NEU radicals?

Andrew Stone, Joint Secretary of the Wandsworth branch of the newly formed National Education Union, writes in a personal capacity on prospects for trade unionists in education after the merger of the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

NEU new trade union
The joint strike actions of 2011 were critical in laying the foundations for unity | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Numeracy: On 1st September the UK’s fourth biggest trade union was born – the National Education Union. A merger between the biggest (NUT – 333,705 members) and third biggest (ATL – 125,814 members ) teachers’ unions, the NEU now represents over 450,000 people, making it the biggest education union in Europe.

History: It’s been a long time coming. For years teachers have despaired of the divisions in the staff room, and slogans of seeking ‘professional unity’ have run up against institutional inertia and bureaucratic self-interest. While good reasons could be proffered for historic splits (with, for example, the NUT’s support for equal pay for women since 1919 standing to its credit as against the opposition of the National Association of Schoolmasters), for many teachers such issues had long since been lost in the mists of time. When, in 2011, ATL took national strike action – for the first time in its history –  alongside the NUT (and University and College Union and the Public and Commercial Services Union) to initiate a public-sector pensions dispute, the two began to forge a much closer relationship. A professional unity conference and joint initiatives against academisation paved the way for motions passed overwhelmingly at both unions’ special conferences, confirmed by membership votes (of 97% in the NUT and 73% in ATL), for combination.

Psychology: A bigger union will undoubtedly give a boost to the confidence of some members and reps. It’s not a magic silver bullet for industrial success though, and some union mergers in the past have been motivated by a pessimistic desire to consolidate in a period of membership erosion. The key will be effective campaigning.

Politics: Some NUT activists have expressed concerns that the ATL, traditionally more likely to include middle and senior managers and less likely to take industrial action, will dilute the militancy associated with the NUT, which has been responsible for notable successes like the introduction of London weighting payments. But while it’s true that some people may have joined the ATL for its ‘moderate’ reputation, many will have done so just because it was the first union they came across or which asked them to join. The same is true of the NASUWT, the second biggest teachers’ union, which, despite its General Secretary Chris Keates’ implacable hostility to professional unity, often works co-operatively with NUT members in schools and localities. There will undoubtedly be some membership churn in the wake of the merger – but for every NUT or ATL member that leaves there could be several in the NASUWT, or who are currently un-unionised, attracted to the idea of a bigger, campaigning union.

Critical thinking: Another criticism from some NUT members has been the inclusion of support staff in the NEU. The NUT has traditionally only recruited qualified teachers (or those training to be qualified teachers). While the principle of resisting casualisation of conditions is a good one, the way to achieve this is surely to unite teachers with cover supervisors, teaching assistants and others within the sector, rather than to look to a form of exclusive craft unionism. The notion of ‘professionalism’ can have a progressive meaning – as a defence of teacher autonomy and of schools as public services rather than education factories. But we should view all education workers in these terms, and find common cause.

Music: However, recruiting support staff, as well as lecturers in further and higher education, risks creating disharmony with other unions such as Unison, GMB and UCU. Putting energy into membership poaching would be self-defeating. While union density is good among teachers, at around 97% it has dipped below 50% in the education sector as a whole, showing lots of scope for recruiting the previously unorganised. And if the NEU is effectively making a difference at a local and a national level then it will attract members from other unions that aren’t keeping pace –competition can be healthy if is based on industrial success rather than cut-price memberships or shopping discounts. Many reps will have had similar experiences to me – when we have taken strike action, or boycotted administration tasks, or walked out of over-running meetings, we have recruited. We should always try to orchestrate these actions with other unions where possible, and put the case for them at joint meetings. But sometimes a brave solo can make more impact than a muted violin concerto.

Geography: The ATL has traditionally had a more centralised approach than the NUT, which prides itself on the initiative of its local associations. The latter approach is surely preferable, and can potentially mobilise a layer of ATL members previously merely ‘serviced’ by their union machine. At a school and college level, organising and balloting for action should become more straightforward than previously, which is one counterweight to the added restrictions created by recent anti-Trade Union legislation.

Resistant materials: Teachers are arriving back in school to face crippling funding cuts, unfeasible workload, redundancies, an ongoing pay cap, a bullying inspection system and a curriculum that fails many of our students. The NEU has lots to say about these issues, but the test will be how it puts its principles into action. Whether this involves a quick national ballot or a more complex local or regional strategy is up for debate. But we need to start as we mean to continue – fighting to make a real difference for everyone involved in education.




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