School strikes update: what we need to do to win

The NEU has called new strikes in England on 5 and 7 July in pursuit of their pay claim. rs21 teachers explain why these strikes are so important, and outline a strategy to win the dispute.

NEU Save Our Schools march and rally March 2023 – photo by Steve Eason

As the academic year draws to a close we should take stock of where we are with our pay campaign. At the start of the year the government inflicted another real terms pay cut – meaning teachers had suffered a real terms cut of 23% over the past 10 years. Many schools were facing another year of budgetary crisis, with support staff losing their jobs and students  suffering the consequences. Despite a decade of real terms cuts the Tories were using schools as a sticking plaster for lots of social problems. Schools were doing more with less staff and fewer resources. The response from NEU members was clear: this couldn’t be allowed to continue.

Crossing the ballot threshold in January and our strike days in February and March showed what we could do. It’s worth remembering that there were nerves before these strikes too. The strikes saw some of our largest local and regional demonstrations for some years, a growing number of picket lines and an increased number of activists taking a lead in their schools. The strikes shut more schools than the union or DfE anticipated and had a significant economic impact on the country as a whole.

The strikes forced the Tories back. One by one, each of their absolute positions fell as our campaign gained momentum: there was no extra money, they weren’t going to meet us, they had to keep inflation down, the offer was funded, etc. All their arguments fell by the wayside and culminated in March’s pay offer.

In a high point of the campaign, our vote to reject the deal was huge. 98% voted no on a 66% turn out. This gave us the mandate and momentum to carry the strike campaign forward. It was in this context that NEU Conference, the highest democratic body of our union, decided to strike in May and July.

The strike pattern agreed at Conference was controversial. Many of us, including rs21 members, argued hard to maintain the momentum and to strike to win this term. Executive members argued for the exam pause, and while pausing action side-stepped attacks in the media we should acknowledge that this has cost us momentum, and reduced our ability to strike this term. It stands with a litany of other missteps – the pause in Welsh strikes, the deal in Wales, the period of calm after the national demonstration, the unpreparedness to re-ballot support staff, that must be called out for the tactical errors they are.

Despite challenges, the same base of support that existed in early April is still there now. Education workers experience the sharp end of an underfunded and collapsing school system every day. We know we urgently need better pay and funding. After taking 6 days of strike action, we need to go on and win this dispute.

Why the July days are important

On 17 June, the Executive called two more days of strike action in July. In reality, what choice did they have? Not only had the vast majority of Conference instructed them to do so, we also have a Minister who refuses to publish the School Teachers Review Body (STRB) report, which recommended a higher, fully-funded pay increase, and a government lurching from crisis to crisis.

The July days are important because without that STRB report, and the requisite funding for the increase it calls for, school budgets next year will collapse. We will start the Autumn term with some schools facing the prospect of not being able to pay their bills. Even in schools where this isn’t the case, it means big decisions being made by school leaders in the holidays when they should be resting and when they are isolated from school staff and union groups. Equally, with inflation continuing to rise, we cannot simply accept that this year’s pay dispute is over. The July Days are an important part of our campaign going forward.

What we will need to win

We do need to acknowledge, however, that this dispute will go on into autumn. There has been lots of talk about autumn and united action but we do need to understand one key thing: the NEU will be the union that wins or loses this dispute. Our members are the key drivers of the campaign to save our schools. We don’t yet know if the NAHT and ASCL will cross their ballot thresholds. We hope that they do and NEU activists should be working to make that the case. However, what if the only action the leadership unions are willing to take is a symbolic one-day strike? Is that good enough to win? No.

NASUWT will certainly pass the threshold in some of their schools and this will mean more teachers on strike and more school closures. But should we let them set the pace of our dispute? No.

We finally have a support staff ballot and this looks like it will be alongside the recognised local government unions but should the GMB and UNISON decide our strike days in schools? No.

The prospect of united action is important and can build confidence. But we must understand that it is teachers and support staff in the NEU that are going to win this dispute. Come the autumn, we will need to show that we’re willing to close schools down and affect GDP if we are going to win. We will need to show that we are willing to strike in the run up to the General Election. We will need to show that we are putting children first by campaigning for proper funding. And we will have to do this with other unions where possible but we will have to do it alone where it is needed.

Immediate steps

  • We need school activists to make sure they are discussing the politics of the July strikes with education workers – we need to show where they fit in the wider campaign and why they are important.
  • We need to make sure that we cross the threshold in both ballots to renew strike mandates: teachers and support staff.
  • We need to get serious about raising strike fund money for hardship payments – collections, calls for donations and fundraisers.
  • We need joint working at a local level with the other education and local government unions – lobbies of MPs and councils, street stalls, meetings and rallies that can help them over the ballot line too.

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