Teachers’ strike – are they justified?

By Emma Jones

Governments are doing themselves no favours with their anti-strike warnings, and the unions are doing themselves no favours by only publicising concerns over pensions, rather than the wider issues. But whatever you think of the reasons for the strike by teachers and civil servants, it should be agreed that these professions have the right to strike.

All unionised workers have a right to strike when a fair ballot has called for it. No government (or other employer in unionised workplaces) should expect to make dramatic changes to the terms and conditions of their employees without there being some degree of anger and fight-back, and they certainly have no right to suggest that such a democratic strike should not take place.

Knowing this, however, is separate from agreeing with the reasons for a strike. Despite being a former teacher myself and someone who still has a small Teacher’s Pension pot out there, I disagree with two of the three stated main reasons for the strike.

Teachers do have much to be angry about, certainly. Deep cuts to the education and local authority budgets are resulting in more job cuts in this sector than anywhere else in the public sector. The rapid expansion of Academies, along with the government-encouraged establishment of Free Schools, is taking millions of pupils and thousands of staff out of the protective care of local authorities.

Changes to the post-14 curriculum, largely deemed unnecessary and expensive, are playing to the whims of a Conservative elite who want people to go back to believing that academic qualifications are for the few not the many. Cuts to the special educational needs budget, and the complete removal of the ethnic minority achievement grant, are putting these areas at risk of going backwards in the progress made over the last decade, and affect the most vulnerable pupils. In terms of pay, the end to a national standard of payscales, and the allowing of headteachers to set pay for individual staff members, will result in huge and unfair pay differentials.

Add these problems to the continuing issues in terms of pupil behaviour, an enormous workload (teachers work an average of a 54-hour week), and increased day-to-day scrutiny, it is no wonder that staff are upset. Meanwhile, the majority of the public continue to believe the myth that teachers finish work at 3:30 and have holidays (and weekends) off.

Yet the strike on 30 June by several teaching trade unions, along with a major civil service union, is not explicitly about any of these things. The three main stated reasons for the strike are: the raising of pension contributions by the employee, the raising of the retirement age to 68, and the change of the pension’s linkage with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) instead of a linkage with the Retail Price Index (RPI).

It is quite implausible to believe that the retirement age should be the same now as it was when the retirement age of 60 was created, when life expectancy was much lower. Furthermore, it is also implausible that we can continue to pay as we do for our pensions, and that more money is not needed.

This is not because I buy into the government’s spiel about a debt crisis. It is because the fact is, that there are more of us than ever before, we are living longer, and our expectations of how we should be looked after in our old age are higher. Our excellent (and expensive) National Health Service is what is helping us reach our old age, and if we want excellent social care for older people then we all need to work longer so that we can pay for it.

The unions and the majority of their members do not agree with this opinion, and I respect their right to strike. It is dreadful of Cameron, Gove and the coalition government to state public warnings to union members not to strike, using somewhat threatening language, and preposterous to suggest to hard-working teachers that their pupils’ education will suffer if they miss a single day of school.

What is even more preposterous is the suggestion by some prominent Conservatives such as Boris Johnson, that union ballots should have a minimum turn-out rate of around 50%. If this rule were applied to political elections, the majority of local councils around the country would never have a turn-out high enough to pass. Just as the unions are losing out by not showing the public how much they are campaigning for the issues that matter to everybody, the government are also losing out by publically speaking out against their public servants.

Finally, another aspect of the pensions agenda that the unions dislike is the change from pensions being linked to final salary instead of being linked to career average salary. It is in fact good that if we are going to work until our late 60s, we can at least choose to work only part time in the final few years of our working lives, or perhaps work in a role that takes on less responsibility, safe in the knowledge that our pension does not depend upon the salary on which we have retired.

Although I do not agree with many of the terms of today’s strike, I wish the strikers luck in their campaign. When people in this country stop standing up for what they believe in, that would be this government’s gravest cut of all.

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