Pension dispute escalates as union backs further action

27th January 2012 at 00:00
Lecturers propose striking on 1 March, but will the NUT follow?

While there have been murmurings of discontent and mumbled threats of strike action from the teaching unions that refused to sign up to the final pensions deal tabled by the government, until last week none had been willing to put its head above the parapet. But now, members of the national executive committee of the University and College Union (UCU) have voted to take a stand (see pages 54-55). TES understands that support is building in the NUT for the teachers' union to follow suit.

Against the wishes of UCU general secretary Sally Hunt - who instead favoured balloting members on the latest offer - three-quarters of the union's national executive committee members agreed to categorically reject the "heads of agreement" offer put forward by ministers in December, and to begin planning "a strategy of escalation that involves a programme of coordinated rolling strike action". They have put forward a provisional date of 1 March for the first one-day strike; they will have to wait and see whether the other teaching unions are willing to stand alongside them.

Mark Campbell, who spearheaded the campaign for more strikes and next month goes head-to-head with Ms Hunt in a battle for the leadership of the UCU, told TES that the union had signalled the "recommencement of hostilities" with the government. "There is an appetite still to resist," he said. "I think there is a general feeling among our membership - and I would argue among most schoolteachers as well - that what is being demanded of us is unacceptable. A lot of unions have rejected (the heads of agreement) and are talking about industrial action. We are saying: 'We haven't gone away, we are willing to fight and here's a date.' I think it's already starting to have an impact. I can report that, at a local level, a number of NUT branches...are saying: 'We should be working with the UCU.'?"

While some members of the big two classroom unions - the NUT and the NASUWT - support the UCU's stance, TES understands that the first strike date may have to change if they are to join in: 1 March is also St David's Day, and many Welsh NUT members are reluctant to jeopardise special events planned in their schools. However, those UCU members spearheading the campaign for more strikes are believed to be open to changing the date if they can get other unions on board.

A Department for Education spokesman said that the UCU's decision was "very disappointing". "We've always been clear that strikes damage students' education and risk undermining the profession's reputation...This is a fair deal and as good as it gets. We've listened carefully to unions' arguments and put forward an improved offer before Christmas. And so we urge the UCU to step back from further industrial action."

The NUT's executive was due to meet yesterday to discuss the next stage of its strategy. "We are looking to get all unions together to see how we take the campaign forward," deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney said. "UCU is one of those unions, so we will be looking to speak with them."

But while one of the contenders for the UCU leadership has thrown his weight behind plans for further strikes, current general secretary Sally Hunt expressed her reservations. "I recommended that we should go to a ballot of our members on the final offer. I thought we should let members make that decision. (The executive) decided to take that decision without having received the mandate from them. It was acting in unity with the other unions that made the difference (in previous strikes)," she said.

While many members of the unions that rejected the government's final pension offer - the NUT, the NASUWT, the UCU and Welsh union UCAC - are looking to form a smaller united front to continue the fight, plenty in that camp have their doubts. Those looking to organise a fresh wave of industrial unrest have much to do to generate the support needed for the campaign to succeed.

Eager recruits

Education secretary Michael Gove may have been thrilled to be named minister of the year in November, but TES can reveal that his tough talk over the pensions row has earned him a less welcome accolade.

On the day he described the unions as "militants itching for a fight" ahead of the 30 November strike, public sector union Unison - which represents thousands of school support staff - saw its recruitment rocket by an incredible 970 per cent. As a result, the minister was awarded the union's prestigious Recruiter of the Month award.

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