The junior doctors' dispute has combined with teachers’ anger and the Tory crisis to present new opportunities
The government has stumbled into a key trial of strength with junior doctors, who by the end of April had taken five rounds of escalating strikes, including a full walkout without cover. As the BBC’s health correspondent wrote after the full walkout, “this is going to be a fight to the bitter end…both sides have been briefing about how determined they are not to give ground. But who will break first? Ministers or doctors?” The answer will have far reaching consequences.
The attack on unsocial hours payments which lies at the centre of the junior doctors’ dispute was meant to be the opening round of a wider fight whose real target is the whole million-strong NHS staff. The Tories calculated that the junior doctors, who hadn’t struck since 1975, would offer an easy first victory. This has turned out to be a serious misjudgement. Alongside this, the sudden announcement by George Osborne in his ill-fated budget in March that every school in England would be forced to become an academy by 2022 sparked an explosion of anger among teachers and parents. It has also has reached deep into the Tory party itself. This transformed the mood inside the National Union of Teachers (NUT) which voted at their Easter conference to ballot for a series of “discontinuous” national strikes (ie not just for one day) and starting this term, to demand the reinstatement of national pay and bargaining. Together with the impressive victory by Scottish FE lectures, what we are seeing is the return of national action as bigger groups of workers than we have seen over the last couple of years show a willingness to have a go at the government and employers.
The past couple of years had seen a retreat from national action by the union leaders but a recurrent pattern of tough, protracted local disputes, often winning real gains or resulting in outright victories. Emblematic of this pattern was the 111 day strike at the National Gallery in London, which escalated to an indefinite strike, forced the reinstatement of victimised PCS union rep Candy Udwin and won major guarantees over terms and conditions for outsourced staff. But there were also key strikes by hospital porters in Dundee (13 weeks), homelessness caseworkers at Glasgow City Council (16 weeks), Lambeth College workers (42 days) as well as others.
This pattern continues, though sometimes with much quicker victories. So both admin staff and lecturers walked out unofficially to win the reinstatement of suspended Unison rep Sandy Nicoll at Soas, University of London, while Grangemouth dockers in Scotland forced the withdrawal of new shift patterns after winning solidarity from tanker drivers who refused to cross their picket lines. Strikes at Small Heath school in Birmingham defeated plans for an academy (though a key battle to reinstate victimised NUT rep Simon O’Hara remains) and there has been a flurry of strikes in the post, often over victimisations, at Bridgwater, Cupar in Fife and elsewhere. Teachers in West Dunbartonshire have held repeated strikes and threw out an offer that had seen strikes suspended at one point. CCTV operators and school janitors at Glasgow council have struck and other groups at the council are being balloted. Museum workers in Wales began an indefinite strike (again over pay for weekends) at the end of April.
These are important signs that beneath the apparently becalmed state of British industrial relations, with very low overall strike figures, there is a willingness among some workers not just to strike but to do so with determination and a spirit of combativity. But too often such strikes, however much they can inspire other activists and trade unionists, never gain the national visibility that could act to spur other groups of workers to fight by proving that action gets results. That’s why the junior doctors’ dispute — and 300,000 teachers moving towards strikes — is so significant: they are national events that cannot be missed.
Of course, we have in some senses been here before. Even since union leaders threw away the chance to score a breakthrough over the pensions dispute in 2011, we have seen other opportunities arise. In 2013 the two biggest teaching unions, the NUT and NASUWT, struck together in a series of regional strikes which were then abandoned. A year later local government workers and civil servants struck over pay, but a second strike planned for October 2014 was called off. Two four hour strikes by 500,000 health workers — the first national NHS pay strikes for 32 years — did take place in October and November 2014, only for this momentum to be squandered with no further strikes called. Each round in this cycle of mobilisation and retreat has produced frustration, sometimes leading to revolt (a special conference of Unison local government workers inflicted a defeat on the leadership but was unable to get action restarted) but more often to a sense of demoralisation and disengagement with the unions (witness the often dismal levels of voting in internal union elections).
