In any democratic country, the rights of workers to engage in industrial action to ensure a fair wage and decent working conditions are protected by law. Whether it is ‘work to rule’ or outright strike action, many of the world’s most successful nations have a long history of industrial action, and most still experience frequent worker strikes.
In a healthy democratic society, when union-employer negotiations fail, workers have the right to ‘down tools’ to petition their employers for better wages, better working conditions and better treatment.
There is a strong argument that many of the world’s strongest economies are strong because of a the continuing effects of industrial action. If employers are forced to pay a fair wage, living standards inevitably rise. But if these employers are not challenged in this way, and if they can get away with minimising ‘staffing costs’, they will.
It is no different in the realm of education. A quick Google search reveals that just in the last few years, Denmark, Ghana, the UK, the USA, Kenya, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria and many others have had, or are considering strike action.
Yet whenever we do have teachers going on strike, the objections (usually from parents, headmasters and the education authorities) goes something like this…
Why do teachers strike, don’t they care about their students?
It is such a simple and seemingly strong argument that it actually prevents many teachers from joining strikes. But it is quite clearly fallacious, and quite simply wrong.
Teachers should go on strike exactly because they do care about their students.
How on earth can this be true? The answer is quite simple:
Teachers should go on strike to model the behaviours they want to instil in their students: standing up against injustice, making difficult decisions, and insisting on being treated with dignity and respect – despite such actions being very difficult and unpopular.
Those who are generally against striking teachers are government departments, school heads and parents, simply because it makes their lives difficult. Parents want their children in school, and principals want to minimise disruptions and the authorities want to keep wage costs down. The majority of teachers will submit to the rhetoric and bullying to stay in the classroom, rather than to stand up for what’s right. But if we transferred this lesson to our students, we would take education backwards by at least 30 years. Do parents really want this? Do principals? Does civil society?
But there’s more to it. The only way to make a decent wage in teaching is to get promoted, but as you get promoted, you step further and further away from teaching. So to make a decent living in teaching, you need to be promoted out of the classroom. How does that make even a little bit of sense? If the best teachers were paid better, they would stay in the classroom. How can that be bad for education?
Better salaries will also attract better teachers to the profession, and motivate those who are already there, hence, long-term, education benefits, even though there may be problems in the short-term.
In essence, teacher strikes are a crucial part of a wider revolution in education. If all teachers can see the value of understanding the deeper issues, of taking relevant action and overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges, then they can transfer this mindset to the classroom, and challenge students to do the same thing.
Granted, education is an essential service, but this cannot be used as an argument against collective industrial action. It is exactly because it is such an essential service that we must fight to make it even better.
Finally, I consider it an essential part of any wage deal that teachers commit to assuming more responsibility for offering their students the best education possible. In exchange for receiving a fair wage, teachers need to commit to enhancing their skills through committed professional development and to applying the principles of a more relevant and child-centred education. If this can be made a contractual obligation, just think of how education will benefit…
I look forward to your comments.