Unions face down politicians' push for rethink on strikes

24th June 2011 at 01:00
They say action will go ahead on Thursday despite 'inept' interventions by ministers

Classroom unions preparing for next week's strike over changes to teachers' pensions have come under fire from leading figures at both ends of the political spectrum.

Days after ATL and NUT members voted overwhelmingly in favour of holding a national strike on 30 June, chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander hit out at the unions, which he described as "hell-bent on premature strike action before discussions are even complete".

He left no doubt as to the Government's current stance when he reiterated its original plans, which will involve increasing teachers' contributions by 50 per cent, while raising the retirement age and switching from a final-salary scheme to career-average.

"This Government will reform public service pensions. This is the time to shape that change, not to try and block it," Mr Alexander said.

And if unions were expecting more support from the Labour camp, they were disappointed.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls called on the unions to keep their cool and not be provoked into losing public support by reacting to the Government's attempts at "picking a fight" with them.

"This is not a political decision from the unions; this is actually their members feeling very upset. (Chancellor) George Osborne is desperate to have that confrontation - he's been saying it for months.

"The trade unions must not walk into the trap of giving George Osborne the confrontation he wants to divert attention from a failing economy," he said.

Mr Balls' comments echo the stance of the NASUWT, the only one of the three main classroom unions holding back from a strike.

Despite general secretary Chris Keates last month admitting the "inevitability" of members taking action later this year, barring a "radical" shift in the Government's position, she said pressing ahead with a ballot before talks have been concluded would amount to "feeding the Government's propaganda machinery" and would risk "derailing negotiations".

Ms Keates this week told The TES that Government talks will now run into July, at the behest of the TUC.

"When we started, the Government's position was that there would be no negotiation at all.

"Whatever the motivation for (Mr Alexander's) statements, it is a flawed, high-risk strategy which has the potential to undermine confidence in the negotiations at a time when some progress was being made and there are still many crucial issues to be debated.

"It's honest dialogue and genuine engagement which is required, not political game-playing," she said.

Uncertainty about the benefits of the strike appears to be growing among some sections of the education profession.

The Voice union, which opposes strikes, says it received the number of applications it would normally get in a week in just one day, following last week's announcements by the ATL and NUT.

General secretary Philip Parkin said: "The unintended consequence is that we are getting more interest.

"This kind of situation challenges people to think about what they believe in. Many members will never have been challenged before, and clearly many are realising they don't believe in strike action. We are very pleased to provide a home for them.

"Our stance on pensions is exactly the same as the other unions, but we don't share their approach."

Conversely, however, some of the more moderate unions have been galvanised into taking part in unprecedented industrial action.

Last Friday, the national executive of heads' union the NAHT voted unanimously in favour of balloting its members. General secretary Russell Hobby revealed it was Mr Alexander's inflammatory speech that had "tipped the balance".

The ATL, which is holding the first national strike in its 127-year history, also waded into the row, with deputy general secretary Martin Johnson criticising the "ineptness of Danny Alexander's intervention".

"What has not been made clear before is the incompetence of the negotiating process by the Treasury, which is one of the reasons for our frustration," Mr Johnson said.

"They have been withholding key information, such as how much money is available in the pot, and what is affordable.

"We can't then work co-operatively and say, 'For that money, why don't you do this?' It does make it completely impossible.

"Our members have got one eye on their wallets, but the other eye is firmly fixed on the future of schools."

The question of whether teachers are motivated more by genuine concern for the potentially damaging legacy of the proposals or simple self-interest will continue to frame the debate surrounding the strikes.


The proposals

- Public-sector pensions should deliver "at least adequate levels of income".

- Pensions should be based on a worker's career-average salary, rather than final salary.

- Public-sector workers should be able to retire earlier or later than the usual pension age if they wish.

- Non-public-sector workers, such as teachers in independent schools, should not have access to public-sector pension schemes.


'Dock pay or else'

Schools have been warned that they could face legal action if they fail to dock the pay of teachers who go on strike.

A letter sent out to chairs of governing bodies in Suffolk warned that if any schools do not deduct a day's wages, "this may be challenged in the courts or by auditors and may be seen to condone industrial action which is in breach of a statutory duty".

Any inconsistency is "likely to be seen to be strengthening the unions' case", added Simon White, Suffolk County Council's director for children and young people.

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