The newly formed National Education Union is currently balloting for action. Andrew Stone, secretary of the Wandsworth district of the NEU, gives a personal view on the prospects for the new union and the left within it.
The fireworks around the world that greet the start of 2019 will coincide with a less dramatic, but still notable, event – the completion of the merger of the NUT and ATL into the National Education Union. With 461,950 members (as of the end of 2017) it is the largest education union in Europe, and is currently engaged in an important indicative ballot for action over the education funding squeeze that grips the sector.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that, “total school spending per pupil has fallen by 8% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2017–18”. Virtually every education worker has stories of staff cuts, increased class sizes, reduced student support and much else to illustrate the human costs that we need to fight. On top of this our pay has been cut more than 12% in real terms in a decade, with most teachers still receiving a real terms pay cut this year, contrary to government claims.
The ballot was launched in November, with state school teacher members sent an online voting link (with the exception of three districts, which were postal balloted as a control group). Meanwhile, the head teachers’ unions NAHT and ASCL balloted around the same issues but with a less explicit question on the willingness to strike. Clearly, there are benefits to working alongside these unions: it can raise the confidence of members and may help shut schools in the case of strike action. At the same time, we need to guard against the risk that it might reduce the pace and radicalism of action.
Education remains the sector with the largest proportion of unionised members in England, although at 48%, this reflects as much the weakness of other sectors as education’s strength. While as many as 97% of teachers were in unions as recently as 2013, blanket recruitment has become increasingly difficult due to the proliferation of academies and free schools, as well as the replacement of much university-based teacher training with a fragmented schools-based programme.
Add to this a growing workload-fuelled retention crisis – with the number of working-age teachers leaving the profession increasing from 25,000 in 2010-11 to 36,000 in 2016-17 – and you get a big churn of members and reps that provides a further challenge to consistent union organising. Even beyond the 10% of teachers that leave the profession each year, many switch schools in the (often futile) search for a more congenial work-life balance.
The unevenness of the union’s strength is apparent to anyone who has been active in building the ballot. We have been tracking school turnout at regular intervals. The unevenness is apparent on multiple levels: between the former sections (the NUT has traditionally had a more activist orientation than the ATL), between districts (denser metropolitan areas are generally stronger than the dispersed rural ones), between sectors (bigger secondaries mostly provide more fertile ground for collectivism than primaries) and between schools, depending on whether reps are doing the regular work of bringing members together in action.
So the cynical view that the union leadership is deliberately attempting to wage an unsuccessful ballot is far from the truth. One prong of this argument is that the initial email ballot link was sent from ‘Kevin and Mary’ (i.e. joint general secretaries Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted) rather than from the NEU. But this was based on analysis that members, no doubt swamped with marketing and work-based emails, were more likely to open an email from this address. It has been followed up for those yet to vote with emails, texts and postcards from the NEU, while phone banks have been set up to ring reps and members. Local officers have also been provided with a range of technical and institutional support to speak to members through reps and at meetings.
Some critics have also complained that the membership database was unavailable for secretaries for several days towards the end of December, as the NUT and ATL databases were fully merged. But the alternative – to delay the ballot until the New Year – would rightly have garnered more criticism.
Another concern is the exclusion of teaching assistants, independent school teachers and supply teachers from the ballot, but this reflects a fear of breaching the anti-union laws and therefore invalidating the ballot rather than an attempt to weaken it, even if that may be its indirect effect. The leadership have also committed to including these groups in action in the future when possible.
The lack of clear timetable for action after a successful vote is an understandable concern. The union has been involved in several rounds of balloting over the last decade on pay, pensions and workload, and for a variety of reasons well-supported national strikes have not developed beyond protest actions into the kinds of sustained campaigns that could deliver tangible victories.
The leadership clearly intend to follow up a successful indicative vote with an official ballot before the March spending review. However, if we don’t convincingly surpass the new legal thresholds of a 50% turnout (with 80% voting yes), then there is the risk that they may only ballot stronger districts to ensure success. The trouble is that this is likely to entrench the disparity between districts and stymie the potential to revitalise weaker ones.
The union is not led by right wing wreckers, but by a left wing forced to grapple with the contradictions of managing a bureaucracy. A painful example of this is the recent industrial action by NEU employees in the GMB and Unite, who struck over downgrading and job cuts caused by financial pressures exacerbated by a cut-price membership war provoked by the NASUWT and condemned (with its customary lack of effect) by the TUC. GMB and Unite members are supportive of the merger but retain, with good reason, strong grievances about the manner in which it was carried out.*
The left leadership is committed to a member-led union, but there is a significant disparity between ambition and reality. In the recent union elections the NUT’s Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA), who were the force behind Kevin Courtney’s original election, won 32 seats on the massive 76 member executive, making them the largest but not a dominant group. This slate includes many of the best activists within the union, but the turnout– of mostly between 5-8% per district – shows the weakness in member engagement.
Even the STA’s biggest advocates would also recognise that its profile and influence at national conference was never matched by a substantial recruitment of rank and file teachers. This will be one of the key challenges facing the new NEU left grouping that the STA and others are seeking to pull together. The principles around which it is seeking to do this are laudable, if at times vague – such as pushing a ‘member-led union’, a broad and balanced curriculum, social justice, a fight for equality and internationalism.
Any such alliance is bound to require a degree of compromise, but also political tension. There are, for example, arguments that socialists must have about the fundamental compatibility of trans* and women’s rights, a position that is not held by all within the union’s left. Just as in the workplace, though, it is possible and necessary to have these arguments within a collective struggle rather than from a position of sectarian isolation.
Despite the range of challenges outlined above, NEU members have a vital opportunity in 2019 to begin to turn around the narrow, austerity-ridden form of education that drives so many education workers to distraction (and other careers). We have until Friday 18 January – when the indicative ballot closes – to get the biggest possible turnout, and to lay the foundation for this struggle.
The online indicative ballot opened on 15 November and runs until January 2019.
*NB. This article was amended in the light of feedback about the GMB and Unite disputes.