Over 40,000 London teachers in the NUT union were set to strike for one day on Thursday of this week. This is the first strike by London teachers since 1972. More than 1,000 teachers have joined the NUT over the last few days in order to take part in the strike. They are joining the 41,000 NUT members who have already voted to strike by nine to one.
The increase in union membership is just one sign of how popular the strike to win higher allowances for working in London is. There are schools, particularly primaries, in every area where union organisation has been weak in recent years. Now many of those are electing reps. Many parents are supporting the strike because of the teacher shortage in schools. Local news bulletins last week struggled to find a parent to attack the strike.
Teacher vacancies have doubled in the last year and record numbers of new teachers are quitting within three years. Workload is the number one reason. More tests for children and diktats from the government have led to a huge burden on teachers as well as systematic attacks on comprehensive education.
Education secretary Estelle Morris is trying to contain the pressure for a limit on teachers' hours through negotiations with the teachers' unions. But the feeling that something has to happen now has fuelled the demand for pay increases. It is particularly sharp in London, because of the rapid increase in the cost of living there.
Graduates from teacher training colleges, saddled with debt, cannot afford to live in London. The teachers' pay review body recommendation that London allowances should increase by only 3.5 percent is nowhere near enough. It would mean just £69 a year extra in outer London. The price of a flat there is about £100,000.
The Metropolitan Police get £6,111 a year allowance no matter where they live in London. They also get free travel on public transport. The NUT is calling for £4,000 a year. The government is trying to claim that teachers are well paid and do not deserve an increase.
But teachers are just one of very many groups of workers who want to see a serious fight for higher pay. Among many public sector workers the issue of pay is focused on London allowances.
That is largely because national pay awards are not due to be decided until later in the year. Pushing to increase London payments, however, is an immediate possibility. So 70,000 local government workers in the Unison union in London are being consulted over strike action. A strike ballot is likely to take place at the end of this month.
The London region of the Fire Brigades Union is recommending a campaign to win the same London allowance as the police. That would mean a 90 percent increase. The teachers' vote for strike action this week has encouraged other groups to press for pay increases. Everyone knows it will take more than a one-day strike to win them.
But Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT, sees the strike this week as a one-off protest rather than the start of wider action. Union activists and rank and file teachers were planning to make the case for further action on Thursday with a march (assemble 10am, Lincoln's Inn Fields) followed by a rally which Doug McAvoy has been invited to address.
A victory for teachers in London over pay will add to the feeling in schools across Britain for increases and will inspire other groups of workers. London teachers have shown enthusiasm for the fight. It will take organised pressure to get the action needed to win it.