Socialist Worker

The biggest teachers' strike in Britain since the 1970s

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1792

A strike and demonstration by over 40,000 teachers in and around London on Thursday of last week was the biggest for 30 years. It marked a turning point. 'I feel we are laying to rest the ghosts of 20 years of demoralisation,' said one experienced teacher as she sped by with a group of recent university graduates.

Support for the strike and the 8,000-strong jubilant march through central London exceeded all expectations. Over 2,000 schools in London and neighbouring areas were totally or partially shut as members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) struck over pay allowances for working in the capital.

'This is the day we finally stood up and said we are not putting up with it any more,' said a group of teachers from Park Primary School in Newham, east London. They had made placards that spelled out the slogan 'Because we are worth it.' Jessica Mattinson and Kerry Tamlyn were part of the delegation.

They are newly qualified teachers and started working in September. They said, 'The level of the London allowance means we cannot afford to find a home. Student loans mean we are saddled with £10,000 debt even before we start working. It feels marvellous to be part of today. Parents are supporting us. The government is just not listening.'

The march had school banners, many freshly made, and imaginative placards everywhere. Older teachers described how they had not seen such a strike and demonstration by NUT members since the 1970s.

About half the marchers were in their twenties and early thirties. These are the group who, according to government propaganda, are meant to support New Labour's education policies. There was deep anger that education secretary Estelle Morris had said she would 'take a tough line' and ignore the strike. Everyone knew that the Metropolitan Police get £6,111 extra a year and free travel for working in London-double the highest allowance for teachers who work in inner London.

'Estelle, go to hell!' and 'More strikes now!' were among the chants. A group of women primary school teachers chanted, 'Estelle, stop the rot. Give us what the pigs have got,' drawing smiles and applause from the rest (and grimaces from the police).

'I've never been part of anything like this,' said Fatma Osman, a newly qualified English teacher from Clapton Girls School, east London. 'It just feels liberating. The children support us and parents are overwhelmingly positive. Today has been fantastic. We picketed the school, and support staff in the GMB union refused to cross. We should do this again and again until we win the kind of award the police got.'

James Neill from Holland Park School, west London, was one of many wearing a badge saying 'Virgin striker'. He said, 'I've been teaching physics for four years. The cost of living means there are growing teacher vacancies, as people can't afford to live in London. Parents know that a string of supply teachers, rather than a permanent member of staff, is bad for their children's education. The instability is a major cause of confrontational behaviour by students.'

Althea Chambers, a maths teacher in Enfield, north London, returned to teaching after a five-year absence. She said, 'I can't afford to buy a home. It's the same for other workers in London, particularly in the public sector. The bureaucracy and unnecessary testing of children are far worse now than they were five years ago. Today's action is also about calling a halt to that. I'm taken aback by how many people are here today. We have to continue with more strikes and get other unions involved too.'

There were roars of support whenever speakers at the rally that ended the march spoke of further action. Only 1,000 could make it inside the venue-thousands stayed for an overflow rally in the street outside.

Where next in pay battle?

THE CALL for further action came loud and clear from every section of the demonstration. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT, told those at the indoor rally that the strike was the 'beginning of the campaign and not the end of it'. But he did not spell out any dates for further strikes or other industrial action.

Almost everyone felt there should be further strikes after education secretary Estelle Morris's arrogant response to last week's action. Above all, people wanted a vigorous debate in schools and localities about what further action to take.

Many teachers raised ideas like boycotting the most bureaucratic aspects of workload or refusing to cover for absences of longer than one day. Some are already considering whether indefinite strike action will be needed. That discussion needs to happen now. More strike dates for the beginning of next term and plans for other forms of action would ratchet up the pressure on the government.

It already faces a ballot for industrial action by headteachers over a boycott of its divisive performance-related pay scheme. There was a clear feeling on last week's march that it will take concerted pressure on NUT leaders to get them to call hard-hitting action rather than look to negotiations with the government. There was great enthusiasm for striking alongside other public sector workers, particularly school support staff, who are appallingly low paid.

This call for action alongside other unions was a reflection of how the teachers' strike is part of a feeling of generalised revolt. It was not a sign of weakness or a blank cheque to NUT leaders to defer calling action until leaders of other unions call it too. Paul Mackney from the Natfhe union got a huge round of applause when he raised the possibility of strike action by lecturers in May.

His opposition to Bush and Blair's ever widening war and his description of a 'new generation of trade unionists unscarred by defeat' also captured teachers' feelings.

Pickets boost action

THE FACT that one in five strikers in London joined the march shows NUT members wanted an active strike. There were similar rallies in areas in the Home Counties that also struck over pay. Some London teachers picketed despite a letter from the national union telling them not to. 'The response was tremendous,' a teacher at Jenny Hammond Primary School in east London told Socialist Worker.

'All the support staff refused to cross the picket line. So did the postie. Parents came up to congratulate us.' There were also lively pickets at Haggerston Girls, Stoke Newington, St Paul's Way (all in east London), Crofton, Sydenham Girls and Charles Edward Brooke in south London, and Holloway in north London. The threat of pickets at Stephen Hawking Special School in east London forced management to shut it for the day.

Although most schools did not have pickets, everyone who did join the picket line got an enormous boost. They made the strike stronger, and laid the basis for solidarity between different groups of workers and union members in school. Jean Geldart represents local government workers in the Unison union, which includes support staff in schools.

She and Geoff Martin, Unison's London convenor, both received cheers when they said at the march's overflow rally that Unison members would not cross picket lines.

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Sat 23 Mar 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1792
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