The unions’ cause is just, but I’m ambivalent about striking – and I shudder at the legacy of the ’80s disputes

7 May 2011
The Times Educational Supplement
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Recently we have had localised strikes over pay, badly behaved pupils, redundancies and cuts to school services, but the biggest ones in a generation are on the way over pensions.

While the majority of us were not surprised that the most left-wing of the unions, the NUT, voted to strike over pensions last week, you know things are serious when the more moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers joins them.

As a state-school teacher of two decades’ service and the parent of a 10-year-old, I feel profoundly ambivalent about strikes – as, I suspect, do most teachers, even those who vote for strike action.

Some time ago, I left the NUT because it appeared to be holding too many ineffectual strikes. In retrospect, its strike demanding a 2.45 per cent pay rise in 2008, as the recession started to bite, seems ill-judged. However, I didn’t give up on union membership, joining the NASUWT instead. The services a good union offers – including legal protection – seem vital in today’s schools.

In March I supported an NUT strike in Tower Hamlets, east London, over cuts to education services; my son had a day off school and we visited his teachers, who were protesting in a local park along with many others. I spoke as a parent on the hustings, talking about the damage that cuts will do to some of the poorest pupils in the country.

However, after the strike I felt a bit let down. It appears to have had no effect (faced with a £72 million cut to its budget, the council is pressing ahead with its cuts), while some of the union’s claims, such as 200 jobs being lost, have proved not completely accurate.

With more strikes looming, I am becoming really worried that my son’s education at his fantastic local primary will be affected. If we return to the “bad old days” of the Eighties, when teacher strikes were rife, it could be an absolute nightmare for parents.

The truth is that the teaching profession lost the trust of a whole generation of parents during those infamous days. I have spoken to too many parents from that time who are still bitter. Many of them can’t even remember what the dispute was about.

One of the reasons the strikes failed was that the dispute couldn’t be neatly summarised. In the mid-1980s, the Thatcher government got rid of the forum which negotiated national pay and conditions – the Burnham committee, which comprised teacher, local education authority and government representatives – and gave these powers to the secretary of state. In a nutshell, teachers lost the power to determine their own pay and conditions.

The dispute was especially bitter and protracted. The NUT established a rolling programme of three-day strikes, while the NASUWT staged its own half-day strikes.

Not much was achieved other than modest pay rises and the enduring distrust of many parents. Ultimately, it weakened the unions considerably (the NUT lost a third of its membership) and enabled the Conservative government to push through the 1988 Education Reform Act, which established the national curriculum, Ofsted and school league tables.

If these disastrous strikes are your benchmark, it is hard to understand why teachers are considering striking at all. But if you delve further into history, you see they can be effective. The teaching unions came into being in the late 19th century because teachers clubbed together to protest against things like being forced to play the church organ on Sunday mornings and schools being allocated money based on their results (sound familiar?).

The NUT won its first major dispute in 1896, when strike action by members in Portsmouth, with support throughout the country, won the reinstatement of four teachers sacked for not starting work at 7.55am. In addition, the action won a pay increase and a more civilised start time of 8.30am. It was the government’s fear of strikes that led to the establishment of national pay and conditions for teachers just after the First World War.

And you can’t say the NUT isn’t prepared for the long haul; it backed the longest strike in history – 25 years. Teachers in the village of Burston, Norfolk, began protesting in 1914 against colleagues being sacked for being members of a union, and fighting for better conditions for pupils, teachers and workers in the local area. A “strike school” financed by the unions was established, which educated the local children until 1939, when victory was finally achieved. The teachers were triumphant because lessons didn’t stop for the whole duration of the strike.

Now that we seem to be returning to the Victorian values of payment by results, the abolition of national pay and conditions, and the refusal to recognise unions at all in certain academies and forthcoming free schools, this “ancient” union history couldn’t be more pertinent. The lessons of the past teach us that when teachers pull together, governments – even the most intransigent ones – do listen.

The early union disputes show strikes really work when everyone is unified and the general public is persuaded, too. At the moment, people outside the profession, struggling with poor pension packages themselves, think our “gold-plated”pensions are just not sustainable. The unions must win the argument, too.

The lesson of the Burston strike school is that victory can be achieved if teachers are seen to have the pupils’ best interests at heart. This may mean educating the nation’s children, no matter what hardships we in the profession endure.


  1. ‘when teachers pull together, governments – even the most intransigent ones – do listen’. This is a coherent argument for having just one union. Yet there is still the notion in many teachers of skipping from one union to another when they take exception to this or that policy. Surely it would be better to stay in a union, get active and argue your position, whilst accepting that in a democratic union (such as the NUT) you cannot always have your own way and must accept that being in a union means uniting behind the collective will of its members. (The NASUWT is the original “we don’t like it so we’ll start our own” union for very murky reasons way back in the early 20th century.)
    Incidentally, to dismiss those members of the NUT who are willing to forego their Easter weekend to attend Annual Conference as ‘work shy morons” as you did in 2009 is both ill-informed and snide and says a lot more about you than it does about those delegates.

    from Richard Raftery
  2. You’re right that one union would be much more effective. Yes, I regret saying that about the NUT back in 2009 and apologise for it.

    from francisgilbert

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