support from outside of teaching staff as well as inside the schools. When I put a brief report on Facebook, an NUT member from my school immediately commented that parents wouldn’t back us, as they would see the chance of cheaper holidays and childcare after school. I think I can win her but we need visibly mobilised support from parents, from communities whose schools could be threatened and so on – a massive social movement in opposition to the Tories and in support of decent education for our kids.

Activists in the NUT will have their hands full in winning the ballot in the next period. Anyone with kids can play a role in building this, so when we have a national demo it looks like a vibrant mass protest by the entire working class – with organised workers from the school sat the the core, but with wider support from outside of the school gates.

The Tories are looking horribly exposed. Divided over Europe, retreating over disability, and with a plan for our schools whose only defenders seem to be from their absolute core head-bangers. We can win this fight – but winning means a huge amount of work – get stuck in comrades!




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