Earlier this year there was a big strike at the Girl’s Day School Trust (GDST) chain of independent schools over attacks on teachers’ pension rights. rs21 and NEU member Luigi Brindisi, one of the strikers, looks at the outcome of the dispute and draws some lessons.

GDST strike rally in Parliament Square, 22 February

The GDST strike, the first in the chain’s 149-year history, involving 23 schools across England and Wales, came as a response to management threats to pull out of the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS). It ended in the middle of March when strikers accepted an improved offer from management. The NEU has tried to put a more positive spin on the outcome, but the strike can’t be said to have completely won the pensions dispute.

Despite the massive strike votes in the beginning (the postal ballot for action saw an 84% return with a 93% vote for action) the 1,800 NEU teachers at GDST have reluctantly voted to accept a deal which will see current staff remaining in the TPS, even if they change jobs within the group. However, no new starters will be allowed to join the TPS, and any increase in the employer’s TPS contributions will be clawed back from yearly pay increases – so some teachers could be left with no increase at all.

Effectively this means a 2 tier pensions and pay structure, which may prove to be the undoing of TPS in the group. While this was a better outcome than all teachers being forced off TPS and onto the ‘flexible’ pension scheme, it is far from a complete victory.

I will try to summarise here some key lessons and points from the dispute.

Experience

Most of the NEU members involved in the dispute had little or no experience of strike action, beyond the national one-day strikes called to defend the TPS nationally in 2011 and 2014.

At the beginning of the process with some teachers were convinced that just winning a strike vote would be enough to get GDST to back down, and some union officers didn’t seem to want to suggest that the strike was almost certainly going to be necessary to defeat a management who were threatening fire and rehire to get their way. This may have led to some false expectations among the members.

The management were much more intransigent than anyone really expected, and the NEU negotiators were a bit blind-sided by this, expecting to be talking to management from before and certainly once the strikes had begun.

The dispute has made some teachers revise their opinion of management and has also had the effect of making links for the NEU within and between schools in the group (management has been trying to get, particularly, teachers to do this for years without much success!) which has cemented the union together.

Isolation

Three of the schools had sufficient NASUWT (another teaching union) members to conduct a ballot and two of them voted to strike as well. There was little attempt to co-ordinate with NASUWT, largely because the NEU is the only recognised union for any staff. Indeed there was a degree of friction in some schools, and ironically NASUWT members had a one-day strike at the two schools after the NEU dispute was over.

Until a week before the first strike there was quite a lot of talk about possibly offering strike pay to NEU support staff who respected picket lines – there are around 200 support staff in the NEU across the schools.

The dispute did not affect support staff directly, as they were already on a defined contributions scheme, and encouraging other members not involved in the dispute to strike would have been unlawful.

However, the NEU lawyers ended up advising the union to tell support staff members that they had to cross the picket lines but not cover any work usually done by teaching colleagues. Given that the management had themselves said that they respected the right of support staff to respect colleagues picket lines, this was a major retreat at a crucial time.

As a consequence, very few support staff felt confident to not cross the picket line. Given the situation in the schools during the first three days of strike action, this could have been crucial to tipping the balance as even 100 extra pickets nationally could have really boosted the confidence of the strikers.

Lack of consultation early in the dispute

During the first three strike days (10, 23, 24 February 2022) the mood was very upbeat at most schools, with excellent turn outs for picket lines.

On 23 February there was a strike rally in Parliament Square with 4-500 strikers hearing speeches from strikers, ex-pupils, MPs and other notables, which gave everyone involved a boost.

At the rally we were told that management had made the first of their ‘full and final’ offers. This offered a bribe of £2,000 for teachers to voluntarily join the new scheme, with a year’s extension to the timescales initially proposed. They had also said that the money they would save by removing teachers from the TPS would allow them to offer a two-year pay deal of 7.5% and 3.5% for ALL staff.

On the plus side, the NEU reacted well to this, demanding that all support staff should receive this anyway as they were not in a good pension scheme like TPS. The 3rd week of action was scheduled for 1-3 March.

