Health and education. Two areas of policy vital to any government. And now it emerges that both could come out on strike at the same time.
General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers Christine Blower has revealed at the NUT’s conference that teachers could strike in solidarity with junior doctors, drawing parallels on difficulties faced by teachers.
Junior doctors have already staged industrial action and are to do so again, this time going as far as withdrawing the delivery of emergency care. This being in response to Jeremy Hunt’s insistence that he will impose new contracts on junior doctors having failed to reach agreement with the British Medical Association in one of the most protracted labour disputes of recent times. Meanwhile, teachers and education unions have reacted with anger to recent government proposals – likely to be included in legislation later in the year – that will require all schools to become academies outside the control of local authorities.
At one level, the support of one trade union to another is unsurprising. Transport unions have, after all, supported each other in disputes and strikes since time immemorial. And, to be fair to Ms Blower, there are some parallels in that both teachers and junior doctors have genuine concerns at the direction of government policy.
That said, both the NUT and the BMA could find themselves in adverse positions if they do in fact take forward collaborative and sympathetic industrial action. It will, at the very least, present both organisations with a significant communications issue they will need to overcome.
Despite junior doctors retaining public support during the course of their industrial action to date, polls have shown that support will decrease significantly when a strike includes the withdrawal of emergency care. If teachers strike at the same time, and if their action is seen by the public as being in solidarity with the BMA, expect that support to drop still further. The public has indicated it will be intolerant towards a lack of emergency care. Imagine the response if they’re faced with both no emergency care and the closure of schools.
From the teachers’ side, public sympathy will be severely tested by the closure of schools. Unlike the withdrawal of emergency care, school closures result in mass inconvenience with parents having to either take time off work or try to find space in childcare facilities that will be stretched to the limit. The public’s patience will tested still further if there is any sense that teachers are not the direct beneficiaries of a strike.
So, for all the talk of solidarity, strategists at the BMA and NUT have questions to answer. Because in this instance, working together might not be the best option.