NUT takes action but gives up on pensions


The NUT won its ballot for action over workload but, argues Eleanor Davies, it also signals the end of the pensions dispute.

It was 30 June 2011 a beautiful sunny day. Hundreds of thousands of teachers marched through London in high spirits and with a spring in their step, as they experienced their power. For many of the younger members out that day it as their first strike ever. And they liked it. The academic year ended on a high.

It was the start of a campaign to defend teachers pensions, widely believed to be the opening shot in a campaign to fight the government. OK there were weaknesses. The NAS/UWT did not join the strike. But with a left NUT leadership determined to defeat the Condem coalition, there was nothing to stop the teachers rallying the other public sector unions in a mass campaign of action to turn back the cuts.

Teachers ended the academic year of 2011 ready for more. The big question was when? In September 2011 teachers returned to work to discover the good news that another strike had been called, and this time the union movement had responded to the call for action. The teachers would be joined by the public sector, Unison, Unite, PCS and UCU. If there was a cloud in the sky it was that teachers would have to wait until 30th November.

When the date came three million workers heeded the united call by 29 public sector unions. The march in London was electric as over two million public sector workers closed down their schools, council offices, job centres, immigration control, magistrates courts and hospitals. In Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester tens of thousands closed their city centres for the day. The smell of victory was in the air.

The government was fuming; 80% of schools shut, causing severe problems for employers as hundreds of thousands of working parents had to stay at home or make emergency arrangements for their kids. Border agency staff walked out causing chaos at already understaffed airports and ports. Town halls and some government departments ground to a halt for the day. It was a mighty show of working class strength, a warning shot to a shaky coalition. Followed up quickly by further two and three day actions and the threat of an all out strike the government would have retreated.

Yet within days Unison were in negotiation with Danny Alexander to call off the action. As early as July 2011 Brendan Barber the TUC General Secretary had been in “constructive discussions” with the government to sell a deal. Dave Prentis the Unison General Secretary was desperate to end the action with virtually no concessions from the government.

Cabinet Office and Treasury officials then announced the agreement had been resolved with no new money beyond concessions set out before the strike. Brendan Barber did not consider further strikes a priority, “We have reached a stage where the emphasis in most cases is in giving active consideration to the new proposals that have emerged rather than considering the prospect of further industrial action”.

In December Unison, GMB, and briefly Unite, signed a “heads of agreement” deal to end the action. The PCS rejected the deal out of hand and were initially excluded from further negotiations. Christine Blower, the NUT General Secretary, described the discussions as “fairly shambolic” and said only that NUT would reserve its position for the moment.

Teachers could have led the fight-back

So 2011 ended with a broad based public sector fight back wrecked by trade union officials but there was still hope that teachers could rally the PCS, Unite and UCU into a determined joint struggle to break the sell out by Dave Prentis and Brendan Barber. Determined action would have strengthened those in Unison actively trying to reverse the sell out.

As teachers started the Spring Term in January there was a feeling of out with the old and in with the new. Unison the biggest public sector union would not be on board but there was determination by the more militant unions to continue the struggle they had started without Unison involvement.

NUT members waited for the call from our leaders. And we waited. And we waited. There were all sorts of shilly-shallying as the left leadership told us that we couldn’t go it alone. We were told that we had to wait for Unite, PCS and UCU. A survey of regional divisional secretaries was conducted that allegedly showed only London was ready to strike, this despite 73% indicating their support for further strike action “beginning with a national one day strike on March 28th”.

Officials told members not to worry because this was a new strategy where regions outside of London would be taking action soon after London. On 28 March London members rallied to the call and carried out a successful strike despite the disappointment felt by many that we were doing it alone.

Then came 10 May. To the absolute surprise of many NUT members there was a public sector strike over pensions called and we weren’t involved! Even 32,000 police officers marched that day against cuts. Earlier NUT conference at Easter had heard calls to join the 10 May strike action called by the PCS. The executive managed to head off these calls, instead passing a resolution promising further action in June. Yet with the conference over, the “left” dominated NUT Executive meeting on 26 April voted 13-28 against taking action in June.

