Will this be teachers' winter of discontent?

With even the more moderate teaching unions balloting for industrial action, there is a real prospect of strikes – and widespread school closures – later this year.

This is not Thatcher," said one seasoned delegate as lecturers debated strike action over the Government's cuts at their annual conference. "They're already making U-turns. We can win on this. We cannot squander this opportunity."

In a sense those words sum up the feelings of the teachers' and lecturers' unions, who are currently engaged in a war with ministers on two fronts: the public spending cuts and the threat to reduce their pensions. There has been talk of a "summer of discontent" – mainly because the teachers' unions – or at least the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) – are balloting on strike action, which would begin with a one-day stoppage on 30 June. Lecturers and civil servants are likely to be joining them on the picket line.

However, there will be only one day of action this summer. It is in the autumn that the mettle of the teachers' unions and the determination of the Government will be tested. If there is no flexibility on the part of the Government over pensions (and the signs from negotiations so far is that there is not), the third teachers' union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers is likely to join in the action.

Headteachers, too, will be balloting on industrial action for the first time. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) have already decided to go down this route and the Association of School and College Leaders has already found from sounding out its members that they would be prepared to follow suit.

It would be unprecedented for schools to face industrial action from five unions – including two representing headteachers – at the same time. It would make it likely that most of the state schools in the country would close (and some in the independent sector, too).

Both the NUT and ATL have talked in their conference motions of "discontinuous" strike action, ie, a series of strikes spread through the winter months. Not for nothing, then, did Alan Whitaker, president of the University and College Union (UCU) until its recent conference, warn of the prospect of a lengthy period of strikes. "It won't be easy and it won't be pleasant but – in order to achieve anything – we have to be prepared for sustained periods of industrial action," he told The Independent. "I just hope we're going to find our members are up for the struggle."

Are they? Now, I do not want any public sympathy for this, but I have sat through four union conferences over the past few weeks. The delegate quoted at the beginning of this piece may have been referring to action over spending cuts but, if anything, I have detected more of a mood of militancy over the threat to pensions than the public spending cuts. Certainly, it is the pensions threat that has got the backs up of the ATL, which is also contemplating national strike action for the first time in its history, and the NAHT.

According to union estimates, the average teacher will have to fork out an extra £100 a month for their pension. Given that most will still retire at 60 because of the exhausting nature of the job, even though the retirement age is eventually raised to 68, that would cost them another £100. You can also see why headteachers are in the front line of opposition. One of the proposals is to base pensions on average salary rather than final salary. Heads, of course, have the highest final salaries.

On the public spending cuts, while one can see sporadic strike action in some local authority areas with the deepest cuts, on their own they would be unlikely to provoke the kind of sustained national action that union officials are talking about.

The $64,000 question – as the saying goes? Will we see a sliver of discontent this summer lead to the kind of autumn and winter of discontent that we have not really seen in this country since 1979?

Back to our delegate at the UCU conference. He would cite the Government's U-turn on selling off the forests and the "pause" in its plans for National Health Service reorganisation as evidence that the Coalition can quite easily be put on the back foot by determined opposition. Some would also argue that Universities minister David Willetts' refusal to issue an immediate denial of a story that he planned to allow rich parents to spend more to get their offspring into elite universities until Downing Street horror at the reaction to the plan, as further evidence of the flaky nature of government thinking.

On the other hand, the tuition fees demonstrations before Christmas failed to dampen the enthusiasm of ministers for raising fees to up to £9,000 a year from September 2012.

It will all probably boil down to a question of who blinks first and, remember, the delegate is quite right to point out that they are not lined up against Thatcher. They are taking on a Coalition Government and a Coalition Government where Liberal Democrat MPs are becoming increasingly queasy at being painted as responsible for the savage nature of the cuts in public servants' living standards.

We shall get a clearer picture of the determination amongst union members for the fight when the results of the NUT and ATL ballots on strike action are declared next week. It will be the ATL result that is the most important. If it produces a substantial majority in favour of industrial action on a good turnout, that will be a blow for the Government

Make no mistake, though. Middle England, in the guise of headteachers and independent-school teachers, is up in arms over the Government's proposals. Exactly how far they will go to scupper the proposals is unclear as yet, though.

However, it may be that thoughts of the electoral consequences of upsetting this constituency may have a greater bearing on the outcome of the forthcoming dispute than the prospect of the one-day "general strike" by all public sector workers which has been the theme of most union conferences this spring.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux ...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before