What are teacher strikes for?

Today is strike day. Many of my colleagues have already made the decision to go on strike and are, I suspect, having a nice lie-in right now. Good for them – it is their right to strike, and they’ve received a clear strike call from their union.

But I’ve argued for a long time that the NUT’s campaign against, well, everything in education, is going absolutely nowhere, so I am sad that teachers up and down the land are today losing a day’s pay purely so their leadership can pose as effective trade unionists, when the reality is they lost this battle long ago. Part of the problem is the sheer lack of imagination displayed by the NUT Exec: another strike? What really? Are there no other campaigning tools you can think of? The world has erupted in single-issue campaigns and even revolutions over the last 20 years, all running with new and different ways of getting messages across, and yet the NUT still thinks “all out” is the right tool for every job,

This kind of thinking, especially from people who will happily chant the mantra that school organisation is “stuck in the mode of the industrial 19th Century”, is deeply peculiar, because nothing is more stuck in Britain’s faded industrial past than strike action from public sector unions.

In industrial circumstances the threat and meaning of a strike is absolutely crystal clear: we do the work that makes the money; we don’t work, there is no money. Private sector employers can find various ways to hold out against this, and ultimately there is always the Mutually Assured Destruction threat (“if there’s no money for long enough, they’ll be no company and then there’s no money forever”), but the cause and effect relationship is obvious.

That is not the case in teaching – there’s no profit being made, so the strike is an indirect attack: parents are inconvenienced by the need to keep kids home (and kids obviously lose a day’s education). To make this in any way effective as a tactic, the response of the parents is the crucial battleground. In local or individual school strikes, this can be highly effective: headteachers are placed in an extremely awkward position if they have to write home to parents saying that actions they, the Headteacher, has taken, have driven out on strike the teachers that the rest of the year the Head praises to the skies. A personal washing of dirty laundry in public is unpleasant and favours dispute resolution.

None of this applies in the case of a national strike. In the first case, the battle is not between your child’s teacher and your child’s Headteacher, it is between teacher trade-unions and an elected politician; much more impersonal, and between people much less trusted by the populace at large. The terms of battle are entirely different, the access to (and respect available in) the media are profoundly imbalanced and the audience is not simply parents concerned about their children, but citizens and tax-payers weighing up who is managing the economy well and capable of solving the country’s problems. In such a battle, any government–even an unpopular government–can hold out for as long as it is prepared to: after all, it is the teachers who are shutting the schools, not the government. Government looks responsible and sensible so long as it even suggests it it open to talks, the unions look angry and exploitative, especially if, as is the case with this strike, there is a fatal lack of clarity about what it is actually about (although attempts to explain it is about pensions are, as ever, likely to go down like a lead balloon with a populace who couldn’t buy for love nor money a pension half as good as that of teachers).

Individual and local strike action can work (whether it is the most effective and sensible tactic is another issue) but it is increasingly obvious that national strike action by teachers is fundamentally flawed: it not only fails to deliver its objectives, but every time it gives government a chance to denounce unions as irresponsible and unrealistic it makes the tool ever less useful in future.

Today thousands of teachers are missing a day’s pay, thousands of students are missing a day’s school, and thousands of parents are missing a day’s work, which is all cases many can ill-afford, and the sum result will be negligible. The vanity and pride of the NUT Exec has led its members into a campaigning cul-de-sac. The vital need for stronger and better professional leadership for teachers has never been clearer.

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9 responses

  1. “That is not the case in teaching – there’s no profit being made”

    Depends how you measure profit.

    What other action can they do? Suggestions?
    What else can they do when the government is not willing to compromise?
    Why should teachers accept lower living standards?

  2. I think the union are doing a particularly good job across the media today of highlighting the workload issue and the ministers’ lack of engagement. They do well on this argument because no-one (except the wilfully ignorant) denies that the teaching workload is massive and still increasing. The increase is directly correlated with the level of change (and uncertainty) introduced by this government.

    Right now, a large number of teachers are happy to sacrifice a day’s pay just to get a day’s respite. A day when they can tell themselves they are doing the right thing by not working. At the same time they are demonstrating that the issue hasn’t gone away and, regardless of ongoing talks, ministers have avoided the issues for too long.

  3. […] other blog-posts articulate the reasons for and against striking much better than I ever will, (see John Blake, Michael Tidd and Michael Merrick) but from a personal point of view, I can’t help but feel […]

  4. Why did the teachers go out on strike?

  5. One thing missing from this post: your gratitude to me for giving up my day’s pay to campaign for your better pay and conditions. And no, I did not have a lie-in. I was on the march – with my wife and kids – in London with thousanda of others.

  6. Respect for the fact that your reasons to strike are much better then the reasons found here: http://amathematicaljourney.co.uk/teacher-strikes-media-review/

  7. […] NUT Exec: another strike? What really? Are there no other campaigning tools you can think of?” source By writing this article and elaborating on the many things the NUT are doing I intend to prove that […]

  8. […] NUT Exec: another strike? What really? Are there no other campaigning tools you can think of?” source By writing this article and elaborating on the many things the NUT are doing I intend to prove […]

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