THE Educational Institute of Scotland has refused to rule out a series of one-day strikes before Christmas, ending nearly 15 years of classroom harmony.
Buoyed by members' 98 per cent rejection of the local authorities' pay and conditions' offer, union leaders will today (Friday) meet employers in the reconvened Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee in Edinburgh to express their anger at the failure of the millennium talks to produce an acceptable restructuring package.
The EIS will instead table a no-strings 8 per cent pay demand and the authorities will again tell the union side they will be fortunate to receive around 3 per cent, backdated to April.
Tino Ferri, lead spokesman for one of the fringe union players, the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, summed up the teachers' tactics: "When you want a bicycle, you ask for a Rolls-Royce."
Both sides want a pay deal before they submit evidence to the McCrone inquiry into a reformed pay and conditions structure. Teachers have been waiting seven months for a cost of living rise.
Ronnie Smith, the EIS's general secretary, warned against any offer that is noticeably less than south of the border where teachers were awarded 3.6 per cent and other local government staff 3.3 per cent (with changes to conditions). The authorities' original package included a 3.5 per cent award this year.
Mr Smith said: "The strength of feeling expressed in the 98 per cent ballot result is not something that simply evaporates. The offer is best taken together with the recent undermining of the bargaining machinery and the statement by the minister (Sam Galbraith) to whip away the SJNC."
The committee of inquiry, with no teacher representation, seemed to be an attempt to revive the already rejected offer. "This has direct consequences for the pay and conditions of teachers and I am not prepared to rule out the possibility of industrial action," Mr Smith said.
In contrast, Danny McCafferty, the employers' spokesman, believes negotiations can lead to a new era of partnership, involving authorities, teachers, parents and the Scottish Executive. "I believe we are on the right road. This inquiry, unlike any previous one, has got the right to look and analyse any submission made to it and can commission academic research," Mr McCafferty argues.
Local authority leaders would be surprised if the EIS and other unions take action over a marginal difference in pay this year, but they have been surprised before and may be seriously underestimating union discontent.
Union leaders and employers realise that classroom chaos makes for good headlines but bad education. "It could be a nightmare, nasty and bitter," one authority spokesman conceded.
A national strike could cost the average teacher pound;100 a day. Collectively, the profession stands to lose more than pound;5 million. Council finance officers would like nothing better. Glasgow, with 6,000 teachers, would bank pound;600,000.
Informal soundings question the stomach for sustained action in an ageing profession, even if it was staged and targeted. A work to contract, or a guerrilla war, is a more popular option but that may no longer be a realistic option under changed employment law.