Thursday, 30 June 2011

Defend our pensions! June 30 strike rally speech by Brighton NUT rep Hazel Rees

(Top: Police estimate 4,000 people took part in the magnificent strike demonstration, and below: Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas speaks to the strike rally in Hove Town Hall, alongside striking ATL, NUT, PCS and UCU delegates) 

Hello, it is a privilege to have been asked to speak to you this afternoon.

I want to dedicate this speech to two people. This is dedicated to you if you are taking action for the first time today. And it is dedicated to you if you are the only person from your school here today. Can we give those people a huge cheer?

I want to talk about why we’re are all here today, striking and marching together in the centre of Brighton. We are not here just because of our pensions. We are here because we care about our schools, we care about our profession and we care about our children.

Do we want our children to be taught by 68-year-olds trapped in their jobs by the pension system?

Do we want teachers to face crippling increases in their monthly contributions? For some teachers, like single parents, these hikes will genuinely mean them no longer being able to make their mortgage payments.

Do we want young teachers to leave the profession? For newly qualified teachers, already entering the profession with massive debts, being asked to pay 10% of their salary in pension contributions will be the last straw.

I am still paying off £90 every month to the student loans company. The government now want me to pay over £60 more in pension contributions each month. I am already paying £144 in pension contributions. Altogether, this would mean paying £294 every month, just on my pension and student loan, before I’ve even looked at paying the rent or feeding the cat.

I know that if I had been faced with that in my first year, I would have had no choice but to opt out of the pension scheme. I imagine most teachers starting out would be forced to make the same choice. With the majority of new entrants opting out, the very stability of the scheme will be threatened.

When I finally get to draw my actual pension it will have been cut 15%. This cut was slipped in during April this year when the interest rate was changed from RPI to CPI, and has been applied to all pensions retrospectively.

How MP Danny Alexander could stand up last Friday and say: “No ifs, not buts, your accrued rights will be protected,” when they have already been savagely attacked, frankly beggars belief.

I despair for the children in my class – I spend so long impressing upon them how important it is to tell the truth, and then the leaders of our country behave like this.

As if that wasn’t hypocritical enough – guess which inflation measure is used to calculate my loan? No surprises, it’s RPI.

Where is this £60 they want to take from me actually going to go? The changes made in 2007 are on track to make the necessary savings – even Hutton admits that! As Mary Bousted from ATL says, the money they’re taking from us isn’t going into our pension scheme, it’s being used to plug the deficit caused by the bankers gambling recklessly with our economy. This is not our crisis! We will not pay for it!

As a Year 1 teacher, I keep a stack of spare pants outside my classroom, they often come in handy. I was chatting to another Year 1 teacher this week who does the same. In fact, she said she’s started collecting a second bag of pants, but this one is for all the 68 year old teachers the government wants in school!

Seriously though, just because we are living longer, 65 is still 65, and teaching is still a mentally and physically exhausting job. For me the most important reason for taking action here today, is for the future of the children in our schools.

I believe that we are in the most important profession in the world. Children deserve excellent teachers. Teachers, forced to stay in the classroom beyond 65 because they are financially trapped will not be excellent teachers.

Yes, Danny Alexander, we do have a pensions crisis in this country. The pensions crisis is in the private sector. Was it caused by hard working teachers, nurses, social workers? Or was it caused by the big companies taking long pension contribution holidays when the stock market looked good? Everyone deserves a decent pension, and I am here today to demand decent pensions for every worker – in all sectors!

In the 1940s in this country, the focus was on welfare and building better communities. We built the National Health Service, we built new universities, and we built a rail service that worked and didn’t treat people like cattle. This philosophy, of building societies for our welfare has all but gone, replaced with the drive to continually maintain our competitive edge and become ever more efficient. I am here to say enough is enough! Life should not be judged by shareholder profits – it is time we returned to welfare and compassion.

Teachers, we are the first domino. If we fall, others will fall. If we stand up to the government and refuse to be knocked down, if we win this fight, we are helping every other worker in this country stand firm.

Finally, I have a message for Mr Gove, who seems so concerned about teachers’ reputations. Mr Gove: Parents won’t lose respect for people who stand up for what is right.

Colleagues, I know that making the decision to strike today is not easy. I know it is difficult to be under pressure from the likes of the Daily Mail and to be face to face with that one unsupportive parent, but I’m here to say that doing the right thing is not always easy.

Across the world, teachers' trade unions understand that difficulty. Four years ago, the government in Iran banned the teachers’ trade union. Did they take the easy option and give up? No, they have continued to fight against low pay, despite facing beatings and detentions.

Last year one of the activists from the union in Iran was secretly executed. His name was Farzad. He was given the death sentence in 2008 after a trial lasting five minutes. He won the right to appeal, and yet before reaching the Supreme Court, his lawyer was told that his file had been ‘lost’ and Farzad was still executed.

I want to read you an extract from a letter which he sent whilst in prison. At the time of writing this, he had been tortured so badly that the last time his family saw him he couldn’t walk. The letter was addressed to other teachers who have been imprisoned, and I read it to you today to applaud you for joining other teachers around the world who don’t take the easy option but do what is right.

Farzad starts his letter with a little black fish. The little fish lives with his mother but decides to travel away from his stream and has adventures in the river. His adventure continues until lots of rivers join together and become the sea. Farzad then says, suddenly, he spotted a large group of fish. There were 10,000 of them, and one said to the little black fish, “Welcome to the sea, comrade!

"Is it possible to be a teacher and not show the path to the sea to the little fish of this country? Is it possible to be a teacher and be responsible for spreading the seeds of knowledge and still be silent? Is it possible to be in the year of no justice and fairness and fail to teach the H for Hope and E for Equality, even if such teachings land you in prison or result in your death?"

Farzad was 32 when he was executed and had been a teacher 12 years. His only crime was being a trade unionist. Yet despite that, he was prepared to swim against the current and stand up for what is right.

I am proud to be a teacher. I am even more proud to be a trade unionist teacher. I am proud to be in a school where every single member of full time staff is out on strike today. I am proud to be marching in Brighton where nearly 90% of schools are closed. I am proud to be standing here together alongside members of ATL, alongside members of UCU and alongside members of PCS.

Let the Daily Mail rant about our holidays and Gove imagine that parent helpers can run schools – we will stand together and stand up for what is right. To those of you little fishes who are taking action for the first time today, welcome to the sea!

I am proud to be part of a profession and trade union movement which stands up for what it believes in. I am here to stand up for the public sector, and I say to the government: