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.