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.