Britain’s two main teaching unions have pulled back for a second time from a promise of joint national strikes.
Following regional strikes in October 2013, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) assured members there would be a joint national strike before Christmas 2013. That commitment was reneged on, superficially because Michael Gove offered “talks”. Both unions publicly committed, in writing, to striking nationally no later than 13 February if those talks failed to yield serious concessions.
Although there is no sign of such concessions, the unions have once again climbed down. An emergency meeting of the NUT Executive on Thursday 16 January reaffirmed a general position in favour of further strikes, but called no action – so strikes before 13 February are now off the agenda. A proposal from supporters of the rank-and-file Local Associations National Action Campaign (LANAC) on the NUT Executive to strike on 12 February was deemed to “fall” when another formula passed. The NUT has declared its Executive will meet again on 30 January to decide further action.
An NUT activist told Solidarity that the union will approach NASUWT with proposals for strikes in March, but that the 30 January Executive will call a strike in March even if NASUWT refuses. Just in time for NUT conference at Easter... but not action on a scale that can win.
The aspiration for united action, particularly in an industry where workers, in defiance of all industrial logic, are organised across several different unions, is extremely important. But it should not mean that an industrial campaign is shackled to the pace of the slowest, most conservative union. NUT leaders’ insistence on not striking without unity with NASUWT has allowed them to use NASUWT’s conservatism, a known quantity before the dispute began, as an excuse to demobilise NUT members.
The alleged sensitivities of the negotiations between the two unions have also been used to prevent open and transparent communication between union leaders and ordinary members about the progress of the dispute. The outcomes of NUT Executive meetings are routinely embargoed until further discussions with NASUWT are conducted. Inter-union talks are important, but the right of NUT members to know what their elected representatives have discussed and decided should come first.
The teachers’ dispute is in critical condition. The new pay regime, which the campaign is notionally attempting to stop, has already been introduced. The framework of the national dispute has been effectively used by union groups in some schools to launch local disputes over workload, management bullying, and over-observation, but the lack of national strikes means the pressure on Gove is minimal. He will concede nothing meaningful in talks when the unions are so patently unwilling to confront him nationally.
Rank-and-file teachers must organise to rescue their national campaign, and fast. LANAC holds its national conference in Leicester on Saturday 1 February. The network says unions need to look beyond single-day strikes and announce an ongoing, open-ended calendar of action, including regional, national, rolling, and selective actions.
Irrespective of what happens with the national strikes, activists should also revive the non-strike action on workload, and demand that the union leaders work actively to promote it. A strong push there would lead to many strikes in schools.
NUT branches affiliated to LANAC, and NASUWT activists frustrated by their leadership’s foot-dragging, must propose such programmes within their unions as soon as possible.
For more information on the LANAC conference, see here.