The quiet revolution

Teaching unions struggle to maintain momentum on pensions

Stephen Exley

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In the week that spring officially started, the first signs are emerging that education unions' "winter of discontent" could be finally coming to an end.

The anti-government rhetoric is still as passionate as ever. The big two teachers' unions, the NASUWT and the NUT, have unequivocally rejected the government's final pensions deal. "The government's ideological intransigence, game-playing, prevarication, provocative actions at key points in the process and refusal to engage in genuine negotiations are wholly to blame for this decision," said Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT. In a survey of NUT members, 73 per cent said they supported a campaign of continued industrial action.

But ministers and heads who have been anxiously waiting to see whether the unions would trigger their nuclear option - a return to national strikes - can now breathe a sigh of relief. A proposed national strike next Wednesday - which some in the union movement hoped would see the largest two classroom unions and the University and College Union (UCU) paralyse schools and colleges across the country - has failed to materialise.

While insisting that it will discuss its next move at its annual conference over the Easter weekend, the NASUWT will instead be focusing on its "quiet revolution" work-to-rule action. "So quiet you could hear a pin drop," one NUT member quipped.

But if NUT activists in the regions hoped that they would be on the front line in the pensions battle, they have been left disappointed. The union, along with the UCU, will be striking only in its London stronghold. It is a far cry from the scale of the 30 November action, which also saw the ATL education union and the NAHT heads' union take to the picket lines alongside their colleagues, closing two-thirds of England's state schools.

The campaign has been weakened by the collapse of the united front, according to Howard Stevenson, deputy director of the Centre for Educational Research and Development at the University of Lincoln and an expert in education labour relations. "Teachers feel more confident taking action when they feel the unions are standing together," he said. "If they know their union is coming out on its own, it diminishes their confidence to take action."

The NUT, like the NASUWT, has pledged to discuss how to "take the campaign forward" at its Easter conference. But many observers feel that, with the government insisting it will press on with pension reform regardless, and the unions split on how to respond, many teachers have lost their appetite for the fight.

"Disappointed (the strike) is in London only, but (it) saves embarrassment of poor turnout," another NUT member tweeted.

"The decision suggests that the NUT doesn't have a lot of confidence its members are going to take action," Professor Stevenson added. "The heat was on during 30 November; very rapidly, there was a sense the moment had been lost."

NUT executive member Martin Powell-Davies believes the union should have held a national strike on 28 March. But he says that further action could still be on the way, and is campaigning for the industrial action to be escalated to a two-day strike.

"This is the beginning of the next phase of the campaign, not the end," he said.

Separate industrial action over pay in sixth-form colleges has also ground to a halt. NUT members had been holding a series of regional strikes over the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum's (SFCF) decision not to offer an annual pay rise.

But strikes that had been due to take place last week were postponed at the last minute after the SFCF raised concerns about the wording of the NUT ballot paper and the timing of the strikes allegedly not meeting legal requirements, and threatened to take out an injunction.

Andrew Morris, the NUT's head of pay and pensions, said the unions did not share the SFCF's legal interpretation of its ballot, but would be holding talks with members to decide its next move. "It doesn't mean that the campaign is over. Strike action remains an option, but it is always a last resort," he added.

The pensions fight

24 March 2011: UCU members of the Teachers' Pension Scheme hold the first strike.

30 June 2011: the ATL and the NUT join the UCU in taking part in a national strike.

30 November 2011: the biggest industrial action yet sees the NAHT and the NASUWT go on strike.

28 March 2012: the NUT and the UCU to strike in the London region.

Original headline: No appetite for national strike action as `winter of discontent' thaws

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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