This piece is one of two on the current NUT pensions ballot – you can read the “Yes” and “Yes” piece here.
It isn’t exactly a slogan you would write on a banner for a march, or emblazon above the doors of Congress House, but at heart, in a mature democracy, the business of unions is the business of compromise. As teachers, we have legitimate interests in the education system within which we work, and in the society of which that education is but one, very important, part. Others also have legitimate interests in education: most obviously, the children whose education it is but also their parents, who pay for the system through their taxes, and the politicians elected to resolve these competing tensions. If things go well in a conflict between those interests, it is possible to create win-win scenarios for everyone but other times, you have to settle for less than you wanted – you have to make the best compromise you can, in the interests of members, and in the interests of being ready to face the next challenge.
In the case of the pensions struggle, the time has come to settle – the result isn’t what teachers wanted, but it remains an offer better than many outside of the public sector across the country will receive, and it is time to prioritise the next struggles the union will face, and put this one to bed.
I’m not going to dispute that this will mean teachers suffering a change to their pensions which is not fair – but as I have pointed out before, being right has not been enough to give us victory before, and it won’t be this time either. In the end, victory will go to those who can claim public support: the Tories care for power more than anything else, and if we could make them fear for their seats, perhaps we could win a victory. But the public support is simply not there at the level we would need, and there is no reasons to think that will change: there is a mountain to climb in overcoming in the public’s mind the government’s charges about “gold-plated pensions” and a further strike is not the right tool to use – we have had two exceptionally high profile strike actions, with more unions and more workers on the march than can possibly be the case for a third action; if we haven’t won the air war by now, and we haven’t, another strike is not going to win it for us.
All this might matter less if this really were the great battle of our time – if this were the do-or-die issue where loss would mean destruction of our movement, and we must fight on no matter how vanishingly small the chance of victory. But we have to be honest, this is not that issue – not only will we continue to have a relatively generous pension, but more importantly, this is not the last, nor even perhaps the most important, fight teachers are going to find themselves in with this government.
Gove is giving his directions to the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) who make recommendations on our pay: regionalisation of pay is on the cards, which could be the beginning of the complete deconstruction of national pay and conditions, and with it the structures of pay, progression, career planning and all the rest. In short, all those calculations we’ve made about what we lose from our pension pots will mean nothing if the whole pay structure is changed and the basis of those calculations disappears into smoke. It may be we can engage constructively and proactively with a new pay settlement (higher wages for working in schools with higher levels of Free School Meals, for example) but with a Tory government, we obviously have to prepare for another possible campaign. If we are chained to an ongoing pensions dispute with little chance of victory, we face the choice of either not fighting changes to the fundamental structures of our pay, or attempting to mount two massive national campaigns at once, a situation for which it is doubtful if either members have the stamina or the union the resources.
The time has come for us to face the hard choices of compromise that ultimately make up the real work of unionism. What is on the table from the government is better than what was there at the beginning – we already have the best victory we will get. We will win nothing more by further action, and indeed can only lose time, energy and resources that would be better spent preparing for the next challenge.
The struggle is not the victory. And for that reason, I will be voting “No” and “No” to the NUT’s pension ballot.
John Blake (@johndavidblake)