So will history inevitably repeat itself once again? There are some differences that need to be taken into account.
Firstly, the junior doctors represent a new layer, thrown freshly into battle, who both lack experience of struggle but also any experience of defeat and who have grown in confidence and bitterness towards the Tories during the dispute. As recently as 2007 when thousands of junior doctors protested in London over reforms to medical training introduced by Labour, the then leader of the opposition, David Cameron, received a welcome reception when he spoke to the crowd. And even at last year’s junior doctors’ conference a motion calling for “strengthening links with other trade unions” was lost. Yet in practice this is exactly what has happened over the last few months. So trade unionists have joined junior doctors’ picket lines, and increasingly junior doctors are being invited to speak at union branches and conferences and, at least in some places, the BMA has started to hold joint rallies and marches addressed by other trade unionists, or in the case of the very successful joint BMA and NUT march in London on the first day of the full walkout on 26 April, organise them with other unions. In the face of repeated attacks by sections of the press and the Tories, and in the search for solidarity, a layer of junior doctors have begun to identify with the organised working class.
A second difference is that the mood inside the NUT shows signs of being much greater than 2011 or 2013. An emergency London demonstration the week after Osborne’s announcement, and when term was winding down for Easter, saw 2,000 teachers turn out, with smaller protests held across the country. (See below for more on the NUT.)
The third difference is the weakness of the other side. Despite winning their first majority government since John Major in 1992, the Tories are in some trouble with less than a year passing. The toxic combination of growing difficulties in imposing endless austerity, a fading economic recovery and a civil war over the EU referendum inside the Tory party fanning disputes that might have been containable into uncontrollable fires, more or less destroyed Osborne’s budget. After Iain Duncan’s Smith’s explosive resignation, Osborne was forced first to announce that planned cuts to disability benefits were to be scrapped and then that any further welfare cuts were effectively on hold.
This was followed by a major industrial crisis hitting the government with the decision by Tata steel to abandon UK production and sell its plants including Port Talbot in south Wales. The contrast was stark between Corbyn’s immediate demands for state intervention to protect jobs and the Tories’ floundering as they countenanced nationalisation, ruled it out and ruled (partial) nationalisation back in. And while the market threatened to rip apart communities in south Wales and northern England because there is “too much” steel in a world crying out for massive investment in renewable energy, the leak of the Panama Papers amply demonstrated that for the rich the market offers seemingly limitless opportunities to place their wealth beyond any public scrutiny. The most important point is that the weakness and division among the Tories has been visible to anyone that even pays passing interest to politics. The notion that the government can be beaten is much easier to see.
Building solidarity with the junior doctors is central to turning this potential into real defeats for the government. And here we face a problem. Too many union leaderships are sitting on the sidelines. The utter failure of the steel unions to call even a demonstration (except the one in Brussels they organised with Tata steel a few months ago) or to call for the industry to be nationalised have wasted both an opportunity to rock the Tories and the best guarantee of saving jobs. And despite verbal support too little has been done by the union leaderships to support the junior doctors who have effectively been left to fight alone for too long. In particular, the failure of Unison to open up another front inside the NHS over impending attacks on unsocial hours, something Unison health activists have been pushing for and raising on the union’s health executive, stands out. And the TUC’s attitude appears to have been good luck to the junior doctors but since the BMA is not affiliated to the TUC then it’s no responsibility of ours. And over the Trade Union Bill’s threat to union rights, the TUC’s approach has been to focus on lobbying the Lords for favourable amendments rather than any attempt at a serious mobilisation of union members to stop the bill.
