Today (Thursday, June 27) members of two teacher unions in the North West of England are due to go on strike. While my union, Voice, respects the right of others to take industrial action, and shares their concerns about pay, conditions and the government’s education policies, our members do not strike.
Such strikes miss the target. They fail to have an impact on those responsible for the disputed policies – ministers and the government. Instead, they cause inconvenience for pupils, parents and non-striking colleagues, damaging pupils’ education and staffroom colleagues’ working relationships.
Those who advocate strike action claim that there is “no alternative” because “everything else” has failed. But do they really think that Michael Gove, of all people, will suddenly agree to union demands because of strikes? A man who wears votes of no confidence as a badge of honour, like a rebellious teenager with an ASBO, and dismisses critics as “enemies”, thrives on such disputes.
This is what he has been waiting for: a showdown to “break” the teaching unions, the consequences of which could reach beyond those unions and those they represent, as Mr Gove continues to advocate so-called “alternatives” to unions, and legislation to weaken them could be on the cards.
At a time of continuing national economic uncertainty, when the press delight in laying the blame for society’s ills at the feet of teachers, strikes provide opportunities for Mr Gove’s friends and supporters in the media to portray all teachers as militant hardliners unwilling to change at a time when most other professions and workers have no other choice.
Voice opposes government interference in education, which continues to have a damaging impact, eroding teachers’ status as professionals. As a profession, we should not simply oppose all change as a default position. What we should and do oppose is how that change is implemented, the pace of that change, the impact on pupils, and the failure to engage with the profession.
This current industrial action is a political action and its purpose seems to have become to influence political change through force, outside the democratic process. Historically, in a less sophisticated and more polarised industrial society with no alternatives, strikes were integral to the trade union movement. However, in education especially, they should be left in the past as they serve no constructive purpose.
The core purpose of unions is to protect their members, whether collectively or individually. Like our fellow unions, and often with them, Voice works hard on its members’ behalf to regain the status of the profession and to counteract political interference.
The role of unions in a modern society is to promote the professionalism of their members and to engage constructively. Teachers are not the “enemies of promise” so we should not make the promise of enmity. We must make our case and gain the respect of the public directly, through the media and by the way we conduct ourselves, winning the argument, and hearts and minds, on the curriculum and on our conditions. Attempting to go down fighting, bringing down the wreckage of trade unionism on top of us all, is futile and counter-productive.
There is little, if any, public support for strike action by teachers. For the sake of the profession, schools, students and education, the way forward has to be through reasoned negotiation and evidence-based campaigning – the force of argument, rather than the argument of force. Only through negotiation, will we protect our members and re-establish and raise the professional status of teachers and all members of the education team.