Teachers in the National Education Union are receiving their re-ballot papers this month, deciding whether to continue striking into the autumn in the face of anti-worker sentiment from all angles. For many, it comes down to weighing up working conditions and learning conditions – a decision no teachers are taking lightly.
If you think teachers are already in the throes of industrial action, you would be right. But the unions aren’t simply sending out paperwork for the sake of it – they are legally required to “re-ballot” members after six months of industrial action to renew their mandate.
This is relatively old news under the Trade Union Act 2016, legislation which, alongside this year’s Public Order Act and not-quite-yet-enacted Strikes Bill, creates an incredible triple-threat of anti-worker laws
The latter sets out “tough new laws” for a “minimum level of service” from institutions looking to strike. Essentially, if you’re going to strike you need to have a backup job ready to go, as failure to comply could lead to being sued by your own boss.
Obviously, if everyone in industries with shite working conditions could simply get themselves a cushty fall-back job to go to, with no societal consequences when this happens en masse, no one would need to strike in the first place.
That isn’t an option for the vast majority, which is why the Bill would be so crippling for workers rights (not to mention the other small victim, the foundations of democracy), should it become law.
Jenny, a member of staff responsible for early careers teacher training at a secondary school in Cambridgeshire, said: “If we are expected to work in some capacity then what’s the point? In the caring professions, when they’ve been on strike, there is a contingency plan already in place. There doesn’t need to be a law because the last thing these professions want is to put people’s lives and futures at risk.”
“Putting the minimum service rules in place is, yet again, the government’s way of saying they are in control and making all the decisions on the strikers’ behalf.”
Amy Long, a third-year primary and early years teaching student, said: “It’s just hard because the government aren’t listening and understanding. Putting a new legislation in place won’t make anyone happy and won’t solve anything”.
In a PMQs session earlier in the year, when the Strikes Bill was in its early stages, Sunak criticised Keir Starmer for not standing up for workers and businesses who will lose business because of various industries’ strike action.
This was yet another sly attempt to paint the victims of industrial action as everyone other than the workers whose job conditions are so bad that they are forced to do it.
Many people are in support of the strikes, perhaps because of the sheer number of people who work in the public sector or know someone who does.
In September 2022, 5.77m people were working in the public sector, accounting for approximately one sixth of all people in paid work in the UK.
Amy said: “With the strike ballots going on now, I understand why they’re doing it and that teachers should have a good pay for the amount they do. I also don’t like that they’re striking because the children are missing out, and it’s not fair on them either.”
A survey from The Guardian suggested that 40% of people support primary school strikes while 43% oppose them. Within the remaining 17% of people who are unsure, there is still enough weight to significantly sway the balance.
The same poll claims that 57% of people support nurses strikes and 52% support ambulance strikes, so clearly the public aren’t that concerned by the idea that they’re missing out on a couple days of ambulance trips. Perhaps, then, the unions need to be doing a better job of relaying information to the public.
Jenny said: “I voted without hesitation in agreement with striking primarily because the conditions and workload needs to change. I see people under a lot of pressure especially working with early careers teachers; we’ve had one recently who left within only their second year of teaching because of the stress it causes.
“Of course I want to improve pay – not only for myself, but for people coming in – but it’s not even just down to the pay in my opinion, it’s that the government was wanting the pay increases to happen out of the school budget. That means that our budgets are being pinched even tighter and tighter. More schools then won’t be able to replace teachers who have left, therefore the quality of education will start to decline in the long run for students.”
It seems that the government’s answer to pleas for increased wages is that it should come from within, and it’s their stubbornness and anti-worker attitude that is holding the country ransom, not the strikers who can’t make ends meet.
The NEU will decide on the 17 June whether to strike again in early July.