On April 24, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) will hold the first national teachers strike in more than twenty years. Angry at a below inflation pay award, NUT members across the country have voted for industrial action at a ratio of four to one.
With real terms pay cuts being the in thing in the public sector right now, civil servants in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and further education lecturers in the University and College Union (UCU) have also voted to strike on the same day.
In Nottingham there will be a march from The Forest Recreation Ground at 10am, with a rally at the Congregation Hall, Castle Gate at 11am. Speakers will include Martin Sleath (Unison - who aren't striking), Mary Pope (PCS), Helen Bowler (UCU) and Liam Conway (NUT).
To give some insight into why teachers are striking, I interviewed Liam Conway, the Joint Secretary of Notts NUT and began by asking him what his impressive sounding title actually entails.
Q: For those of us unfamiliar with the intricacies of union bureaucracy can you explain exactly what a joint secretary is and what you do?
LC: A joint secretary is just an elected lay official who represents members in various situations, such as with the local authority, in schools etc. Normally it is a single secretary but for the last 3 years it has been a joint secretary in Notts. Other things secretaries or other officers may do is sort out communication with members, newsletters, emails, phone calls, letters etc. Finally the most important part of this role for me is mobilising members to fight for something, in this case pay and to avoid getting dragged into pointless bureacracy or meetings with the local auhority which have no serious objective of interest or value to teachers and other staff in schools. And - not to forget - keep pressure on the union leadership to fight the government, an activity that has produced a result in the first time for years in our case.
Q: Can you briefly explain how we got to where we are today? Why are you striking?
LC: 3 year pay cut up to 2007. Further proposed 3 year pay cut 2008-11. That's it in a nutshell, though there is stuff about a co-ordinated response with other public sector unions confronting Brown's 2% pay freeze. There are now 3 unions on strike on April 24th - NUT, UCU, PCS.
Q: What will be happening in Nottingham/Nottinghamshire? Can we expect to see picket lines outside schools in the county?
LC: There will be some picket lines at some big schools - depending on their strategic importance. Some schools will be closed completely to staff as well as students, so no pickets needed. We haven't finally discussed exactly which schools will have pickets. Of course there is nothing to stop any of the 500 schools in the city and county organising their own pickets and we would encourage this followed by attendance at the rally in Nottingham on April 24.
Q: What is your response to the claim made by government spokesmen that this action will only harm children's education?
LC: A bit rich coming from a government that has re-introduced selection, given a whole new meaning to the idea of a gradgrind curriculum, saturated the lives of children with pointless and damaging tests, officially (according to Unicef) made our children some of the most unhappy in the world. Nuff said? Oh and strikes are also very educative - much more than a SAT.
Q: Can you say something about the NUT's pay campaign beyond the national strike?
LC: The Conference decision at Easter was to see what the 24th April was like - strength of the action, membership involvement etc. then consider another ballot. Sadly, against our judgement, the National Executive narrowly rejected a proposal to ballot for discontinuous action which would have allowed us to call action when and where we want. This action results from a ballot for a one day strike only.
Q: If, as seems likely, the government doesn't fold after a one day strike, what is likely to be the union's next step?
LC: I think I've answered that above, but there is no certainty here, even if April 24 is fantastically successful in terms of particpation and mood etc. I will be fighting and campaign for the action to be stepped up and spread across the public sector. We can now see the economy is close to melt down - workers should not carry the can for the crap the bosses have created.
Q: Teachers are a heavily unionised group, but rather than being organised by a single union membership is split across three bodies (NUT, NASUWT, ATL). What has been the response of the other unions to the NUT's decision to strike?
LC: At the moment all the teaching unions other than the NUT are in a social partnership deal with the government and appear prepared to do anything the government asks in return for a place at the negotiating table. Over the past few years they have conceded on a whole number of important issues detrimental to teachers. They are opposed to action on pay currently
Q: This strike, and the pay award which precipitated it, come at a time when the government is increasingly calling on public sector workers to tighten their belts and accept meagre pay awards. How do you see the situation faced by teachers fitting into this broader context and do you think striking could have a positive impact beyond those in the teaching profession?
LC: Striking is the basic self-defence for any worker. In my view teachers are workers, wage slaves etc. What option do they have when their pay is being cut. And there is all the stuff about New Labour's education policies which are extremely detrimental to children - their health as well as their education.