United front collapses

20th January 2012 at 00:00
A leaked document could divide teaching unions and jeopardise negotiations in the pensions row

The teaching unions' unprecedented show of unity during the 30 November strike is starting to feel remote. Substantial differences of opinion about what to do next in the pensions dispute have reopened old wounds and rekindled historical grudges. More significantly, a resolution that would satisfy all parties is an increasingly distant prospect.

After a final round of fraught negotiations, half of the unions - the ATL, the Association of School and College Leaders, Voice and heads' union the NAHT - signed a "heads of agreement", promising to consult their members on an improved pensions deal tabled by the government just before Christmas. The others - including the NUT, the NASUWT, the University and College Union and Welsh union UCAC - opted to reserve their positions. Since then, the two biggest classroom unions have come out fighting, threatening further strikes if the government does not improve its offer.

And a leaked document, outlining a previously agreed stance by all the unions, is only going to make relations between the organisations more uneasy.

Both camps are acutely aware that the collapse of the united front could leave them exposed. "It's a step backwards for the campaign to defend teachers' pensions," said NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney.

The rebel unions acknowledge that the impact of more strikes would be weakened by the split, with some members arguing that the other camp has allowed itself to be bullied by ministers.

However, ATL general secretary Mary Bousted believes that further action could lead to a less generous pension scheme being imposed. "We don't live in a fantasy union world where you can reject a deal with impunity," she told TES. "Any unions that are going to reject the deal need to come clean on what's going to happen in order for the deal to be accepted. We have told our members that if they reject the deal they are committing to a campaign of continuous industrial action."

To the frustration of the unions that signed the heads of agreement, the rebel unions have called for separate talks with education secretary Michael Gove to make their case. To the frustration of the rebels, the Department for Education confirmed to TES that it will only meet all of the unions together.

A confidential joint union proposal sent to the DfE on 14 December, and seen by TES, outlines the terms that the unions were demanding. While the Treasury has refused to allow teachers to retire on a full pension before the state pension age, which will eventually rise to 68, the unions that signed up to the heads of agreement believe that they have otherwise negotiated a deal that is very close to what they wanted.

The unions said they would agree to the switch from a final-salary scheme to career-average, provided they got an accrual rate of 155 or better; they ended up with 157. They called for an accrual revaluation factor of between 1.7 per cent and 2.25 per cent above the consumer price index measure of inflation; the final offer was 1.6 per cent.

"We think this is a reasonable deal that will give teachers reasonable pensions," said Martin Freedman, head of pay, conditions and pensions at the ATL. The union believes that many teachers could receive bigger pensions than they do now and that the changes could exceed the government's stated cost ceiling.

This analysis is not shared by the NUT. Mr Courtney argues that claiming the deal is close to the unions' demands is "completely absurd". "It's really different to the current offer. If it was close to what we wanted, we would be accepting it," he added.

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates agrees: "You can't just take bits out of context; it's about the whole package."

The DfE hastily arranged a summit with the unions, which was scheduled for yesterday. What happens now looks far from certain. The NASUWT and the NUT are consulting their members on whether to press ahead with more strikes.

Both insist that the early feedback has been supportive, but NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby is not so sure. "A divided teachers' side will make things a lot harder," he said. "NUT members have already gone on strike twice. That adds up to a considerable loss of income. It's not just about what we want, it's about what we're prepared to do if we don't get it."

With both union camps feeling that their position has been undermined, the only party to benefit is the one sitting on the other side of the negotiating table. "The government would like the teachers' unions to remain split, as it is the most unionised part of the public sector," one union source revealed.


Joint union proposition on 14 December:

- Teachers able to retire three years before the state pension age, with full pension.

- Pension based on career-average salary with an accrual rate of 155 or better.

- Revaluation factor for accruals of consumer price index plus 1.7-2.25 per cent.

Government's final offer on 19 December:

- Teachers' retirement age the same as the state pension age, but with lower deductions for those who retire early.

- Pension based on career-average salary with an accrual rate of 157.

- Revaluation factor for accruals of consumer price index plus 1.6 per cent.

Original headline: Union row deepens arousing fears of a pension deal deadlock

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