Yet, the evidence suggests otherwise. And it is about time the unions started telling the truth. Teachers are much better paid than five years ago - and that has boosted teacher training applications by over 20% again this year.
Before schools returned last September, the unions predicted widespread four-day school weeks. It did not happen, even in the south-east. That is because recent shortages were mainly caused by the government giving un-hypothecated cash to schools, which head teachers used to create many new posts. Why else are 19,000 more teachers employed than four years ago?
The unions say morale has never been lower. Yet 80% of teachers told a national survey they were comfortably off. Teachers are supposedly leaving in unprecedented numbers. However, twice as many left annually before premature retirement rules were tightened in 1997. Ill-health retirement has also halved since then.
In the mid-1990s, teachers were lucky to get an inflation-linked pay rise, phased in to keep costs down. No longer. From September, a teacher with five years' experience can earn almost£28,000 with performance pay compared with£19,000 in 1997. In inner London, salaries will start at£20,733 - 27% higher than in 1997. Teacher salaries have grown by more than twice the rate of inflation.
Education secretary Estelle Morris was right to be outraged by the headteachers' boycott threat. Head teachers moaned for years about Whitehall and town hall interference. Now they have flexibility and money to pay their best teachers more (that does not mean every teacher), but they want ministers to do their job for them.
Some union complaints do have validity. Teachers work harder than before - though no more than other professionals, given their holidays - although they do also get improved resources. But even the workload is not all down to the government.
Ministers have demanded properly planned lessons, without which Ofsted would not be reporting higher teaching standards. But a typical teacher's 50-hour week in term includes up to 10 hours in pointless meetings that should be cut and administrative tasks that could be done by classroom assistants and school secretaries.
There is a strong case for thinking imaginatively about accommodation in the capital. Subsidised purchases can push prices up, so extending existing schemes could be counter-productive. Instead, since many teachers start in London but move out as they get older, councils should develop dedicated flats for teachers, nurses and police to rent.
Ms Morris should not shy away from telling it like it is at the union conferences. Teachers' leaders may not admit it publicly - but privately they know she is right.
Political adviser to former minister for education David Blunkett 1993-2001