Socialists have to combine incessant demands that the TUC and other unions act to support the junior doctors — for example by the TUC calling a national demonstration — with fighting to deliver concrete acts of solidarity with the junior doctors now and teachers in the near future on whatever scale possible. Similarly there must be continuous pressure for unions to fight together if possible but no concession to the idea that unions can win only if there is coordinated action. This is made easier by the fact that both disputes raise vital political questions — the fate of the health service and the education system in the hands of a Tory government determined to push forward an agenda of neoliberal, market driven “reforms”. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn’s dramatic catapult from backbench obscurity to Labour leader precisely rested on a widespread sense that Labour had failed to challenge, let alone stem, this destruction of the postwar welfare state.
The key to solidarity is tapping into that political mood — and such an understanding exists in much of the NUT and among many junior doctors. So junior doctors chanting “Save Our NHS” on their protests while the NUT adorns its conference with banners rejecting “Exam factories” helps carry the need to support their battles to a far wider audience and puts the government on the defensive. Socialist activists inside and outside the NHS have helped push forward local solidarity initiatives, such as the 200-strong rally by trade unionist and junior doctors at University College London Hospital during the first 48-hour strike in early March, and the vibrant 1,500-strong march in east London on the same day.
The decision by the NUT to co-organise a march with the BMA on 26 April in London and the move by the PCS and FBU to raise a call for the TUC to hold a day of action in support of the junior doctors marked significant steps forward. The TUC General Council disgracefully failed to act on this call, though it didn’t rule out considering it again in the future — every activist should get behind the demand for a day of action and a national demonstration. And Unite the Resistance can play a valuable role in providing a framework for discussions between activists and parts of the trade union leaderships about concrete solidarity action.
And in every union socialists need to be arguing that the combination of the fight by junior doctors, the ballot by teachers, the victory in Scottish colleges and above all the demonstrable weakness and division among the Tories, means this is a good time to fight. If not now, when? And if the answer is waiting for Labour in 2020 then not only is that too late, but Corbyn will only survive if there is a fightback against the Tories.
Forced academisation: a teacher speaks out
The government’s plan to academise every school in England, outlined in the misnamed “Educational Excellence Everywhere” White Paper, is coming seriously unstuck. Schools minister Nicky Morgan is already facing huge opposition, not only from teachers and their unions but also from leaders of Tory councils and whole swathes of Tory MPs who disagree with the removal of parental choice and who fear for the future of small rural schools.
A slavish addiction to the free market stands behind the Tories’ plans. Their vision is based on the US charter school system where all too often you can find 50 to 60 children, sometimes as young as five or six, sat “learning” in front of computer screens.
The lessons are taught by unqualified staff on low wages and using teaching materials sold to the school by the big edu-businesses such as Pearson’s. The result is de-skilled teachers in an exam factory education system.
Two things stand in the way of this Tory dream. Firstly, the system of democratic accountability of schools via the Local Authorities; secondly, the terms and conditions that teaching unions have won for teachers over the past few decades. Forced academisation is intended to remove these two barriers to neoliberal privatisation.
The National Union of Teachers annual conference took the decision to campaign against forced academisation and to ballot its members for strike action to restore national pay and conditions for teachers. This ballot covers all teachers, including those who currently work in an academy or free school.
Since the conference decision was taken, local NUT meetings have seen unprecedented numbers attending — in some areas double the size of meetings during the 2011 pensions revolt. Similarly, the response from parents has been huge, with over 300 attending the Parents Defending Education meeting initiated by the Anti-Academies Alliance and poet Michael Rosen.
News reports of an imminent U-turn on forced academisation abound and it looks as though the government may allow Local Authorities to form their own Multi-Academy Trusts as a way of quelling the anger.
However, this will not change the fact that this is privatisation through the back door. Moreover, it will not reverse the erosion of teachers’ national pay and conditions of service over the past few years, with many schools now choosing not to follow national guidance.
We should see any climb down as a battle won, but we must also fight on to victory in the wider war. Teachers must go on the offensive now to win national terms and conditions and thereby also undermine the privatisation of education in England.
NUT executive member for inner London (personal capacity)