SNP’s sup­port from pub­lic sec­tor work­ers is un­der huge strain

The Herald on Sunday - - THE WEEK - By Paul Hutcheon

IF ed­u­ca­tion is the SNP Govern­ment’s top pri­or­ity, the sight of nearly 20,000 teach­ers as­sem­bling in Glas­gow to de­mand a 10 per cent pay rise is not an ob­vi­ous sign of progress for Ni­cola Stur­geon.

Yes­ter­day’s rally, against the back­drop of a po­ten­tial strike by teach­ers, also jars with how the SNP planned to gov­ern Scot­land in 2007.

Alex Sal­mond’s strategy was sim­ple. Im­ple­ment a se­ries of pop­ulist poli­cies. Avoid an­tag­o­nis­ing in­flu­en­tial groups of vot­ers or chal­leng­ing vested in­ter­ests. And build a big tent of sup­port that would vote for in­de­pen­dence. Clashes with teach­ers were not part of the script.

It has be­come a cliche to say that John Swin­ney is struggling as Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary, but it is true. His “gov­er­nance” bill was so woolly he couldn’t get a sin­gle op­po­si­tion party to sup­port it. Plans for P1 as­sess­ments were also voted down. Now he faces a teacher walk­out. One plac­ard at the Glas­gow demo de­clared: “Swin­ney is a ninny.”

Part of the salary row is a mess of his own mak­ing. In the mid­dle of last year’s Gen­eral Elec­tion cam­paign, Swin­ney in­ter­vened in the col­lege lec­turer pay dis­pute in a way that se­cured a vic­tory for staff over the em­ploy­ers. His ac­tions have a di­rect bear­ing on the cur­rent con­tro­versy.

The deal on pay “har­mon­i­sa­tion” for lec­tur­ers threw up some cu­ri­ous anom­alies. An un­pro­moted teacher at the top end of the pay scale can earn £36,480, while the salary of an equiv­a­lent lec­turer, who may not have a teach­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion, is £40,522. Col­leges warned the Govern­ment that teach­ers would not ac­cept such a dif­fer­en­tial.

Swin­ney and the coun­cils have de­cided to by­pass the trade unions by writ­ing a joint let­ter to teach­ers on their pay of­fer – a sign of a more con­fronta­tional ap­proach. The Ed­u­ca­tional In­sti­tute of Scot­land – the largest teach­ing union – has com­plained about the in­ter­ven­tion,

but so far there is lit­tle sign of a wider pub­lic back­lash at the move.

The Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary may also be con­fi­dent of hav­ing pub­lic opin­ion on his side. Vot­ers sym­pa­thise with teach­ers, par­tic­u­larly on work­load and pay, but per­haps not to the ex­tent that they are will­ing to fund a 10 per cent rise for ev­ery teacher, re­gard­less of in­come. Con­sider the con­se­quences of the unions’ pay de­mand. If this in­crease was agreed, head­teach­ers on £60,000 a year would en­joy a 10 per cent boost, while the coun­cil work­ers who clean their of­fices would get three per cent. Put an­other way, the same head would be bet­ter off by £6,000 a year, but a low-paid worker on £20,000 would see pay rise by only £600. Such an out­come would strug­gle to pass the fair­ness test.

Swin­ney will also be cal­cu­lat­ing that the EIS may strug­gle to win a strike vote. As a re­sult of Tory leg­is­la­tion, bal­lots have to achieve at least a 50 per cent turnout of el­i­gi­ble union mem­bers and, for a teacher strike, an ad­di­tional thresh­hold of 40 per cent of sup­port from all el­i­gi­ble mem­bers must be met. Th­ese are high hurdles. But Stur­geon should be wor­ried about re­cent events and what it means for her party. Women in Glas­gow last week took in­dus­trial ac­tion against the Na­tion­al­ist coun­cil over an equal pay row. Teach­ers are mov­ing in the same di­rec­tion. The SNP’s coali­tion of pub­lic-sec­tor sup­port­ers looks to be frac­tur­ing.

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