NUT takes action but gives up on pensions
It was June 30th 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, number 24, out soon.