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Strike out for the moral high ground

The vision of Nigel de Gruchy's face plastered a mile high over the Trades Union Congress conference at Brighton this week turned my thoughts to teaching and the nature of political activism in the professions. That and the fact that for the first time in my career I hesitated before saying yes to industrial action on a ballot paper.

I was being asked to strike to draw attention to the miserly London weighting allowance for university lecturers. Unlike teachers, those of us who work in higher education have not seen a rise in the London allowance for 11 years. And a lack of rise in London amounts to a pay cut.

This parsimony on the Government's part is compounded by the fact that while teachers' salaries have rightly begun to reflect the demanding job they do, lecturers' wages have fallen considerably behind. Any prospective head of English, for example, considering doing a job like mine, would take a pay cut of around pound;7,000, possibly more. The stresses of the job are not the same but some reduction in the differential, would not, I feel go amiss.

So given the statistics and a heartfelt conviction that more money would be handy, why did I hesitate? Perhaps the main reason was that I felt such action would be pointless.

Who among the readers of this column knows, for example that this will be the third strike on the same issue in about a year? The last time we struck only one newspaper mentioned it and even then the reference verged on the ironic. David Aaronwitch, the broadsheet columnist, commented that what was most notable about our strike was the complete lack of coverage it received.

The mercenary in me felt - why lose a day's pay when no one cares? For industrial muscle to work somebody has to be paying attention. The law of supply and demand usually helps this process. Lose enough money and most employers will sit up unless they know that there are other workers just queuing up to replace the ones on strike.

Those in the public sector do not appear to have that kind of clout because profit is not the key. But large scale disruption to services that we take for granted does draw attention to a cause. The difficulty has always been that the hint of service about the public sector lends striking for more money, or better conditions, the whiff of the morally reprehensible. Our action appears to hurt those we are meant to benefit. Teachers have often been the victims of this charge.

Given that the average child in the private sector enjoys at least three weeks more holidays than their state-sector counterparts, losing the odd day here or there never particularly bothered me. As an inconvenienced parent it still doesn't worry me much and I think teachers deserve more.

But it isn't only strike action that has given teachers a better pay deal in London and the rest of the country. It is that same lever of supply and demand. There aren't enough teachers to go round.

So what is the place of industrial action in education? Legally, and somewhat perversely, it can only be taken on grounds of self-interest - pay and conditions. The national tests boycott of 10 or so years ago, presided over by the same Nigel de Gruchy, had to be described as a workload issue.

Yet at its heart it was a fight about a better education for children - industrial action that kept the moral high ground. As the National Union of Teachers contemplates squaring up to the Government over Sats once more let us hope they can find a legal loophole to down tools on educational grounds. As results have become the profit margins of schools a boycott could seriously damage the Government's balance sheet while benefiting pupils.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer in English at King's College, London

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