Pressure for a united demonstration by public service workers against the government's privatisation drive is mounting. Delegates at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference voted last weekend to back a national anti-privatisation demonstration. That comes after the call for such a protest by Mark Serwotka, general secretary elect of the PCS civil servants' union. Other public sector workers now have a chance to press their unions to take up the call.
The NUT vote came at the union's conference over Easter weekend. The conference also saw New Labour education secretary Estelle Morris get a rough ride. She was heckled throughout her speech to delegates, and there was support for those delegates who held up placards referring to the recent one-day teachers' strike in London over pay.
The placards spelled out '£6,000 now', the level of London allowance payments the police get, and 'strike'. It was when Morris attacked teachers for daring to strike that most of the conference turned against her.
That is an indication of the growing rift between New Labour and trade unionists. NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy was applauded for defending teachers' right to strike in his reply to Morris.
He also talked, however, about 'maintaining a partnership with government'. All the signs at the conference were that this 'partnership' approach to New Labour, one pursued by NUT leaders for the last five years, is under strain.
Last year, with the general election only weeks away, there were speeches from the union's leaders pointing to the 'good things the government has done'. This year there was no such talk. Delegates united to oppose the central thrust of government policy, and debate centred on what to do about it.
There was near unanimous support, and backing from the executive, for the motion instructing the union's leaders to 'work with other TUC affiliates to organise a national demonstration against the privatisation of public services'. There was great enthusiasm for such a protest. Andy North from Birmingham said, 'Blair has his own little axis of evil with the most right wing leaders in Europe-Berlusconi and Aznar. Berlusconi was confronted last week with three million trade unionists on the streets of Rome. We need a national demonstration against privatisation organised by the trade unions in Britain. I know we are short of language teachers, but it's time we all learnt Italian.'
Christine Blower from Hammersmith and Fulham, west London, called on NUT leaders to take up the invitation from civil servants' union leader Mark Serwotka for such a march.
Feeling at the conference ran high against privatisation and the extension of religious schooling, both now government policies. Delegates were shocked, for example, when they heard Tony Harper from Manchester describe how the multicultural Ducie High School was to be privatised by turning it into a 'city academy'.
It is to be taken over by the Church Schools Company, which runs private Christian boarding schools. The government's Education Bill, now going through parliament, plans a major extension of privatisation in schools by allowing private companies to sponsor city academies.
Leeds delegate Sally Kincaid said, 'It's gone beyond the stage of having lobbies and balloons. We need a real fightback over privatisation, and I think it should reflect the spirit of London on 14 March', when 40,000 teachers struck for the day.
As the conference went on a majority of delegates swung behind motions critical of the government, despite bureaucratic manouevres by the leadership. Delegates rejected the executive's pay strategy because it was not combative enough.
They also voted for a campaign over teacher shortages. This includes a move towards a ballot over not providing cover for teachers after more than one day's absence.
Striking spirit still there
NUT leaders are caught between the New Labour government and the growing feeling of teachers that they have had enough of its policies. The spirit of resistance was evident on the one-day strike in London last month, and remains high.
The NUT association in Haringey, north London, is led by supporters of the 'moderate' majority on the union's national executive. But it voted last month, at its biggest meeting for two years, for further strikes.
The same message came from delegates at the conference. Moira Nolan, a teacher in Lewisham, south London, told Socialist Worker:
'The atmosphere on 14 March was electric. The feeling was for more strikes, and that hasn't gone away. People are asking, 'When can we do this again?' Of course there are loads of discussions about the way forward. But when I hear some established activists say that teachers, especially young teachers, don't want to strike for fear of losing money, they are not reflecting the mood or leading it. 'We can't allow the national union to wind down the campaign. Not naming a day for strikes, like 14 May when Unison members working for London councils plan to strike, is a warning of de-escalation.'
But a clear message demanding more strikes did not come from the local officers who run NUT associations across London. And that allowed union leader Doug McAvoy to avoid having to say yes or no to strikes, and instead come out with general calls for further undefined steps in the campaign.
Doug McAvoy told an informal meeting of London delegates that he had 'not ruled out further strikes over London pay'. But his concrete proposals were only for a publicity campaign.
Real roots of behaviour
Delegates at the NUT conference saw through attempts by education secretary Estelle Morris to scapegoat children and poverty-stricken parents for problems in schools. Monica Brady teaches on the Isle of Dogs in east London. In an impassioned speech she explained the grotesque divide between rich and poor, and the appalling conditions that lead to emotional and behavioural difficulties for children.
She opposed 'giving headteachers a green light to exclude the most damaged children'. Jon Berry from Hertfordshire said, 'Estelle Morris needs to do what every thinking teacher needs to do when driven to distraction by the behaviour of a few. We have to ask ourselves why they behave as they do. It's because we've put them in schools which have tested them to exhaustion, confirmed them in their low self esteem, packaged, measured and restricted them into dull passive conformity. And you've done that, Estelle Morris. You're responsible as you run your schools for profit, and reinforce selection and failure.'
Tables for sport not schools
Robert Taylor from Medway, Kent, brought delegates at the NUT conference to their feet with a blistering attack on the way constant testing and league tables are wrecking children's education. He slammed education secretary Estelle Morris, 'and the number crunchers who want as many tests as possible. Is this why we became teachers-to make children jump through hoops, and to raise the hoops higher every time?'
His emotive speech in defence of comprehensive education and for teaching to be about developing children was the exact opposite of Estelle Morris's vision the previous day that reduced education to turning out workers for the labour market.
He said, 'We should tell Estelle Morris that league tables are for football clubs and not for schools.' He was speaking for a motion that called for 'canvassing members' views' over boycotting the national tests that children as young as seven have been forced to sit for ten years.
The executive tried to delete even that modest step towards a boycott. But the resolution was passed by a big majority.