Schools strikes are suspended in Wales following a new offer from the Welsh government. rs21 teachers explain why it’s a bad deal and argue for stepping up rank and file organisation.
Yesterday, an emergency meeting of the NEU National Executive voted to suspend next week’s strike in Wales. NEU members in England will still be striking on 15 and 16 March.
The suspension in Wales is to allow time to put a ‘new’ offer from the Welsh Government to members. This offer will see:
No additional pay or funding for support staff
For teachers, an additional 1.5% (backdated to September 2022) plus
A one off (unconsolidated) 1.5% payment and
A 5% offer for next year (September 2023-2024)
This offer to be funded
The offer is not good enough. It ties teachers in Wales to two years of real pay cuts and has nothing at all for Welsh support staff who struck alongside teachers. It does include a funded element, but if that money is there now it will not disappear while we fight for increased funding from the UK government. The offer itself is not dissimilar to what was offered the last time strikes were suspended in Wales (in the run up to the 27 February strike) – an offer that was subsequently rejected.
We urge all teachers in Wales to reject this deal. Teachers, and education, are worth more than a marginally smaller real terms pay cut.
Why the suspension?
Both our General Secretaries recommended suspended the strikes yesterday, and should answer to members about why they want to recommend an acceptance of so little. From the outside, this looks like the old story of trade union leaders who are one step away from the action losing their nerve. The GSs’ primary role is negotiation with the DfE and they seem panicked by the DfE’s refusal to talk.
However, the strike on the ground has been much more solid than we could have hoped. We have had more pickets than ever on our first day, and have largely held our numbers through the regional strikes. But our General Secretaries are not part of the workplace discussions about picketing or supporting the next strike day that give us the confidence we can take the campaign forwards.
Where there is frustration on the ground, it often stems from the lack of strategy beyond 16 March, but this is no excuse to call off action. It does highlight the lack of an organised rank and file voice inside the union that can hold our executive to account. We will need as many school meetings as possible in the coming weeks to debate next steps and press the executive into calling the sort of action needed to win.
The current strategy of the leadership seems to be rooted in a belief that the Tories can be embarrassed into negotiating a deal. There is no evidence of this, despite it being a central thread in interviews and articles from both our General Secretaries. A similar deal to this was offered by the Welsh government in the run-up to the regional strikes: it didn’t force Keegan to the table. What will force the government to the table is a credible plan for escalation. The Tory government are playing to a base that believes ‘facing down the unions’ is a show of strength. They will only be forced to the table by a credible threat of escalation
Wales was the only place where support staff crossed the ballot threshold. This deal abandons them, and will fuel the belief that support staff are second-tier members of the NEU.
Schools cannot operate without support staff and education doesn’t work without them, so why should they be treated separately in a deal? If we fight together we should stand together until we both win.
Wales is not Scotland
For some, this offer is seen in the same context of the EIS (Educational Institute of Scotland) deal in Scotland. The Wales offer isn’t comparable. Firstly, the Scotland deal is much more generous. Secondly, it was won after a serious campaign and can rightly be seen by activists and workers on the ground as a win – this is important for the legacy of organisation that that progress will leave behind. Lastly, the EIS have won previous large victories through industrial action and so didn’t need to climb as big a mountain this time round. Scottish teachers’ pay is substantially greater than that of their Welsh colleagues.
We should celebrate the deal in Scotland as a partial victory. But Wales is not Scotland. In Wales, we have held two strike days, one vote to reject the first version of this offer, and are now being asked to sign up for two years of real pay cuts again. Whilst the executive has not made a recommendation on how members should vote, they have provided no plan for what would happen if members vote down the deal. Welsh members have been presented with a fait accompli – accept this deal or step into the unknown. A vote to accept the deal is a vote to accept a defeat – or at best a score draw for teachers – rather than a cause for celebration.
If we are to accept the Welsh government’s claim that this is as high as they can go, because Westminster holds the purse strings, then a united strike on the 15 and 16 March, aimed squarely at the government, would be better for everyone involved. If only the UK government can provide the funding needed then we should be maintaining the largest united front against the Tories possible, not pulling one of our strongest areas out of the strike. United escalating action is the only way that we can secure extra funding for Wales.
The effect on the campaign in England
In the run up to our first two day strike, with a mass protest planned in London for Budget Day, with teachers being joined by striking doctors, lecturers and civil servants, the suspension of these strikes weakens our campaign against the Westminster government and undermines the wider strike wave over pay. It sends a message that we will call off action for a tiny percentage improvement and no movement on our wider demands about reclaiming education.
Our executive will meet again on 25 March. Given the time scales for announcing action, this meeting has to announce some initial date for escalating action, and a plan to put to conference. There is a left majority on our executive but too many on the executive are pulled by the pessimism of the right within the union. We need to make sure the March 15 and 16 strike days, and the London demonstration, are as strong as possible. A show of strength this week is vital to send a message to the government that we can fight to win and to strengthen the resolve of our own executive. Between March 16 and 25 we need to widen the debate about what next to as many members as possible.
Next steps for NEU activists:
Building March 15 and 16 is vital.
We need the largest show of strength possible to demonstrate our ability to escalate and win. Every last person we can get to the London demonstration matters.
We need to put an argument for escalation.
The government is losing the argument in society and we should not be giving them breathing space. We have a duty to call more strikes this week, rather than waiting until the exam season.
School meetings before the executive meets on 25 March.
Getting teachers and support staff in schools together and talking seriously about the next steps in the dispute is key. We should be voting on what we are fighting for and what we are prepared to do to win. We need to send reports to our executive members to argue our case on 25 March.
Reballot support staff
The executive must back the call to ballot support staff. We should not be waiting for other, more conservative, local government unions on this. We know what education needs and this shouldn’t be beholden to negotiations with the LGA.
Start to network rank and file activists
We urgently need to organise a network of rank and file NEU activists who can organise within the union. It is clear that without this, the left leadership caucus in the NEU Left are too beholden to the bureaucracy. As well as supporting the Notes from Below Schools Bulletin, we are helping initiate a Schools Workers Organising Network so that we can start work together in the current dispute and discuss how to build rank and file organisation in our union.