Things are not bad enough to justify strikes

16th May 2008 at 01:00
The National Union of Teachers has 16,500 Welsh members; but is going on strike - as witnessed on the one-day walk-out on April 24 - justified?
The National Union of Teachers has 16,500 Welsh members; but is going on strike - as witnessed on the one-day walk-out on April 24 - justified?

It can be argued that teachers are impinged on by government diktat and regulations. They spend hours working outside the normal school day. They need to be dedicated to their work, and such commitment requires huge amounts of energy. They also have to put up with stress levels not normally experienced by people in other occupations.

A teacher's lot in life is aptly summed up by Adriana Obregon, an experienced graduate teacher who trained at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth. She says teachers' pay should be in line with other professions, as well as with the cost of living. Higher pay would also promote retention and stop people leaving.

Yet the strike only adds to teachers' experience of deep identity confusion. The Government's offer of about 2.35 per cent is also less than generous. But are teachers really justified in disrupting about half the schools in Wales?

When teachers in Wales last walked out, in 1987, there was a much stronger case for such action. On March 2 that year, the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Act became law. This legislation repealed Labour's Remuneration of Teachers Act 1965, which played a vital part in the bargaining processes for the following 20 years.

In that year, with one fell swoop the Tory party inflicted a dramatic loss of power on teachers and their unions. Here was an aggrieved profession, an Act of Parliament that gave unprecedented powers to a secretary of state over pay and conditions for a sector of public workers.

But I can't really see how teachers (the average practitioner earns around pound;34,000) are fully right in their wish now to turn to industrial action.

Look at the truly impoverished members of society. Their contribution to the economy may not have been that great, and they have perhaps not worked as hard as teachers, but those in poverty have often been blighted by a lack of opportunity, sickness and by the weaknesses of a poor education system.

For teachers to quibble over a few extra pounds is really open to question.

But perhaps the strike digs deeper into our consciousness. When you have a Labour government under which the rich are getting richer, and billions of dollars are being spent on wars, and soldiers are risking life and limb to save the face of politicians, are public sector workers really forcing through a message of despondency and hurt?

Three years of pay restraint might not be acceptable to teachers, but the NUT would be wise not to muscle in on disputes that not only fail democratically to serve the wishes of the majority, but also do little to instill confidence in the teaching profession.

Richard Willis is an historian based in the faculty of humanities and social sciences at the University of Glamorgan.

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