In February, I obtained an interview with John Bills, the West Midlands representative on the National Executive of the National Union of Teachers. By coincidence, it was exactly a year since the teachers’ unions in England and Wales began their industrial action in support of their pay claim.
Like most TV viewers and readers of cheap newspapers. I have found it very difficult to be sure of the facts in the dispute. I know that a large number of parents are angry at having to fetch children away from school at odd hours. I know that there is increasing concern about the examination prospects of older pupils. I know that the police have been receiving complaints about the behaviour of youngsters on the streets when they would normally have been in school. But about the teachers’ side of the case I have heard very little .
This is not very surprising. The present government’s union-bashing policy has received careful but consistent support from the media. And most people, workers themselves in other jobs not under immediate threat, have watched — some have even applauded or collaborated as one section after another has been isolated, attacked and defeated. GCHQ workers, the miners, newspaper printers are just some of those whose downfall has been carefully engineered and publicised.
Now it appears that teachers’ unity is breaking down in the face of relentless government pressure and bad publicity. The representatives of the National Association of Schoolmasters and the Union of Women Teachers are balloting their members with a recommendation to accept the terms offered by the local education authorities, their direct employers. Sir Keith Joseph, the Secretary of State for Education and Science has refused to support any agreement based on these terms with extra government money. The National Union of Teachers, the largest union, has refused to accept the terms.
John Bills is the Head Teacher of a junior school in Oldbury, near Birmingham. The school was cheaply built at the back of houses about twenty-five years ago. Now it is deteriorating badly. It needs a lot of money spending on it. but it won’t get it. Pupil numbers have fallen over the years with the declining birthrate. Like other industries, education is going through a recession. Thousands of teachers have left the service, and real salaries have continued to fall with inflation in spite of annual pay negotiations. A joint working party set up by the unions and the employers in 1984 concluded that, in the ten years since the pay structure was last revised, teachers’ real income had fallen by 34 per cent. The salary structure is very complicated. There are over 300 different pay levels for teachers in schools (quite apart from colleges, polytechnics and universities). It is designed to produce competitiveness and hierarchical divisions among people who will pass these values on to the rising generations. NUT policy has always resisted this trend, and its present campaign for a flat-rate increase of £23 a week has aimed at improving the conditions of the lowest paid teachers in particular.
A new teacher who has satisfactorily completed three years’ full-time training is paid £5,442 (£104.65 a week). If he or she takes a degree, the general practice these days, this is raised to £5,883 by giving them two years seniority. With thirteen years seniority their salaries will have risen to £8,556 (£164.53 a week). Anything above this must be reached by gaining promotion.
Why not strike?
Teachers earning this sort of money are unable to afford a strike. Their trade unions have no strike funds like those of the older industrial unions with long histories of battles with their employers. It is only in recent years that teachers have been forced to recognise that they, too, belong to that huge class of people in society that has to sell its mental and physical energies to employers on the labour market in order to get a living.
In this respect they are weak when it comes to a struggle to resist reductions in their real wages. So they have wisely avoided an expensive all-out strike. But they have strengths too. A large proportion of the work that most of them do in practice is not acknowledged in their contracts. Officially they are not paid for running sports or clubs or school trips outside school hours They are not paid for running errands in their cars or taking children abroad on holidays or attending meetings on new examination structures or meeting parents or supervising pupils during their lunch break or taking other teachers’ classes when they are absent. All this is expected of them traditionally as what has come to be called “good will”. And it is this which they have withdrawn to a large extent over the past year, together with very brief, selective strikes, often of only a few hours. The disruptive effect has been considerable, but inevitably it has injured children and their parents rather than the employers or the teachers’ ultimate paymaster, the state. It is. however, precisely this strength in teachers’ hands which the government, in the person of Keith Joseph, is determined to take away from them.
Joseph has insisted that everything included under the heading of “good will” should become compulsory before teachers are given any more money. And the money that he has been talking about in rather shifty global terms would amount to a pay increase of just over 2 per cent a year for the next four years, with no preference given to lower paid teachers. He has mentioned the figure of £1.25 billion, but central government would provide less than half of this. Local authorities would have to find the rest out of their existing budgets. In addition, Joseph has already begun to earmark some of it in advance. He has had second thoughts about compelling teachers to do dinner duty. He has instructed education authorities to set aside £50 million in the first year to pay part-time staff to do the job. Subsequent years will probably take more.
It is not surprising that the teachers’ unions were united in finding the government’s proposals unattractive. In comparison, the terms offered by the local education authorities have begun to seem almost acceptable after nearly two years without any increase — at least that is how it looks to some teachers. And perhaps this has been part of the government’s strategy. The employers have offered a 6.9 per cent increase. For those higher up in the salary and management hierarchy (heavily represented in the NAS/UWT) this could mean a substantial improvement. For the lowest paid teachers it would give only an extra £7 a week.
But the offer is not without strings. And the strings are very similar to those of Keith Joseph: to qualify for the 6.9 per cent, teachers must first call off all industrial action and “return to full normal duties”. Then they must accept a ruling as to what constitute full normal duties, and these would become contractually obligatory. The ruling will be made by a three-man team set up by ACAS (the government’s conciliation and arbitration service). In other words, unconditional surrender for a one-off pay increase.
So the government is now nearly half-way home. The teachers’ unions have been split, and for the same reasons as other trade unions have been broken in the recent past: some sections thought they stood to gain, even though others lost. This can seem like hard-headed (if selfish) realism in hard times. It is not. In the teachers’ case, the employers’ offer was put on the table only because they were taking united action; and because that action was disruptive without weakening the teachers. If, as seems likely, NAS/UWT members vote to accept the employers’ terms without the NUT members, then they will have sold both strengths: unity and freedom of action. The next time there is a confrontation with the employers, they will be without any bargaining power at all. That is short-sighted, not hard-headed. I learnt a lot when I went back to school that morning.