Polite partners are not paying

Good relations between unions and Government are not being reflected in wage rises. William Stewart reports.

Relations with Government are at their best for a generation, say the leaders of most of the country's school staff unions. But pay deals for members do not seem to be following suit.

When the unions - the National Union of Teachers and UCAC, which represents Welsh teachers, apart - signed the school workforce agreement with Government and the employers in January 2003 it signalled the beginning of a new era of partnership.

Since then, signatories have reached agreements on other matters such as performance-related pay and management allowances, and relations have grown warmer.

The benefits for the Government are easy to see. Disagreements can be worked out behind closed doors without damaging public rows; threats of national industrial action are largely a thing of the past; and the biggest fault line in education over the past two years has not been between ministers and unions, but between the NUT and everyone else.

But what do the unions get in return from an administration that likes to operate a "something for something" policy?

Two years of partnership with Government has brought the teaching unions a cut in headline teachers' pay, expected cuts in management allowance payments and the replacement of the top two levels of the upper pay scale with a scheme that will make access to salaries of more than pound;33,000 dependent on the discretion of individual schools.

Moreover, there could be more bad news around the corner. Among the next items due to be discussed with the partner unions are Government proposals to make annual teacher pay rises on the main scale dependent on written performance reviews from heads.

It must be noted that the first pay deal since the partnership began in November 2003 was imposed rather than negotiated and that it came against the backdrop of structural changes to the pay scale which meant average overall pay rises for individual teachers had soared above inflation since 1999.

But the settlement represented a disappointment for the Government's partner unions, with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers describing it as "cheese-paring" and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers saying that teachers would be "rightly angered". But they have defended the two subsequent deals which they negotiated, arguing that things would have been much worse without their involvement.

They point to the crude 30 per cent quota that the Government had proposed for level three of the upper pay scale and the far more radical cuts in management allowances originally proposed by the review body.

The school workforce agreement has brought undoubted improvements to teachers' working conditions, in theory at least. But while the deal led to the current partnership arrangements, it was not a product of it and had its genesis in much more aggressive union tactics. So is social partnership benefiting teachers, or is the Government simply using it to neutralise union opposition as it chips away at the pay bill?

The first point to note is that this kind of partnership in education is nothing new. Mike Ironside, a senior lecturer in industrial relations at Keele University, notes: "Up until the 1980s it was everyday practice for unions to be involved in decisions, and not just about pay and conditions but a range of issues. It was something that provided industrial peace in the sector for many years."

The Burnham committee, which recommended teacher pay deals to the Government following negotiations between employers and unions, was originally set up in the early 1920s. So although the current arrangements may look novel it was actually the imposed settlements of the '80s, '90s and early part of this decade that represented a break from the norm.

But the fact that partnership is an established way of working does not necessarily mean that it will work in unions' favour.

Edmund Heery, professor of employment relations at Cardiff business school, says that unions have been most influential in British politics when there have been labour problems in the form of high wage inflation or widespread industrial action. Their strength and influence depends on how much of a threat they pose to Government.

"If you think of the social contract (the deal reached between Harold Wilson's Labour government and union leaders in the mid-1970s) it came about because of the ungovernable nature of the British economy," he said.

"The Government was trying to neutralise the unions by drawing them into a social partnership. But at the moment unions are weak and therefore anything they do will have less influence than it did then." John Kelly, from Birkbeck college, London university, has conducted studies into how much of a difference partnership deals with employers make for public sector unions. He discovered they were a "little better" than similar arrangements in the private sector. But, he said: "Even here the evidence isn't terribly impressive."

Professor Kelly made a comparison between NHS trusts and magisterial court committees that were in partnership with unions and those that were not.

He found that the partnerships brought "virtually nothing" in "terms of added value" to unions or employers. "If you look at membership figures the evidence is that unions don't make very many gains at all," he said.

"The only benefit is that unions do seem to get more information. There is virtually no effect at all on the bottom line of wages and conditions of employment." But such conclusions are unlikely to quench the enthusiasm that teaching unions have for their current partnership with Government.

Their leaders tend to prefer to be in a position where their voices are at least listened to rather than forced to lob in grenades from the outside.

Former general secretaries such as Fred Jarvis from the National Union of Teachers and Nigel de Gruchy from the NASUWT who found themselves frozen out say they would far rather have been in constructive dialogue.

But if social partnership is not delivering the benefits that some teachers had hoped for, what else can the unions do?

The most recent undisputed gains in teachers' pay or conditions - the school workforce agreement signed in January 2003 - was the culmination of two years of talks between the Government and the teaching unions.

And it was the no-cover industrial action that took place at the start of 2001 in the run-up to a general election that was instrumental in bringing ministers to the table.

An election is looming again, so could more action be the tactic that unions need to adopt to improve things for their members? The most recent experience of the NUT does not bode well. Its attempts to take industrial action against the workforce agreement and the national tests - the union's last national ballot - have ended with failures to secure the majorities it needed to go ahead.

Tellingly, part of its problem in both cases was that it attempted to act alone, leaving its members potentially isolated and less willing to vote for action.

Apart from the threat of action, the other notable factor in the run-up to the workload talks was that the classroom unions were acting in concert.

The no-cover action was being taken jointly by the NUT and the NASUWT, and the two followed it up by banding together with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers to pass a joint conference motion threatening more industrial action if the Government failed to act over workload.

That was the high watermark in co-operation, and the NUT's refusal to sign the agreement led to a rapid deterioration in relations. But today even the most hardline NASUWT officials, still furious at the confrontational stance taken by the NUT under the now-retired Doug McAvoy, concede in private that if the biggest union had been involved in recent pay talks they would have been able to win a better deal.

No one yet knows how the appointment of Ruth Kelly to replace Charles Clarke as Education Secretary will affect the partnership.

But it may be that the teaching unions will have to overcome their differences over the workforce agreement if they are ever truly to punch their weight in negotiations with the Government.

Teacher pay deals since workforce agreement was signed

* November 2003: the Government pegs headline teachers pay to projected inflation levels with a rise of 2.5 per cent in April 2004, of 2.5 per cent in April 2005, and 3.25 per cent in September 2005. In practice, so far at least, it has turned out to be a pay cut. In April last year the inflation rate was 2.5 per cent, but it rose to 2.8 per cent in May and has not dipped below 3 per cent since June, peaking at 3.3 per cent in October, the last available figure.A review is possible but only if average inflation exceeds 3.25 per cent or falls below 1.75 per cent during the whole of 200405 or 200506 and then only at the discretion of the education secretary.

* January 2004: employers, Government and its partner unions agree to replace level four and five of the upper pay scale with an "excellent teachers scheme". A package to fund more than 80 per cent of eligible candidates to levelthree is agreed, but a significant proportion of the fundingwill have to come fromsavings in management allowance payments madeby schools.

* September 2004: the same partners agree a further deal that the School Teachers Review Body is due to rule on later this month. It is likely to result in thousands of teachers facing salary cuts as management allowances are replaced by a system of teaching and learning responsibility payments.

It means that the excellent teachers scheme will only be available in schools which decide they can afford to pay the extra salary, and that salary protection for staff whose responsibilities change will be limited to three years.

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