Taking to their picket lines once again, teachers organised in the NEU went on strike for two days last week, on Wednesday 5 and Friday 7 July.
NEU members struck a defiant tone in the face of the government’s intransigence, with neither the Tories nor Starmer’s Labour offering a solution to the crisis facing UK schools.
Socialist Appeal comrades across the country visited school pickets (see reports below). Wherever we went, we found the same mood of determination being expressed by rank-and-file union members.
If the Tories think they’ve got the teachers on the ropes, they’ve got another thing coming!
NEU members are currently being re-balloted for a new sixth-month strike mandate. Reports on the ground indicate that this is likely to pass.
With anger being fuelled by relentless workloads, top-down restrictions, and collapsing school buildings, teachers are prepared to fight to the end.
A big question faces the struggle, however: how to proceed.
It is clear that one-off days of action won’t be enough to force the government to budge. Instead, what is needed is bold, hard-hitting coordinated action, involving multiple unions striking together.
The opportunity exists for united action across the education sector. Already, NASUWT has passed its strike ballot, preparing the way for joint picket lines outside schools in September. At the same time, the headteachers’ unions – ASCL and NAHT – are also balloting for the first time in a century.
And with other public sector workers – including PCS civil service members at the Department of Education, and local authority workers from various unions – all seeking mandates to strike, there is the potential for a mass union-wide campaign to kick out the Tory government, and to reverse years of austerity and attacks.
Teachers vs Tories
Unfortunately, this perspective for militant, escalated action is not shared throughout the union.
The NEU’s leaders – including president Louise Atkinson, and joint general secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney – have called on the government to provide a 6.5% pay rise, as rumoured to be recommended by the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB), in order to “bring this dispute to a close”.
On the other side, Tory education secretary Gillian Keegan has broken ranks with the majority of Rishi Sunak’s cabinet, and has also called for a 6.5% rise to avert further school strikes.
Representatives on both sides, then, seem keen to settle the matter. But the problem they face is that neither the NEU leaders nor the education secretary are in control of the situation.
Downing Street is determined to override the recommendations of ‘independent’ pay review bodies, in their efforts to make workers’ pay for British capitalism’s inflation crisis.
After struggling for months, meanwhile, and with living costs continuing to soar, ordinary NEU members are unwilling to accept an offer that still amounts to a real-terms pay cut – with no guarantee that this would even be backdated to include losses over the last academic year.
There is no guarantee that this battle is over, then, despite the hopes and intentions in either camp. Instead, the logic of the class struggle could still lead to a sharper showdown between teachers and the Tories.
Question of leadership
At the same time, without a clear fighting strategy or alternative from the top, there is a real danger that NEU members could reluctantly accept a 6.5% offer, on the grounds that any deal is better than no deal.
It all comes down to a question of leadership. Ultimately, NEU leaders lack confidence in the membership, and seem to be constantly questioning whether this fight can be won.
Will teachers be prepared to continue going out on strike? Will other unions succeed in their ballots? Will the Tories care if schools remain closed? Will public support endure?
Such doubts at the top foment weakness. And weakness invites further Tory aggression.
Keegan’s refusal to publish the STRB report may well be an attempt to hype-up its proposed real-terms wage cut – an effort to paint lipstick on a pig.
NEU activists will not be so easily swayed, however. Thousands of members have signed an open letter protesting against the NEC, for example, calling on the union to reject any 6.5% offer. This demonstrates clearly the militancy amongst union activists.
Escalate the struggle
Ultimately, the underlying cause behind this debate is not the question of whether or not to accept a 6.5% deal. Instead, the root of rank-and-file members’ concerns is the lack of any coherent strategy from the NEU leaders.
The route to victory is to unify the strikes, broaden the struggle, and build for coordinated action, in order to hit the Tories all at once.
Britain is filled with seething discontent. By campaigning en masse, on the basis of a bold socialist programme, the trade unions could mobilise millions – transforming not just education, but all of society.
Socialist Appeal comrades in the NEU have called for just this: passing a model motion in local branches for escalated, coordinated strikes.
The reports below give a snapshot of the determined, fighting attitude that exists amongst the membership. Now is not the time for demobilisation or compromises, but for escalation and mass coordinated action.
Gathering their forces together last Wednesday, the NEU brought thousands of members into central London for a big march and rally. Throughout the protest, the mood was largely both upbeat and determined.
Workers were not shy about letting their feelings be known. As the column marched past the headquarters of the Department for Education, the booing and jeering reached deafening levels. Far from exhausting rank-and-file NEU members, it’s clear that Tory intransigence has only made the teachers angrier.
