Picket line is a last resort to teach Government a lesson
A teaching union is reluctantly balloting for strike action for the first time in its 127-year history, writes Mark Langhammer
For the first time since it was founded in 1884, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) will ballot its members across Northern Ireland to approve industrial action.
We do not take this step lightly, but the Government's pension proposals will oblige teachers to pay more, worker longer and get less in return.
Change to the pension calculation method was introduced unilaterally. Contribution increases were likewise announced without consultation, or negotiation.
We have tried every avenue to persuade the Government to listen - from Downing Street petitions to detailed letters to MPs.
In May, the Public Accounts Committee estimated pension costs will reduce by £67bn over the next 50 years. The National Audit Office report in December 2010 stated that public-sector pensions are 'sustainable and affordable'.
That's why our request to value the teachers' scheme, due in 2009, has not been done - lest it produce the 'wrong' result, one that contradicts the Government's ideological stance on pension affordability.
Our promise is that, if the actuarial valuation proves a deficit, we will negotiate pension changes to meet any shortfall.
So why impose changes? Simply, the Government aims to reduce the current budget deficit.
Pensions are calculated for 50 years ahead, so increasing contributions now is just a windfall tax - a £2.8bn raid, which teachers consider unfair.
If deficit-reduction is the issue, there are better ways. The annual 'tax-gap' of evaded, uncollected and unpaid tax stands at £123bn.
Recovering even half of this would boost the Stormont block grant by nearly £2bn, with no need for tax-raids, or cuts.
At just over £9,000, the average teacher's pension is hardly gold-plated. Teachers and lecturers are being asked to pay 50% more in contributions.
The change to career-average calculation (from final salary) will reduce pensions by 15%. The change to Consumer Price Indexing will cost a further 15%.
All this at a time when teachers' pay has been frozen for two years and our members face the same cost-of-living increases as everyone else.
Currently, hardly any teachers work beyond the age of 60, many leaving from 55 on reduced pensions.
Parents know that teaching is physically and mentally demanding. The Government accepts that firefighters and police officers cannot be expected to work to state retirement age, because of the special nature of their jobs.
Do we really want 66-year-old Primary 1 teachers? Or 68-year-olds taking PE?
ATL has never before taken country-wide strike action. It's not where our teachers want to be, but we are balloting for action on November 30 to encourage real negotiations.
The Government still refuses to supply any figures, or answer detailed fiduciary questions tabled six months ago. This failure to negotiate in good faith makes it impossible to have sensible discussions.
Strike action has a short-term impact on education, but these proposals will create long-lasting damage.
A decent pension scheme is part of the remuneration package without which many talented and motivated people won't join, or stay in, the profession, preferring to take better-paid jobs elsewhere.
As always, it will be young people who suffer in the end.