TEACHERS IN England and Wales are on course for a major conflict with the government. Their three TUC-affiliated unions, the NUT, NASUWT and ATL, all passed a joint resolution at their Easter conferences pushing for a 35-hour week and drastic cuts in workload.
The motion pledges industrial action-refusing to undertake duties-to enforce a cut in hours in the autumn term if New Labour does not accept a limit. Education secretary Estelle Morris is to respond to a report on workload from the Schoolteachers Pay Review Body next month.
She has already called any limit on the working week 'potty'. Speeches from leaders of all three unions at their conferences were confrontational with the government. None of them want a head-on fight. But they do want to win major concessions. Pressure is building on other fronts too.
The conference of the NUT, the largest teachers' union, voted for moves to ballot to boycott tests for seven year olds. It overturned the leadership to vote for a campaign for a 10 percent or £2,000 pay rise, whichever is greater. And there was deep anger at all the conferences with New Labour's performance-related pay scheme. Estelle Morris has headed off the threat of action by headteachers over the divisive scheme.
But teachers are pushing for action this autumn, when some will be denied a rise because the government has refused to fund the scheme adequately.
The three teachers' unions have different traditions. But taken together their conferences reflected an increasing desire for industrial action, unity across the unions, and boiling opposition to New Labour's policies. Education ministers were heckled and jeered to varying degrees at each of the conferences.
Delegates at all three conferences attacked the cancer of privatisation spreading through education. Impassioned debates at all of them ended with outright opposition to the government's plans to extend the number of religious schools.
A survey in the Times Educational Supplement last month found majorities in each of the three unions for a single merged teaching union. There is a drive for a merger from John Monks, general secretary of the TUC. But pressure for uniting the unions is not just coming from the top. It is coming from union members and activists who want to see united action by teachers.
That feeling was evident on 14 March, when NUT members in London struck over pay allowances. At this year's NUT conference for the first time in many years most delegates felt that action could unite across the unions. It is crucial that activists in each of the unions put themselves at the head of this mood.
ACTIVISTS IN the NUT union in London are circulating a petition and model motion in schools calling for the union to call another one-day strike over pay allowances in the capital. Its first signatories are 12 secretaries of local associations. It calls for joint action with council workers in the Unison union who are voting to strike over the same issue on 14 May.
THE NASUWT union conference last week showed how bitterness at New Labour's attacks is powering rank and file calls for unity. That mood is clashing with conservative elements in the union who hark back to its 'non-political' stance. Newly appointed NASUWT general secretary Eamonn O'Kane faced a backlash for producing a document in favour of merger. The conference overwhelmingly backed a motion calling for a new beginning on the issue, slowing down moves to merger. The anti-merger argument largely came from the right wing in the union. This row dominated the conference, but it did not hide the growing sense of revolt at New Labour. Delegates voted overwhelmingly for a campaign against privatisation. A debate on religious schools ended in a close vote for the abolition of religious schools in favour of a secular comprehensive system. David Ward from Sheffield summed up the feeling in the hall when he said: 'I am ashamed of the enthusiasm with which our government has taken up and developed the Tory idea of privatisation.'