The National Union of Teachers is planning a strike in England and Wales on 10 July because apparently the government is failing to make progress on a long-running dispute over pay, pensions and workload. Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT said “For teachers, performance-related pay, working until 68 for a full pension and heavy workload of 60 hours a week is unsustainable.”
In the UK there is a legal right to strike – and some would call it a human right to strike. It stems from the recognition of collective bargaining in the late 1940’s and is supposed to be act as a deterrent to prevent “bully boy” tactics by employers. Which all sounds very reasonable and logical. However what happened in the 1970’s showed that it could also be used by “bully boy” trade unions to get their own way as short-sighted union officials nearly bought this country to its knees.
In the mid 90’s I used to work for a company that had historically strong trade unions. One Saturday morning, I needed a trailer to be moved away from a loading bay to be parked in the yard. Just 1 trailer that would have taken 15 minutes to move. I asked the team of 4 shunt drivers whether anyone fancied the overtime only for my attention to be drawn to the union agreement. It stated that any weekend overtime needed to be offered to the entire shunt crew rather than any individual as it wasn’t fair to favour any one over the others and any employee turning up for weekend work would be paid a minimum of 8 hours at double time. So for 15 minutes work I would need to pay 4 people the equivalent of 16 hours pay each – in other words 15 minutes of work would cost the company 64 hours of pay. And by the way – no one other than the shunt drivers was allowed to carry out that work so we couldn’t bring anyone else in to do it either. My hands were tied and there was nothing I could do. I was so annoyed, I decided to have none of them in and leave the trailer where it was until the following week – it caused me a lot more work to re-jig the schedule but there was no way the union was going to blackmail me.
At the end of the day, the unions can hold massive power. A power that a company simply can’t compete with. That sort of power needs respect – by those who are against it but more importantly those who have it.
My example showed an agreement that was designed to “protect” the employee, but simply created a division between employees and management. An agreement that elevated workers rights far beyond what was sensible or appropriate. An agreement so inefficient that it could only lead to the demise of the company and instead of talking about overtime, we’d eventually be talking about redundancies – especially in a global economy. As with most things, the problem is people. In order to be an effective trade union you need to balance the long-term benefit of both the company and the employee. To recognise when the company is being too demanding, but to also recognise when the company needs to make changes to survive and prosper. To do that effectively, you need to have sat in the Management seat and had the experience of taking a company forward. Trade Unionists who have not been Managers are recipes for disaster.
Similarly, however management need to recognise the importance of their employees. Without the employees a company is nothing. How can a Manager who has never had experience working in the conditions experienced by some of the employees possibly understand their needs. Managers who have no experience of doing – on the streets, in the factory, in the yard – are a recipe for disaster.
So let’s move on to the teachers. To remove labour from our schools is significant. There is little more important than education and depriving children of something so fundamentally important is concerning. So surely it must be the last resort – well I mean surely it must be the last resort since the previous last resort strike in March.
But does the NUT have a legitimate cause? I know there are other issues at play but let’s look at the 3 points mentioned by Christine Blower – performance-related pay, working until 68 for a full pension and heavy workload of 60 hours a week.
- Performance related pay: The idea to reward better performance sounds great but it all comes down to measurement, subjectivity and mitigating factors. More often than not, employers measure the wrong things, often in a subjective way, without taking into account the circumstances. So rather than be productive, they can actually de-motivate. Teaching is about enabling each child to reach their potential and there are a whole range of factors at play. It is pointless and hugely subjective to measure a teachers based on the results of the children. Is a teacher with pupils achieving A* grades performing better than one achieving B? Is a teacher with a class where 99% achieve A*-B better than a teacher with 50% A*-B ? No – we have no way of knowing because we don’t understand the influencing factors outside the control of the teacher. Performance related pay can only be divisive for teachers.
- Working until 68 for a full pension: The truth of the matter is we’re living longer and there is already a massive public sector pension deficit. No-one likes the idea of working longer for the same pension but you have to be living on Mars not to realise things can’t go on as they are. Private sector pensions have been severely hit over the last few years with the removal of final salary schemes, greater employee contributions and an increase in pensionable age. Many companies (massive household names) have huge pension deficits that they are trying to fund and many will go out of business as a result. At the end of the day it’s basic maths – what’s paid in vs what needs to be paid out – and if the payments out are greater than the payments in then we have a problem. That’s exactly where we are and as a result, I have absolutely no sympathy for teachers on this issue. Teachers need to accept that everyone will face the same issue and given that their pension schemes are already far better than many they should be very grateful.
- heavy workload for 60 hours a week: A nominal school day is between say 9 and 4 so potentially it’s a 7 hour day times 5 days per week which equates to 35 hours per week. So that figure of 60 hours would suggest every teacher is doing 25 hours extra per week or potentially 5 hours per night – which does sound rather a lot of marking, class preparation, extra curricular activities, report writing etc. Whilst many in the private sector are equally flogged, if teachers are really working 60 hours per week, then it is too much. It’s too much because it would appear that our teachers, who’ve been trained to teach, are in fact spending almost as much time not teaching as they are teaching. However to strike about this seems almost counter-intuitive. The teachers will now have less days to cram in the same amount of work – assuming they’ll still follow the curriculum. It would be better instead to concentrate on removing the non value adding tasks – and there are many in our schools – and making others more efficient. I know the NUT and it’s members are probably up in arms throwing tantrums by the dozen because of the suggestion they are not 100% efficient – but none of us are and occasionally we can all do with re-pointing.
So there is only 1 point that is a justified grievance. Performance related pay is a nonsense. But is it really so serious that the only way out is a strike? I think not! The real motive behind this strike are not the issues of debate but a jostling for power and that sort of strike takes us back to the dark days of the 70’s and is an abuse of the right. The NUT flexing it’s muscles against the unpopular Michael Gove who has the audacity to attempt to change a system that in all honesty doesn’t work as well as it needs to in the modern world. He might not be right in some of what he’s trying to do, but the NUT are plain wrong.
Teaching is a difficult job and in our blame culture they are at the coal face when it comes to looking for excuses. It’s not made any easier when the people supposed to represent them pursue a self interested agenda – and when you consider the hundreds of pounds the teachers pay for the privilege it’s almost laughable.
Perhaps children should go on strike to protest about teachers going on strike – then we’d really have something interesting on our hands.