Andrene Bamford, EIS President
Seeing our comrades from other unions taking a stand against the pay cuts inflicted on us as a result of the cost-of-living crisis, and noting walk outs from postal workers, refuse collectors, train drivers, even the barristers, has made me rather nostalgic for my school days of the 80s during the Thatcher years.
My working class parents would tut and mutter whenever they heard Thatcher speak on the news. My dad would invariably turn to my mum and say, “She’s evil, Emily. Pure evil.” And my mum, who would never admit to being particularly political, would roll her eyes and shake her head in disgust, in complete agreement. Even at that point in my life, which, let’s face it, was more about George Michael and Simon le Bon, I got it. As a household, we’d already given up our phone and our holidays, and my dad’s employment tottered between industrial action, a three-day week, and redundancy. However, in my heart of hearts, I couldn’t help but have a sneaking, secret, admiration for the woman.
First of all, she got rid of the mandatory school milk. This was always lukewarm (in our school), and I was constantly trying to perfect the art of pretending to drink it and casually placing the full carton in the bin so the teacher wouldn’t notice. But more importantly, even as a self-confessed school swot, there was nothing better than an unexpected day off. And Maggie Thatcher was responsible for loads of them in the 80s. First were the elections, which she always seemed to schedule on my birthday (9th June if you’re interested). So, as both my primary and secondary schools were polling stations, I got a day off. I actually got to a point where I thought a day off on your birthday was part of the deal in life. This was good enough, until the time when the strikes came.
I could not believe my luck when we were given letters in Registration. The rumours had already been pervading the school like the aroma of cakes in an oven. But here it was, iced, with a cherry on top. Basically, if your teacher was on strike, you were not to go to their class. Strikes were every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, for, well, ages. The striking unions were listed, and the teachers in each union were included below. Even then, education loved an acronym, and I scanned the list for my teachers, NAS, SSTA, NUT, EIS, EIS, EIS, EIS, EIS…Yessss! I was only going to be in school on a Monday and Friday for the foreseeable future. Only one of my teachers did not strike, disrupting my dreams of endless pyjama-clad, daytime-TV filled days.
That’s how I saw things then. Now, I realise the only reason I was able to turn my nose up at the school milk was that I would have gone to school that day with my belly full of the milk that had been poured liberally over my cornflakes (boiling hot in winter, ice cold in summer, the only two acceptable temperatures for milk), and the reason that after the strikes were done, I still managed to get my five highers and get into university, was because, although we didn’t have much money, I was lucky enough to live in a safe, secure home environment.
So here we are again with the prospect of teachers going on strike over another sub-inflationary pay offer, that won’t come close to covering the food and fuel costs that are spiralling out of control.
We know of plenty of young people and families who are facing this crisis, but are, sadly, not afforded the rosy outlook that I was. For them, this is a truly frightening time. Liz Truss (Thatcher number two) wants us to ride the storm together. We’re not in the same storm. Her storm is not going to put the roof that’s over her head in danger or force her to make a choice between a full belly or warm feet.
Many will point the finger at teachers and accuse us of making young people, in this period of education recovery, collateral damage as we make demands for an unrealistic wage hike. To them, I say this, we owe it to the next generation, to the young people who are watching the news and reading the headlines, who may be beguiled by Truss when she gives the impression that we’re all in this together, to take action. We owe it to them to take our stand and refuse to accept the inevitability of a cost-of-living crisis. We owe it to them to shame our governments and decision makers into fixing this sorry mess, to make sure that when these young people join the workforce, they have wages that will more than cover the cost of their living. Let’s be clear: this pay campaign is about far more than just pay.
So, back to Maggie. Do I still have a grudging admiration for her? Of course not. I do, however, have a massive admiration for the teachers who went out on strike in the 80s. Their action meant that when I started teaching in the 90s, my wages were better for it. They also made me sit up and take notice of the EIS, so I knew that when the time came, there was only one union for me. Finally, they showed me that I have a voice, a powerful voice, a teacher voice, that can be used to speak up and speak out against injustice and poverty. To any of the 80s strikers I know who are reading this, I hope I said thanks when you started reminiscing about the strikes of the 80s over our staffroom coffees. If I didn’t, I’m well and truly saying it now. Thanks!