This time the excuse was the need to wait for joint action with the other teachers union NAS/UWT and a supposed lukewarm response from a “consultation” with Divisional Secretaries. Instead the NUT leadership announced this alliance as a massive step forward, they were going to ballot the membership, alongside the NAS/UWT on “workload”. This was heralded as a historic step in uniting teachers. Quietly, in an aside, they said the still live pension ballot would be dropped.

So here we are in October 2012. The pensions dispute is effectively over. The NUT won its ballot on taking action over workload (on a low turnout) as did the NAS/UWT. But what is the action? Currently the situation is that teachers are taking action “short of strike action”, such things as refusing to collect dinner money and put up posters and the like – actions to strike fear into the heart of any school head and government minister. Strike action is rumored but such rumors have been whispered before without coming to fruition.

Making the NUT a fighting union

How did this debacle come about? In the NUT we supposedly had a left leadership with Christine Blower (Campaign for a fighting and Democratic Union – CDFU), Alex Kenny and Kevin Courtney (Socialist Teachers Alliance – STA) all in leading roles. Yet this leadership, by ending the strike action, have undermined a struggle and created a situation where pension contributions have already gone up resulting in a considerable pay cut for teachers.

Members were so outraged at the demobilisation of the dispute that Liverpool NUT passed a motion of no confidence in the General Secretary Christine Blower. At the NUT Easter Conference two hastily arranged but well attended meetings voiced the frustration of rank and file teachers with the Executive and demanded further national action. The second agreed to call a Local Associations National Action Conference (LANAC) which took place in Liverpool in June in the aftermath of the NUT leadership calling off action.

The biggest far left group, the SWP, took an ambiguous attitude towards this conference. They have been central to STA a supposed radical teachers grouping that has in fact acted as foot soldiers to hoist left NUT members onto the Executive. The decision to scale down action on the 28th March and to call off action for this term were made on the recommendation both of Christine Blower and the STA’s Kevin Courtney, the Deputy General Secretary of the union. At NUT conference leading members of the STA, such as Alex Kenny, argued and voted against taking action on 10 May with other public sector unions.

The SWP has clearly been reluctant to criticise their allies who are still feted as class struggle speakers at events like Unite the Resistance and Marxism, despite their role in the pensions sell out. Immediately the NUT leadership declared for the new ballot on workload, the SWP were happy to join the “forget the past, get on with the new ballot” brigade. They hailed the alliance with the NAS/UWT as some sort of step forward when in fact it effectively shackled the NUT to a completely non-militant union.

It’s been a disaster. A defensive strike action that started with such hope and energy is now a fiasco. Teachers feel let down and demoralised by the lack of strategy from union officials. Our willingness to fight to defend our pensions has been side lined by a left leadership without courage, conviction or principle.

We should learn the lessons. It is not sufficient to build “broad lefts” in the union whose object becomes putting left leaders on the Executive. The purpose of a militant rank and file organisation is to change the union from the bottom up, basing itself on school groups and in the Associations and building itself on militant actions. Leaders must be responsible to the members, committed to the rank and file policies and removed at the first sign of wavering or compromise.

This pension struggle, the first test of strength between the trade unions and Tory led government, has been sold out, and not just by the right wingers like Prentice and Barber but by the supposed “lefts” like Blower and Courtney. If we don’t learn to control our leaders and rely on building rank and file militancy we will lose more struggles in the years ahead.

This article will appear in the autumn issue of Permanent Revolution (24) out soon.




  1. James D
    September 27, 2012 at 9:58 pm · Reply

    Excellent article. It’s been a real journey for NUT members over the last few years. Reading this was a real reminder of just how far we came to taking on the government – and how we were demobilised and misled by a supposedly ‘left’ leadership.

    The only way they managed to get away with this demobilisation was because of weakness at the base, and by ‘base’ I do not mean the bureaucratised local associations, but the workplace school and college groups. Not that these groups didn’t contain members who wanted to fight. As Eleanor shows, they did, and heeded the calls to strike and protest when the leadership acted. But they lacked the consciousness of their own power to defy the ‘left’ bureaucrats as well as the government and the employers, and this is hardly surprising when SWP teachers and their fellow-travellers provided left cover for the leadership and denounced any critique as divisive and ultra-left.

