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