This militant mood is beginning to push teachers to look critically at the union’s conservative tactics, as expressed by many grassroots members at the demo.
In fact, it was common amongst teachers that we spoke with to hear – unprompted – calls for coordinated action, and even for a general strike.
One teacher also mentioned the need for striking school staff to link with parents on a class basis, as Socialist Appeal comrades in the NEU have also demanded.
Far from seeing this simply as a fight over pay, many education workers are drawing political conclusions.
One teacher, when asked why there is a crisis in our schools, said it is because “the Tories are thieving bastards”. Another pointed out that – in the past 20 years – the government has had plenty of money for pointless wars, but refuses to support essential workers who helped Britain through the pandemic.
One or two, when interviewed, even put the blame for the education crisis squarely on capitalism.
“Teaching the Tories a lesson!” – Socialist Appeal members joined striking teachers yesterday, as the NEU mobilised across the country for two more days of action.
— Socialist Appeal (@socialist_app) July 6, 2023
Our programme to kick capitalism out of education therefore resonated with many on the demo, and has struck a chord inside the union.
In the Birmingham NEU district, comrades put forward a motion proposing a bold alternative strategy for the strikes, which passed unanimously. In Brent, a Socialist Appeal activist passed the same motion in his district.
When this comrade asked one teacher what she thought about escalating the strike in order to topple the Tories, and whether she supported a bold socialist programme for education, funded by expropriating the billionaires and bankers, she said: “I don’t know why everyone doesn’t think that!”
After last Wednesday’s demonstration, we held an open online meeting for contacts to discuss how the strikes should progress.
Despite some of the compromising noises coming from the top, the fight is not over yet. We can still win. Victory to the teachers!
The NEU rally in Leeds was very political in nature. Speakers called for coordinated action across the trade unions, in order to shut down every school in England. One called out Starmer’s Labour for their “insulting” policy proposals. And another spoke about the importance of building class unity across the entire public sector.
The crowd were mostly young and militant. The more radical speeches gained the biggest applause.
We spoke to many workers throughout the day. The appetite for greater militancy was clear.
Teachers were still resolute about winning the struggle, despite frustrations over the current strategy of isolated days of action. There was a feeling that last week’s walkouts were not an escalation, and that this wasn’t the best time of year to be striking.
Nevertheless, the pickets were strong and the mood determined. In particular, there was a large appetite for joint action with the other education unions in September. NAHT and NASUWT look set to be successful in their strike ballots, and support staff within the NEU are currently voting.
In Sheffield, meanwhile, the NEU had a particularly large presence at the King Edward’s VII school picket, where there has been an additional battle recently against academisation.
The government is attempting to force the school into an academy chain, due to an inadequate Ofsted report earlier this year
This struggle has demonstrated the power of staff organising through the union, as well as the power of an organised base amongst local parents.
Parents in the community have organised a committee and helped put on a protest in the city. And high-profile former pupils have spoken out. This has helped the teachers’ and parents’ campaign gain media coverage.
The school was recently reinspected, with its Ofsted assessment raised to ‘good’. But this doesn’t mean that the academisation threat has gone away.
Four Sheffield MPs have written to the government, asking them to withdraw the forced academisation order. But the school is still awaiting a response. Consequently, there was a particularly fighting mood on this picket.
NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney attended this picket, where he explained to Socialist Appeal comrades his views on how far we have come, and what it will take to win our fight. This interview can be read below.
At the demonstration later in the morning, we had a stall at the start and end. We sold the paper and talked to protestors, providing a Marxist perspective on trade union struggles, and discussing the need to link our struggles.
This sentiment echoed broadly on the demo. And two people that we met at the rally said that they wanted to get organised with Socialist Appeal.
Socialist Appeal activists in Sunderland were out early on the NEU picket last Wednesday. Striking workers were greeted with regular beeps of support from passing vehicles.
When asked about local solidarity, teachers spoke of the support they have received from students and parents alike, with some parents even bringing younger children down to the picket lines to give them an education in industrial action.
The mood amongst the NEU members was one of frustration mixed with determination: against the Tory government for refusing to enter discussions; against the failure to retain teachers in the long-term; and also at the top-down decisions being made – against the wishes of rank-and-file union members – over strike strategy.
Despite these obstacles, picketers showed that they were ready and willing to fight.
When asked how they would like the struggle to go, the emphasis was on the need for cross-union collaboration, consecutive strike days, and a clear refusal to accept a below-inflation pay rise.
The strikers were particularly enthusiastic about bringing out all education unions at once, over consecutive days, in order to shut down schools and force the government to listen.
On the other hand, there was a clear feeling that members’ efforts would be wasted if the proposed below-inflation 6.5% offer was accepted.