    Obviously, teachers need to build confident and militant school groups and rejuvenate the NUT from the base. We should also be extremely hard on the STA, which should surely now be known as the Sell-Out Teachers’ Association. Equally, it strikes me that very little will come out of the LANAC initiative of militant local associations, since this is not really a rank-and-file initiative but an initiative of local associations, i.e. the local NUT bureaucracy. Given this, shouldn’t teachers now take steps to organise our own parallel networks, independently of the entire union machine? It won’t be too long before the best NUT members rip up their membership cards in disgust – a real likelihood if the workload dispute is defeated. Where will they go then?

    Just as students organised independently when the NUS machinery failed to act over fees in 2010, maybe it’s time for teachers to organise their own equivalent of the NCAFC. With the onslaught on our entire state system – privatisation, exam reform, as well as pensions and workload – the stakes have never, ever been higher. This wouldn’t mean abandoning the NUT, or the project of pushing it left from the inside. But it might provide an extra campaigning push from the outside.

  2. John Grimshaw
    September 28, 2012 at 10:32 am · Reply

    “It won’t be too long before the best NUT members rip up their membership cards in disgust – a real likelihood if the workload dispute is defeated. Where will they go then?”

    I agree with Eleanor’s description of events. I think I said as much on the separate thread “A Grassroots Response to TUC Congress”. A good article and clear. And James’ points about both the LANAC thing and the STA are apposite. However I have highlighted the sentence above from James because I think we need to be careful. I don’t see lots of NUT members ripping up their cards anytime soon. There are a number of reasons for this. First, union membership in teaching is very strong and even if this is not always represented by voter turn out, the instinct is very strong. Secondly, we have to be aware that ordinary members join unions for lots of different reasons, not just militant ones. How many activists, ourselves included, have signed up new teachers over the years by saying well you need to be protected from false allegations even if you don’t agree with my politics. Thirdly, the teacher unions especially the NUT has made a virtue over the years of the tactic of playing dumb when faced with shifts and changes from central government. Essentially keep our heads down but only pay lip service to whatever the initiative is and eventually it will go away. And often this has worked. In essence what I’m saying is that we can’t just assume that there will be some blinding epiphany moment some time soon where teachers will throw off the “chains” of bureacracy. Some teachers are actually quite conservative. Fourthly, teaching is not like working in a box factory where there’s just you and the bosses. There’s ideology of teaching to consider and our own attitudes to the ordinary working class. Some of our members are bosses. It is perfectly possible for teachers to be relatively conservative on education issues (exclusions being the obvious issue, or setting) whilst being strong workplace trades unionists. Fifthly, and more particularly, whilst it is quite clear that the STA/CDFU etc. leadership is now on the road to becoming the next fully paid up standard model bureacracy (and of course we should hold them to account for this), we shouldn’t forget that they have got themselves into this position because of the work they did in the past and the esteem which they have been held in. The “soft left” (e.g.SWP) activists who have located themselves around these “new” leaders won’t be easily dissuaded from continuing to support them and they themselves have built up a certain amount of respect over the years.

    This is not to say that I disagree with James’ notion of “parallel networks” independent of the “union machine” just that we need to be aware that it will be hard work.

  3. James D
    September 29, 2012 at 9:33 am · Reply

    Fair enough – point(s) taken. I can see that only a very small number of NUT members will be literally ripping up their cards in a fit of disgust. However, more likely is an eventual retreat away from the union and any activity within it, precisely amongst some of those ‘best’ fighters who began to be active over the pensions dispute. They may not have a nuanced understanding of the role of the trade union bureaucracy, and are at a loss as to why the leadership are selling us down the river. They might not leave the union because of its role as an insurance policy, but I can already hear rumblings of apathy, resignation and bitter disillusionment from the people we need to be in the forefront of the fight.

