It strikes me as a bad idea

26th October 2007 at 01:00

When schoolteachers go on strike, people sit up and listen. Unless a celebrity's been caught with his or her pants down, it'll be the number one news item, the phone-in lines will be buzzing and ministers will be wringing their hands and calling for a speedy resolution.

It doesn't make the teachers popular. The way disputes get reported tends not to allow for that. But because of parent power and the disruption that closing down schools inevitably causes, their strikes get noticed and their concerns addressed.

When teachers in FE colleges go on strike - particularly when they take the favoured one- or two-day options - the impact is almost nil. The students get a holiday and the employers a nice little boost to their coffers. If it's a slow news day, there may be the odd paragraph in the national press or a small item towards the end of a radio news bulletin. Ministers express their regret and everything carries on just as before.

The only people hurting are the strikers themselves, who lose money at a punitive rate, given the employers' convenient habit of forgetting that they also pay our salaries during the holidays. Not only that, but when lecturers get back to work, there's invariably a backlog which will require (unpaid) overtime to correct.

It's against this background that, as a Natfhe and now UCU member of some long standing, I gave a little shudder at the outcome of the union's special pay conference this month. This rejected the pay offer from the Association of Colleges and called for escalating industrial action beginning with - surprise, surprise - a one-day strike.

How this rejection came about is itself of interest. Union branches across the country were asked their opinion of the offer. The response was nearly 70 per cent. Ninety two branches favoured acceptance and 82 (including my own) opted for rejection. Either something happened at the conference to change minds or there were more refuseniks among the 99 delegates who attended than their more accepting colleagues.

Was it reds under the beds (or rather the SWP in the bed), as has been suggested, that led to this turnaround? The left inevitably always punches above its weight in trade unionism, but one suspects there simply aren't enough of them to pull off coups of this kind without the acquiescence of the mainstream.

Undeniably, the case for rejection is a strong one. "Insulting" is the word the conference chose to describe the offer which, at 2.55 per cent across the year, is below the rate of inflation.

Lecturers still earn much less than those doing similar work in schools and sixth form colleges. Curiously, the Government says it recognises the injustice of this but chooses to spend the money it would take to correct the situation chasing votes elsewhere.

You don't have to be a cynic to notice that raising inheritance tax thresholds is always going to go down better in key marginals than giving cash to teachers, however deserving.

Now it will be up to the whole membership - in a postal vote - to decide whether to accept the employers' offer or embark on a programme of strike action to get a better one.

But it's hard to see that they're up for it. If more than half the branches who voted wanted to accept the offer, will members in the privacy of their own homes prove to be more militant? Whether they would feel differently if a more targeted, less sacrificial campaign were on offer, we are unlikely to find out. Watch this space.

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