As such, the fight must continue – and Sunderland’s teachers are up for it, every step of the way.
Comrades from the Socialist Appeal Cornwall branch attended the NEU rally last Wednesday.
Our consistent solidarity and support hasn’t gone unnoticed. Many NEU members recognised us from previous picket lines, and were happy to see comrades there again. One teacher in particular came straight over to speak to us, saying that he’d been impressed by what we had to say previously.
Added to this, the Maen Karne workers – who are in the middle of their own four-week strike – turned up to show solidarity. When we arrived, they too greeted us enthusiastically, inviting us into their group photo, before updating us on their action.
During the march, one of our comrades was invited to shout slogans. These included: “1, 2, 3, 4, we won’t take it anymore; 5, 6, 7, 8, pay us the inflation rate”, which went down well with the crowd.
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One of our comrades was once again invited to speak at the rally. They raised the limitations of the current strategy, and the need for consistent, coordinated action, combined with a bold socialist programme, in order to win this fight.
This speech went down well, and was echoed by several other attendees, who were also calling for longer strike action.
It’s clear that the teachers are more determined than ever to win this fight. What is necessary, however, is a strategy and a leadership that matches this militancy.
Comrades from York Socialist Appeal went to the NEU picket line outside Fulford School last Wednesday. Straight away, when we approached the school, we could see the union’s flags waving in the wind. And no wonder: this was the biggest picket line that comrades had seen at Fulford yet.
Morale was high, and comrades had great conversations with striking staff. We discussed the need to do away with the marketisation of education, and the need to properly fund our schools by expropriating the super-rich.
As one teacher put it to us: “I think we should essentially remove all capitalism out of education.”
This same striker also commented that they would like to see more coordinated action, in order to really put the Tories on the ropes. “This would be really effective,” they stated. “In February / March time there was a large, united strike, and I think they are really effective whenever they can be organised.”
Support for the staff poured in from the public, with school bus drivers and parents tooting their horns. And other local residents also dropped by to show solidarity.
Solidarity with striking staff! Victory to the NEU!
Interview with NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney
Socialist Appeal NEU activists: How important and how successful have we been in building the union over the past year to be able to get to the point that we’re at now?
Kevin Courtney: So it’s been an amazing growth of the union, because we passed the threshold and 50,000 people joined within six weeks. We are now 60,000 up on where we were at the beginning of January – that is not just amongst teachers, it’s also amongst support staff, and I think that is very important for the future of education.
I think the amalgamation of the NUT and the ATL is important. I’d be massively in favour of doing that again with the NASUWT and GMB
But short of that, it’s not just the new members – it’s that there are 3000 new reps. And our staff and branch officers who talk to us about these new reps tell us that they are the keenest reps we have ever had, because they’ve come to the union because of the industrial action; because they want to do something. So this new cadre of reps is really important.
SA: And that’s what we need isn’t it – ordinary members taking the fight forwards, and there’s been a lot of appetite for that. Given that, and the expansion of the union and the potential joint action taking place in September, how are you feeling about the potential success of our struggle?
KC: I think we can win more money for schools and more money for teachers. Bob Crow used to say: “If you fight, you don’t always win. But if you don’t fight, you never win.” And we are involved in this fight. I think we can win it. But it isn’t necessarily going to be easy.
I think the Conservatives have now decided they are losing the next election, and can’t win it, and I think they are going for a core-votes strategy. Having a fight with the unions could be part of this.
On the other hand, I think they are making a huge miscalculation. Parents, whichever party they voted for in the last election, whichever side they’re on regarding Brexit, they really think their children are having a rough deal.
So we need to have the biggest, most united strikes. But we have to keep reaching out to parents, and saying our strike has a higher moral purpose: we are striking for your children. And that will mean that we can win.
SA: And the last quick question – you mentioned in your speech just now about an education-wide strike in October. There’s quite a lot of talk on other picket lines as well about the idea of a public-sector-wide strike. Do you think that is something we can look to build for this September?
KC: We’ve always spoken in the TUC in favour of coordination. So for our first strike on 1 February, PCS, RMT, and ASLEF were all on strike. For our strike on 15 March, the BMA and PCS were on strike. That’s not by accident. But sometimes people have different opinions about coordination.
I do think there is enough strength in teaching unions and support staff unions, and the NEU is a support staff union as well, that would make the action in schools really effective. Almost every school would close, and that will have a big political impact.
I think if they put us to it, we should have a national strike across all schools in October, and we should mobilise for the biggest weekday demonstration the country has ever seen, and invite everyone who is associated with education. But maybe there’s also other sectors that could join in, because they are running down all of our public services – and that’s damaging children, damaging the NHS.