The union announced before they started that they were calling 3 day strikes for the following few weeks due to legal requirements. While there were very good reasons for this, some strikers thought it was too much given almost no movement from management. Although there were regular reps Zoom meetings, there had been no mass member meetings so on 1 March some members went back to work, which did begin to deflate members where pickets abandoned the strike.

Finally the NEU called an all member webinar to talk about continuing the dispute. Although this technology is relatively new in industrial disputes, it does offer the chance to seek the views of members across the country. In fairness the NEU did recognise that there is still too little opportunity to discuss the issues in this format. However, with 800 members on the call the vote to carry the strike on by 58% to 42% did mean that the confidence of those still striking was boosted and the mood on the picket lines the next day was vastly more confident, I did think that Joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney looked surprised at the vote.

The next webinar, on 2 March, had over 1100 members on the call and by this point the union asked if members were willing to suspend strike action if GDST agreed to meaningful talks at the conciliation service ACAS. There was a 90% vote in favour of this, clearly demonstrating the uncertainty that had seeped into members. GDST did not agree by the 6.30pm deadline so the strikes went ahead on 3 March.

For those of us who remember the 1970s and 1980s, going to ACAS is a set-back in any dispute, as once members are back at work it is much more difficult to keep a dispute’s momentum.

Management’s offers came in initially proposing that teachers could only stay on TPS if they stayed in the same job at the same school, but they then back-tracked to allow all existing members to stay on TPS even in the event of promotion or moving school within the group.

The main sticking point was the refusal of GDST to allow new starters to join TPS, which was considered unsatisfactory by the majority of members.

It should be said that if management had begun with this proposal the strike would have been far less likely to have begun in the first place, GDST clearly thought NEU members would just soak up the loss of one of the few remaining defined benefits pension schemes left, but the threat of fire and rehire angered teachers immensely.

The final deal

The NEU negotiators came back after 2 weeks of talks with another ‘full and final’ offer from GDST.

This took fire and rehire off the table, consolidated the 7.5/3.5% 2 year pay deal for support staff and teachers who left the scheme, and offered teachers who stayed in 3.5% and maybe a bit next year – more than the mainstream sector were being offered. However, it still allowed GDST to put ALL new starters on the new scheme, and cemented the split in pay and pensions at the schools. This was the 3rd ‘full and final’ offer

Very few members thought it was a good deal, and the NEU did say they were not recommending acceptance, but neither did they recommend rejection of the deal. There was time set aside for school NEU groups to meet and discuss it, but the momentum had been lost and the final vote was 70% to accept and 30% to reject it on an online vote.

Overall, we have to accept that the dispute was a qualified victory, out of which the union has been strengthened, and the vicious and truly capitalist nature of the GDST management has been clearly exposed. A former CEO of the group had been critical of the management strategy, on the basis of keeping good relations and valuing teachers as the group’s main asset, but the current leadership are nakedly in favour of treating their workforce as expendable, just like most management.
More could have been won but it would have taken a more resolute campaign in the NEU once management initially refused to talk.

Parents meetings were organised, but mostly by union officers in the final week of the strike. There should have been an earlier intervention and school groups encouraged to organise them with support.

The mass webinars should have been called earlier in the dispute to maintain a sense of democratic control over decisions, even when management were not talking.

Overall, the network of reps has at least come into existence and there are WhatsApp groups of NEU activists in most of the schools now. In each school there also emerged a group of members who were still prepared to continue the fight, these members should form the basis of NEU organisation.

Lastly, the threat of fire and rehire was forced off the table. However, the NEU cannot be satisfied with this outcome as it opens up the possibility of other chains closing the TPS to new starters.

James B of east London rs21 adds

“The management of at least one other independent school withdrew their threat to fire and rehire teachers to force them off the TPS.

GDST schools are not the only place where the TPS has been under threat. At the independent Forest School in Waltham Forest, NEU and NASUWT members struck together in early March against an attempt to force staff into an alternative scheme using ‘Fire and Rehire’ tactics. Unity amongst the staff backed up by support from parents and trade unionists from the community led to the school withdrawing its threat. In an excellent video by Strike Map local NEU officers describe the growing confidence of school staff in Waltham Forest.”

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