Teachers suspend strike action after offer of talks

During October 2013, the two largest teachers’ unions in the UK organised two regional one-day strikes in a dispute with the government over pay, working conditions, pensions and job cuts. Plans for a further one-day national strike before Christmas were suspended after the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove agreed to discuss the teachers’ concerns. The unions warned, however, that the strike will go ahead by mid-February 2014 if the talks do not lead to progress on these issues.

Background

The two largest UK teachers’ unions – the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Schoolmasters/ Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) are in dispute with the government over their workload, bureaucracy, pay cuts, changes to their pensions, and job cuts. Beth Farhat, Regional Secretary for the Northern Trade Union Congress, said in a press release on 21 October that

Teachers are deeply concerned about the impact these imposed changes are having on the morale of the teaching profession, the recruitment and retention of teachers and on the provision of quality education for pupils.

Particular union concerns include government moves to:

  • ‘deregulate’ the pay structure in schools (by ending incremental pay progression, for example);
  • review non-pay working conditions;
  • introduce longer school days and terms;
  • make further changes to the teachers’ pension scheme.

Series of regional strikes

The unions launched a programme of strikes during the summer and autumn of 2013 to defend teachers’ pay and conditions.

London NUT Regional Secretary Bob Stapley said that

This is a last resort for teachers but the absolute refusal of the Government to enter into meaningful talks to resolve the dispute has left teachers with no choice.

The first strike took place on 27 June in the north-west of England. Two further regional strikes were held in October:

  • a one-day strike on 1 October affected schools in eastern England, the Midlands, the Yorkshire and Humberside region and in parts of Wales;
  • strike action took place on 17 October in the north-east, Cumbria, London, the south-east and south-west of England and the remaining areas of Wales.

According to a BBC report, 2,765 schools were closed or partially shut on 27 June, 2,500 schools were affected on 1 October and 3,500 on 17 October.

Further strike suspended

The unions had planned a further one-day national strike before the end of the autumn term. However, after ministers agreed to discuss the dispute, the two unions announced on 25 October that they would suspend the planned national strike but warned that it would be held by 13 February next year if the talks do not result in ‘sufficient progress’.

A joint statement issued by the two unions on 11 November said that they welcomed confirmation by Education Secretary Michael Gove that he would secure talks with the unions about their concerns on teachers’ pay, pensions, workload and conditions of service and jobs.

The unions in turn confirmed that they had agreed to:

  • suspend the planned national one-day strike scheduled to take place in the 2013 autumn term;
  • engage constructively in an agreed programme of talks with the Secretary of State for Education to discuss the unions’ trade disputes;
  • seek progress in the talks with the Secretary of State;
  • review progress of the talks by January 2014.

Union reaction

The leaders of the two unions saw the ‘welcome change of heart’ of the Education Secretary as the direct result of the teachers’ industrial action.

Chris Keates, General Secretary of NASUWT, said:

Our members have no wish to see further disruption in schools and we welcome the fact that the strike action has provided a sufficient impetus for the Secretary of State to agree to establish a basis for genuine dialogue.

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, said:

We have always been available for such negotiations and would have preferred that this was a route the government had gone down sooner rather than later… For the sake of teachers and the future of our children’s education I sincerely hope that the government takes these talks seriously and we find a speedy resolution to our dispute. Failure to do so will leave us with no choice but to take further action as the issues at stake are far too important to be swept to one side. If there has to be national strike action it will be entirely the fault of the Secretary of State, Michael Gove.’

The Department for Education (DfE) issued no formal press releases in response to either the strikes or the reported offer of talks. However, a DfE spokesman was quoted by The Guardian newspaper on 2 October as saying that ‘All strikes will do is disrupt parents’ lives, hold back children’s education and damage the reputation of the [teaching] profession.’

Mark Hall, IRRU, Warwick Business School

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