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Fallout from teachers strike – New Labour launch attack on public services

John McAnulty

22 November 2004

In earlier articles we have reported on action by the teachers unions in the North and their defeat. We now report on a counter-offensive by the Blair administration that indicates savage cuts in pay and conditions of service for teachers, overall cutbacks in education provision and a mass attack of the major employment sector in the North – the public service workers.

In the summer term of 2004 teachers’ unions in the North of Ireland launched industrial action to protest the refusal of government to maintain pay parity with teachers in England and to oppose government proposals relating to performance related pay. The campaign was largely invisible to everyone, largely because it was based on the idea of unity of the various union bureaucracies, most of whom totally oppose industrial action. At least one of the unions in the ‘united action’ – the head teachers’ union – spent the whole campaign scabbing and trying to break the campaign.

The campaign collapsed and the union leaderships sold out in September, accepting that their members would remain one year behind the English system on the upper pay scale and that further progress on this scale would depend on the acceptance of performance related pay.

The other element of union strategy had been a sort of parochialism. Over a decade ago the failure of teachers’ industrial action in England and Wales had led to their loss of negotiating rights. These rights have never been restored by New Labour, and teachers’ pay and conditions have been determined by an ‘independent’ committee controlled by the government. Unions in the North avoided the fate of the British unions by quickly surrendering before their negotiating rights could be removed. Since then they have been dancing in the cracks – negotiating on peripheral issues while in reality bound by the British settlement.

The arrival of a Stormont government led to a sort of ‘Stormont idiocy’ common throughout the union bureaucracy. Perhaps local politicians such as then education minister Martin McGuinness would be more amenable to improvements in teachers’ pay? In this case an independent enquiry – the Curran enquiry – might persuade them to act. Such imaginings were always removed from reality and ignored the reactionary nature of local politicians, British control of the purse strings and Sinn Fein’s enthusiastic support for Public-Private finance agreements when in office. In any event the comic-opera Stormont structure was removed to be replaced by steely-eyed Blair hatchet men. The independent enquiry changed direction to cut teachers’ pay rather than increase it.

The strategy of the union leaderships following their capitulation was to claim victory and to aim for progress through pressing for implementation of the second part of the Curran report, proposing improvements in working conditions and reductions in workload.

The British response was a swift kick in the teeth. The Curran report was immediately binned on the grounds of lack of funding. A draconian system of performance-related pay was imposed, with a pay award of 6.25% over 3 years – well below inflation. The unions were then informed that in 2007 full-blown regional pay would be introduced and the treasury had calculated that teachers’ salaries were 20% above private sector equivalents. In other words, teachers could look forward to pay cuts in coming years!

Incredibly only the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) representatives voted against the deal!

This isn’t some small issue for teachers, hardly known for their union militancy.  Blairite hatchet man Barry Gardner has launched an all-out attack on Education and Library Boards and their provision for children. Their expenditure has risen as a result of extra-legal rights for children with special needs – rights granted by the Blair government. In effect Blair is announcing that these rights to equal opportunities in education are to remain entirely theoretical and will not be funded. When we take into consideration the fact that the much-heralded end to selection in the North is to be accompanied by the retention of the grammar schools and that a new ‘vocational’ curriculum much more directly linked to the needs of bosses is being introduced, it is not hard to see that the working class faces the greatest threat to its right to education that it has faced in generations. In addition the clear intent is to introduce regional pay across the board – plunging an area already at the top of a whole series of poverty indicators further into penury.

The fact that the majority of teachers who voted in the two main teachers’ unions voted for strike action shows that there is some material base for a fightback – similar indications have come from the fire brigades members and from civil servants. The fact that the union leaderships capitulated so readily, without calling even a hour’s stoppage and without allowing their members the right to vote, indicates the obstacles to such a fightback and the need to build rank and file defence structures in the unions.


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