Teachers vote for strike amidst public sector pay disputes

In March 2008, the National Union of Teachers balloted members on strike action over pay. The result was a three-to-one vote in favour of what would be the first national teachers’ strike since 1987. The strike was due to take place on 24 April 2008 against the background of wider trade union unrest over public sector pay restraint.

In March 2008, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) balloted members over a one-day strike to take place in England and Wales on 24 April. Nearly 200,000 ballot papers were issued to trade union members, of which a third were returned. The resulting vote was three to one in favour of industrial action. The strike would be the first national teachers’ strike since 1987, although the two other teaching trade unions – the Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) – stated that they will not take part.

Background

The dispute concerns a pay increase offer of 2.45% for 2008, with a recommended 2.3% increase in 2009 and 2010. NUT considers that this offer is below the country’s inflation rate of 4.1%, based on the retail price index (RPI). The government prefers to use the consumer price index (CPI), which is currently 2.1%.

Before his death in early April 2008, NUT’s General Secretary, Steve Sinnott, stated that teachers’ pay increases have been below the inflation rate since 2005. He added: ‘to bring the best young graduates into the profession, teachers’ salaries need to be competitive with those for graduates in the private sector. The government needs to think again and ensure that salaries at least keep pace with inflation’.

Government reaction

The Department for Children, Schools and Families stated that the government had acted on the recommendations of the independent School Teachers Review Body (STRB) – established by the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Act 1991 with responsibility for reporting to the government on teachers’ pay and conditions, as well as their duties and working time. A spokesperson for the department said that ‘the ballot shows that strike action was backed by less than a quarter of NUT members – only around one in 10 of the overall teacher workforce’. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, highlighted: ‘I believe this pay award, the first of the government’s three-year, forward-looking, public sector pay awards, is fair for teachers and affordable for schools. It builds on the record real terms pay increases that teachers have been awarded during the last 10 years.’ In this period, he emphasised, minimum starting salaries for new teachers had shown a real increase of 10.4% (15.8% for inner London), and maximum salaries for experienced teachers showed 25.9% (37.3% for inner London) growth rate.

Public sector pay restraint under pressure

The wider context to the dispute is the government’s 2% target for public sector pay increases. This was announced by Gordon Brown, then Chancellor, in 2006, though subsequent offers were improved as inflation continued to rise, in order to prevent industrial action. For instance, council workers were awarded a 2.48% pay increase in 2007, with workers on the lowest pay levels receiving 3.4%. The lowest paid health workers were also offered an additional GBP 400 (€507 as at 18 April 2008) annually, increasing the overall National Health Service (NHS) pay settlement to 2.08%. Furthermore, civil servants on the lowest pay rates in job centres received an improved offer of 3%. However, at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference in September 2007, Mr Brown, by then Prime Minister, stated: ‘Pay discipline is essential to prevent inflation, to maintain growth and create more jobs’. The TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, described the 2% pay policy as ‘plain wrong’.

The government’s policy has led to a series of disputes in the public sector. In 2007, the 2.5% pay increase recommended by the Prison Service Pay Review Body was staged to comply with the 2% ceiling, and in January 2008 the government announced plans to reintroduce legislation to prevent members of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) from taking legal strike action. Police officers also had an award of 2.5% effectively reduced to 1.9% by a delay in implementation. This prompted the Police Federation to carry out a poll among its members on a campaign for full employment rights and to organise a public protest demonstration in January 2008.

In April 2008, school inspectors were balloted for strike action after the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) proposed a 2% rise followed by 1% for the following two years. National Officer for Ofsted at the Public Service Union (Unison), Helga Pile, argued that ‘the cost of living is soaring, yet our members are being expected to sign up to an unjust pay structure and three years of below-inflation pay settlements’. Negotiations Officer for Ofsted at the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Neil March, emphasised that the government would need to ‘act swiftly to avoid unnecessary industrial action’.

Furthermore, as local government pay negotiations resumed in April 2008, trade union leaders responded angrily after Prime Minister Brown warned of the need to maintain the 2% target. National Secretary at Unison, Heather Wakefield, stated that previous agreements had resulted in real wage cuts over the period 2004–2007: ‘Many of our members are amongst the lowest paid in the public sector and they are struggling to make ends meet faced with spiralling costs of housing, food and fuel.’ Moreover, she commented: ‘Having rejected 2.2%, we do expect an improved offer.’

James Arrowsmith, IRRU, University of Warwick

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