Schools out!

Issue section: 

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) is preparing to ballot over 200,000 members in England and Wales for strike action against below inflation pay rises.

The ballot starts on 28 February and NUT activists are confident that it will lead to the first national strike by teachers in more than 20 years, on Thursday 24 April.

The decision to ballot was taken after the government announced a recommendation from the School Teachers' Review Body (STRB) that teachers should get an increase of 2.45 percent in their pay in September 2008. This would be the first year of a three-year pay deal, which would see below inflation pay rises until 2010.

Although the 2008 award was in fact higher than we were expecting, which we think is down to effective campaigning by the NUT, it is still nowhere near enough to satisfy our members. Teachers heard the news of the 2.45 percent award in the same week that a number of energy companies announced increases in their charges by up to 15 percent.

Key to the NUT's decision was a recognition that our campaign is part of a joint public sector campaign. We hope that a vote for action by NUT members will encourage other unions as they start talks on their 2008 pay settlements.

Teachers' pay has been subject to "boom and bust" policies in the last 15 years. At times teachers have seen significant rises in pay, only to see this eroded as pay fails to keep pace with inflation. Since 2004 teachers have had pay rises below inflation, to the extent that the pay of a starting teacher is currently more than £1,000 below what it would be if we had kept pace with inflation. Under the new award, by 2010 the pay of a teacher at the top of the scale will be £9,000 below an inflation linked pay level.

The government's attempts to hold down public sector workers' pay exposes the scam of using the consumer price index (CPI) to set pay levels - a figure that does not include housing costs. The CPI is about 2 percent, whereas the Retail Price Index (RPI), which includes housing costs, is running at more than 4 percent.

Private sector wages, rent rises and pension increases are usually based on the RPI, but the government insists on using CPI when discussing the pay of public sector workers. Obviously Gordon Brown does not think we have rents or mortgages to pay.

It is not wage rises in the public sector that cause inflation - something acknowledged by the governor of the Bank of England, who cites rises in energy costs and soft furnishings as the main drivers.

The strike ballot by the NUT is a welcome step in the long campaign to challenge the government's pay policy, which has already seen action by civil service workers, postal workers and prison officers, as well a huge demonstration by the Police Federation last month.

Despite Gordon Brown's pleas to the TUC in September to show pay discipline in order to battle inflation, it is clear that the government and trade union leaders are finding it increasingly hard to dampen down the expectations of members, who see huge bonuses and salary hikes in the financial sector while their pay falls behind.

NUT members will recognise that the NUT cannot win our pay fight in isolation. We know that what we are doing is challenging the government's economic policy and that this will require a concerted effort across the public sector, including coordinated strike action where that is possible.

In 2005 the threat of mass strikes across the public sector unions forced the government to climb down on wholesale changes to many of the pension schemes. We need to repeat the level of determination and campaigning that we showed then in this pay campaign.

This is a long campaign in which the NUT ballot is the next step. Throughout this campaign NUT branches have been showing solidarity with other workers through visits to picket lines, inviting speakers to meetings and collections.

In the coming weeks, as well as seeking to ensure the best possible result in the ballot, NUT activists will be aiming to win support from other trade unions for our action. If the strike goes ahead on 24 April there will be rallies in London and other major cities, which will be vibrant, and we will welcome delegations from other unions.

Alex Kenny is an NUT executive member and is writing in a personal capacity