Over 250,000 teachers in the NUT union will be balloted from Thursday of this week on whether to hold a one-day strike over their below-inflation pay offer. If teachers vote yes in the ballot it could lead to the first national teachers strike in over 20 years.
Kevin Courtney, a member of the NUT’s national executive, told Socialist Worker, “The ballot is important because it is part of a battle for the whole public sector.”
Teachers have been given below-inflation pay deals since 2005. The latest three-year offer would give them a 2.45 percent rise this year and 2.3 percent for the two years following.
As the RPI rate of inflation is running at around 4 percent this amounts to a pay cut.
At the same time the job of teaching is getting harder. Government restrictions on teaching methods and increased testing and inspections in schools has meant a massive rise in teachers’ workload and school bureaucracy.
On a wider level, teachers and schools are often seen as the solution to problems that children face in wider society, such as poverty, and are blamed when they “fail” to help children overcome them.
In this context, the prospect of yet another pay cut feels like a slap in the face.
“There is a very strong feeling among teachers that we are overworked and underpaid,” said Paul Grist, a teacher in north Yorkshire.
“People are very annoyed that the government’s calculation of inflation doesn’t take into account the real rises in the cost of living.”
The pay cut will especially affect newly qualified teachers on the lowest pay grades.
Sara Tomlinson is the joint branch secretary of Lambeth NUT in south London. She told Socialist Worker, “In Lambeth more than a third – some 500 out of 1,300 teachers – are young teachers.
“They will be hit hardest by the pay offer – they are on the lowest pay grade and have to deal with student debts. Teachers spend at least four years training, but about a third leave within four years of the job.”
Julie Mukherjee, a teacher in Camden, north London, told Socialist Worker that teachers feel undervalued by the government.
“However long teachers work – whether we work late marking or have to go to parents’ evenings – we don’t get any overtime pay,” she said
Teachers have already been building for a yes vote. For many this will be their first experience of organising and taking part in a strike ballot.
“Younger teachers in my school all joined the teaching unions when they were training,” said Paul. “But they don’t automatically see trade unionism as being about taking collective action. The dispute will hopefully change this.”
Mac Andrassy is a union rep at Count Hill School in Oldham. “People in our school are quite confident,” he said. “We have been on strike a few times over the last few years.
“We had a meeting for union reps last week to discuss building the yes vote. We’ve organised to get into primary schools to do meetings on the ballot, and will also make contact with the UCU lecturers’ union.”
Similar activities are being organised up and down the country.
Elections for the NUT executive, which began on Wednesday of last week, will also be key for activists who want to make sure that left wing candidates who are committed to fighting for decent pay are elected.
Many teachers are connecting the issue of pay with the wider political and ideological attack on education.
“We’ve got a meeting with Children’s Laureate Mike Rosen on Thursday that will be very popular,” said Stefan Simms, assistant branch secretary at Ealing NUT in west London. “Teachers are pissed off because we have less and less control over what we teach.
“In my school I’m confident that the strike will be very solid – we’ve had new teachers joining and lapsed union members rejoining the NUT because of the ballot.
“We’ve phoned all the reps in our area and all members have had a mailing as well. We have a reps’ training meeting on Tuesday of this week to organise to get the vote out.”
Kevin adds, “We need to remember the other unions within schools, such as Unison, and involve them in the workplace meetings.”
Crucially, the UCU lecturers’ union has also called a ballot – due to begin on 14 March – of lecturers in further education over their below-inflation pay offer.
If both ballots win a yes vote, lecturers and teachers will strike together on 24 April, closing schools and colleges across the country and sending a message to Gordon Brown that he won’t get away with imposing his public sector pay freeze.
Our Schools, Our Colleges, Our Communities
Launch rally Monday 3 March, 6pm, Emmanuel Centre, 9-23 Marsham Street, London SW1.
Speakers include Linda Newman, president of the UCU, and Kevin Courtney from the NUT executive.
Tuesday 4 March 6.30pm, Birmingham council house, with UCU and NUT speakers.