    The attacks the education system faces are really unprecedented, and I don’t think the likes of Courtney and Blower entirely grasp what the future could hold. If I choose to stay in teaching I could well be doing it until at least 2040. For starters we face: a two-tier exams system and elitism, wholesale conversion to academies and free schools, the take-over of the sector by edu-business, regional or local pay and conditions, union de-recognition starting with attacks on facility time, increased workload and top-heavy management, working until 70 or 75, etc. That’s more than enough, but that’s just for starters if they win.

    We are really in for the fight of our lives. I think the best way to combat cynicism and disappointment towards the union leadership is to continue to challenge them from inside the union – building at the base – and by organising entirely independently of them. We’ve seen small glimmers of this from time to time. As well as the student example, the best example I can think of from within teaching was the campaign to save adult ESOL provision a few years ago, which was organised by UCU members in several localities, plus migrants’ and refugees’ organisations, totally independently of the union structures. In fact it bypassed the union completely, then placed demands on them to support the campaign, which were only half-heartedly met. If we can do it on a single issue like this, then we need to seriously think about doing it on a much bigger scale. I agree it won’t be easy, and it might not even be possible, but we need to start thinking along these lines. We can’t afford to leave all of our eggs in the NUT/UCU basket.

  4. John Grimshaw
    October 1, 2012 at 10:21 am · Reply

    James I hope you didn’t take my comments to be negative. I was merely trying give a (personal) opinion of where I think we are upto. There will be a nuanced response to the pensions defeat/surrender? amongst members. Some older teachers who will largely be unaffected by the changes will bide their time until they can get out. I have some relatives who are now counting down their time. I have a friend who you may know who has just stopped work 4 years short of retirement, done his sums, and got out. This is not to say that older teachers have not been good activists over the years, it just they have options that are not available to younger teachers. Some activists in either group will be disillusioned by the retreat on pensions but I think its the young who will really suffer. It would be interesting to see how many young and new teachers will have opted out of the pension scheme in a year or twos time. Maybe not many, but as you know a significant number could severly impact on the scheme.

    I agree with what you say about the scale of the attacks we face, although “facility time” can be a bit of a poisoned chalice in terms of politicising members. The assumption that there is always someone on the end of a phone empowers the elected “bureaucrat” at the expense of school groups. In my experience association officers often deal with political issues (such as victimisation) as if it was simply case work. Traditionally, local authorities (and maybe some academies) like the idea of developing a “cosy” relationship with a named person who always there on the phone when there is a problematic teacher. Some of our elected officers have not seen the inside of a classroom for many years. I’m pretty certain that Kevin Courtney, for example, has not taught physics for over a quarter of a century and now he’s a “proper” bureaucrat, who I assume is intending to get the main job when Christine stands down, the disconnect will be even greater.

    The problem witht the left that organises or tries to organise in the union is their absolute commitment to sectarianism. At times it even gets comical. The SWP left the STA in the 1990s with little or no explanation. I was once at an SWP teacher’s meeting in that period where an SWP NUT officer who thought this was the wrong decision was publicly (and rudely) berated by the then SWP industrial organiser for suggesting heresy. When the SWP did rejoin the STA later (with the support of Courtney and Harvey – the latter openly dislikes the SP) the SP and then the AWL promptly left. I think the AWL managed to join and then leave the CDFU (the more moderate left grouping). The SP has a “classroom teacher” leaflet but it is not produced by any sort of rank and file. Not that I object to them producing it. The STA produces Campaign Teacher, a not very exciting newspaper which goes directly into schools. When it does appear it has a print run off of 80,000 (apparently) which is funded by associations and divisions, that have agreed to do so, although I know that many don’t annually discuss this funding as they should. Its a nod and a wink job. How many ordinary teachers actually read it is moot point.

    In a long winded way all of this ends at your last point which is what needs to be done. Well, I don’t now. But we need to find a formula that doesn’t keep repeating the “mistakes” of the existing left. Maybe we need some kind of left education blog which we can advertise to teachers in school. We need to find ways to talk to teachers face to face and thats always difficult given the time restraints. In London we could perhaps have a small meeting of some kind to discuss issues. There are problems with this but if we were hard about our criticism of the union and its left and the need to be independent, that might not be a big issue. I agree the ESOL campaign is a good model but we can’t always expect a “good” issue to come up. 🙂

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