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Unions give pay peace a chance

Teaching unions are hoping a last-ditch effort will prevent them having to call for UK-wide strike action over pay.

The Government is expected to announce a paltry below-inflation pay award for teachers this week.

It follows a recent trend for all public-sector workers, including police officers, nurses and other civil servants, under a new era of belt-tightening in the economic slow down.

However, this has outraged unions - especially as MPs are expected to vote themselves an above-inflation pay rise of 3 per cent imminently.

Welsh-language union UCAC has already said it will poll members on industrial action if the pay award turns out to be lower than inflation. Teachers' pay and conditions are the last vestige of power held by Westminster over Wales.

Ed Balls, the schools secretary in England, is required to consult with teacher unions before setting the pay settlement in stone.

He helped develop the Treasury's new policy of a 2 per cent cap on pay rises in an attempt to stop spiralling inflation.

Unions fear he will try to force teachers' pay beneath that cap by implementing their pay rises gradually. They have been using a four-week consultation period to try to soften his resolution.

Strike action has been threatened if the unions don't secure a pay rise that at least keeps pace with retail price index inflation, currently at 4.3 per cent.

"Teachers would be enraged if Labour MPs awarded themselves a self-indulgent pay rise while denying a decent standard of living for teachers," said Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Already, Mr Balls has announced a tight school funding round that provides about 5,700 schools with only a 2.1 per cent funding increase, not enough to pay for higher heating costs let alone a significant boost in teachers' pay.

In Wales there is also outrage at "tight" spending plans by the Assembly government over the next three years. Education union the NASUWT Cymru has already threatened strike action if more money is not found to help fund key initiatives being introduced nationally this year, including the play-led foundation phase for under-sevens.

The last national strikes ended in 1987, with most teachers reluctant to walk out on pupils.

The biggest teaching union, the NUT, says it is set to formally ballot members on strike action if Mr Balls announces pay rises below inflation.

"A strike would be justified to protect the living standards of teachers and their families, and to protect teaching standards," said general secretary Steve Sinnott.

The NASUWT says that if the award is 2 per cent or below it will poll members on whether they wish to pursue industrial action or other alternatives. Chris Keates, general secretary, said such a small pay rise would wipe out all the gains in teachers' pay and recruitment "at the stroke of a pen".

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