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13 June 2011

Why the UCU is right to strike

The government is playing to the gallery and trying to avoid the legitimate grievances of teachers.

By Sally Hunt

Tomorrow we will find out if hundreds of thousands of school teachers from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and National Union of Teachers trade unions have voted to take strike action in defence of their pensions. My own union, the University and College Union, has already voted yes.

Educators do not like taking strike action. Our chosen vocation is to change lives and transform life chances and we are unlikely militants. So the prospect of 800,000 teachers in schools, colleges and universities being on strike should concentrate government minds on resolving the problem rather than seeking to shoot the messenger.

This strike of “the unusual suspects” will take place against a background of increasing intolerance of the right to strike from ministers. Vince Cable is the latest to tell trade unionists that if they organise effective action, government will be forced to change the law.

A moral panic about trade unions is nothing new. The Daily Mail has warned of no less than 14 summers or winters “of discontent” over the past decade. Yet the reality is that current levels of industrial action are one seventy-fifth of the level of the original “winter of discontent” in 1979.

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The right to withdraw labour is one of the few remaining options available to trade unions in any one-sided dispute with employers. It is also worth remembering that the right to strike and to form effective trade unions are guaranteed in every significant human rights charter.

In playing to the gallery, Vince and company are avoiding dealing with the substantive grievances that teachers have. College lecturers face paying an extra 3 per cent on top of their current pension contribution rates, which represents an extra £88 a month taken or over £95 in London. Government plans to change the indexation of yearly pension rises from the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the lower Consumer Price Index (CPI) would see lecturers lose thousands of pounds over their retirement.

The pension debate is just another example of where the government and media have been allowed to lead the narrative with ridiculous phrases such as “gold-plated pensions” – the average pension in local government is around just £4,000 per year and in the Civil Service it is £6,500. While ordinary people suffer these huge cuts in their standards of living, the richest 1,000 people in Britain saw their collective wealth rise by 18 per cent last year.

All this must give trade unionists pause for thought. Strikes are a vital part of our armoury but we must do much more besides. At our recent conference, I told UCU members our greatest challenge was to persuade the public that the public service we provide matters too much to cut.

Winning that argument is about making a positive, not just a negative, argument about our country’s future. Public services like education are central to our prospects of future, sustainable economic growth and to social justice.

Yet too often we allow ourselves to be portrayed as a drain on resources rather than a platform for prosperity and fairness. Persuading the public that what we do matters is the key to unlocking support in our struggles to defend our pay, pensions and jobs too.

We will be out on strike on 30 June, despite the threats and propaganda from government. Our job that day (and beyond) is to win over the hearts and minds of the public and demonstrate why education, and the people who deliver it, are so important to all our futures.

Sally Hunt is General Secretary of the University and College Union