In a recent ballot organised by the National Union of Teachers for discontinuous strike action, 29.7% of eligible members took part and of these 51.7% supported strike action with 48.3% voting against. At an Executive meeting on 6 November we were provided with regional and association (branch) breakdowns of results. In my opinion this made our decision a lot clearer. Together with all but three Executive members I voted to accept the recommendation that we do not proceed to call action. Here are the main reasons why:
• The majority for action was marginal. There are circumstances where we could take action with such a mandate e.g. if this had been our first ballot in the pay campaign and we could hope to build on it, or if other school unions were planning to take action alongside us. Not so here.
• The turnout was down on the April ballot (33% then). We had agreed that the previous turnout would be a benchmark for this ballot. While we were not absolutely required to reach it, we would be looking for a convincing yes vote. We didn’t get that.
• Compared to April 18,000 less members voted for action and 12,000 more voted against.
• There was not support for action across all the regions. The London result was significantly better, but this just served to highlight the lack of sufficient support in many other areas.
• The association results showed that a call for national action could lead to a divided response which would detract from the impressive demonstration of unity and support on 24 April. It would also make it much harder to return to action in future if circumstances changed.
• Some of us considered action short of a one-day strike which would trigger the start of the discontinuous action — such as a London region strike, a half-day or even one hour walkout. But that only made sense as the start of an action campaign which would escalate after the initial strike. The evidence from regions and associations indicated that no escalation would be possible. And London Executive members did not support the idea of calling a strike there in the first instance
• The risk of losing members was very high whereas the possibility of an effective programme of action on the result achieved was very low.
The decision of the Executive was, therefore, that the pay campaign would continue without at this stage involving further industrial action. The union continues to oppose the imposition of multi-year below-inflation pay awards and will continue to work with other public sector unions to campaign on the issue. The TUC Conference called for a national demonstration against the Government’s pay policy which we will be pressing them to organise.
Why the fall in support for action? Three factors stand out.
First is the general economic situation. My experience from meetings, not only in Leeds but in other West Yorkshire associations, is that many members have re-ordered their priorities in the light of the credit crunch and recession. There were worries about public support and concern that protecting jobs and pensions was becoming more important. Where we were able to visit schools or speak to members at local meetings these fears could be, and were, addressed. (The yes vote in West Yorkshire was better than the national figure.) But we were not able to do that in enough places to sustain a sufficient national mood for action at this stage.
The second and critical reason for this turnaround was self-imposed. We should have made the first ballot a vote for discontinuous action. There was an Executive decision to do this last year which was then overturned. If we had kept to that decision the union would have had much greater control over the pay dispute. We could have built quickly on the momentum of 24 April. We could have taken action alongside our support staff colleagues in Unison in July. We could have followed this up with regional, selective or further national action early in the autumn and/or held back from action in the light of members’ reaction to the economic crisis. We would have the flexibility to manage and calibrate our own pay dispute depending on the circumstances.
Thirdly, we should not forget, there was little or no movement from a whole swathe of other unions whose members faced the same pay cuts but whose leaders chose to do nothing. None of the other teacher unions threatened action and Unison made a token gesture in local government but did nothing to defend their health service members. Despite two years of “good policy” the TUC didn’t lift a finger to co-ordinate public sector action on pay.
The fact that the NUT and PCS were willing to mobilise a fight on pay ahead of other unions and give a lead is to their credit. However strategies based on occasional one-day national strikes with huge gaps in between and no action that could really hope to involve members was always likely to fail. Both unions should hold fast to the idea of collective industrial action but think through the need to develop strategies that can win.