Without organisation, we have nothing: building a rank and file organisation in schools

After a momentous year of workplace struggles, rs21 teachers discuss the need for ongoing rank and file organisation across schools and propose an open meeting to start discussions about its development.


Save Our Schools march and rally, Central London, 15 March 2023. Credit: Steve Eason/Flickr.

In July, NEU members voted to accept the government’s 6.5 percent pay offer, ending strike action over pay and funding. Whilst 86 percent of members accepting the deal was a strong majority, in reality our union’s paid and lay bureaucracy recommending an ‘accept’ vote, deliberately ambiguous statements over the potential ‘take it or leave it’ nature of the offer and holding the consultation at the end of the academic year were significant factors.

However, as workers, we must reflect on our strength. Our lack of an established ‘rank and file organisation’ across our union continues to limit our capacity to act independently to our trade union bureaucracy.

Last month’s announcement that the government has ‘miscalculated’ school funding for 2023/24 brings school funding to the fore and raises the prospect and need for strike action next year. It also highlights the flimsy arguments from the trade union bureaucracy when arguing for partial concessions in return for throwing away our strike mandate. Our aim is not strike action for the sake of winning strike ballots, but long term pay restoration and taking control of our workplaces and education system.

So what is meant by a ‘rank and file organisation’? What examples can we look towards? What are our next steps?

Militant minority strategy

Some 25,541 members voted to reject the government’s pay offer, going beyond the union bureaucracy’s conservatism. This is a solid basis for a militant minority’ strategy. This is where the most politically advanced layers of a trade union (on tactics, strategy and organising) are talking, debating and acting together. Where the inspiring leadership of a minority, in turn, radicalises outwards the majority of workers.

In the US, reforming groups like CORE in the Chicago Teachers Union have pursued this type of strategy. Usually, like with our recent dispute, the spark for such a movement comes from a provocation by union leaders. To grow, however, these movements need to develop a strategic agenda of their own. In Chicago, CORE changed the narrative and won a base opposing school closures and politicising the issue of austerity – in a city where closures were targeted at the poorest Black and Latinx communities. Our militant minority needs to identify the issues our leadership can’t or won’t fight around.

Why is this needed?

Currently, our strongest workplace organisers are scattered across thousands of workplaces, branches and districts. What is needed is a rank and file built and led organisational vehicle capable of cohering and politicising the most militant layers of the union; to connect this year’s strike action to a yearly battle for pay restoration and the dysfunction of the capitalist education system; to explain the nature of the trade union bureaucracy whose recommending below inflation pay offers is down to material interests rather than moral fortitude and a space for radical socialist political education.

A rank and file organisation would deepen activity in our union branches and district, revitalising often moribund local structures – where district meetings are composed of workplace delegates dictating the organisational priorities across a geographical region.

And what of the existing ‘left factions?’ Unfortunately, the NEU Left’s inability to cohere its Executive majority around a sustained plan for pay restoration shows that it is simply an internal electoral vehicle and can’t be a core for rank and file organising.  To be clear, leadership positions are important but this dispute showed our Executive is not subordinate to the power of the rank and file. Our lack of strength has resulted in a paternalistic relationship where our elected executive officers consider themselves anointed experts over a membership incorrectly characterised as disengaged, apolitical and unwilling to fight.

The Socialist Teachers Alliance, a significant component of the NEU Left, is a moribund organisation with little presence in workplaces. Furthermore, its ‘gender critical’ position on trans liberation places itself on the wrong side of history and continues to alienate the vast majority of rank and file workers particularly at our annual conferences.

Sadly, some national executive members have not seen a classroom for decades, and this severing of an organic link to the workplace results in an inherent conservatism shared with trade union officials. This analysis was proven when the NEU Left could not join forces with rank and file workers and demand a fully funded pay rise for educators.

A rank and file organisation should work with and through the existing left factions. However, whilst our schools literally crumble, we cannot wait forever and must take the initiative. Considerable thought must go into its composition, democratic structures and capacity for events in order to be outward looking, workplace based, proudly political and unequivocally committed to trans liberation.

Educators Say No

‘Educators Say No’ was formed rapidly in response to the Government’s pay ‘offer’ on 13 July 2023. The joint statement, signed by the NEU’s Joint General Secretaries (and the General Secretary elect) clearly signalled a turn in the bureaucracy away from our democratic demand for a fully-funded, inflation plus pay rise. There was, rightly, anger amongst those who had worked hard to deliver strikes to this end. Inspired by the successful campaign of ‘NHS Workers Say No!’ educators and school organisers across England organised to follow that example.

Starting initially as a WhatsApp chat, EdSayNo gradually expanded to have real world organising potential, producing campaigning materials and briefings to arm activists on the ground. It was able to organise a meeting of a 1,000 plus activists in just a few days. One measure of its success is the hostility with which the lay bureaucracy greeted its campaigning.

While we lost the vote on the 6.5 percent offer, EdSayNo is a network with real potential. During a short time period, this network grew, had sign ups of local co-ordinators and brought together the most militant layers of the union. It’s crucial however this consolidates itself into an organisational form – what that looks like should be subject to democratic discussion. However, a steering committee of workplace reps across each geographical region would be a useful start.

EdSayNo can and should be a tool for raising both the level of organisation in schools as well as rank and file independence. For example, while the NEU Executive has shown that it is willing to lead a multi-year campaign to win pay restoration in schools, its squandering of the ballot in summer and its refusal to capitalise on the funding cuts in September proves that we need independent organisation. Reps and activists should organise meetings in school groups to discuss what pay restoration could look like, what a union-led timetable of negotiation should be and preparing the ground for a sustained campaign – without this, the Executive will continue to feel no pressure from below and will make reactive, single occasion decisions. EdSayNo should give a lead on a multi-year pay restoration strategy.

We also need to make sure that EdSayNo activists are at the forefront of delivering votes in their Districts in the upcoming indicative ballot on pay for teachers, as well as continuing to push for support staff to be called out.

What next

A rank and file organisation must be built by the strongest workplace organisers across the union.

It cannot be assumed national strike action organically develops rank and file organisation in trade unions – the strike wave, particularly disputes in the postal and health service, prove the pitfalls of trusting the trade union bureaucracy and the organising potential of spontaneity. We know large Zoom meetings and WhatsApp groups – though signs of an engaged membership – are no substitutes for real organisation. Without an organisation to move forward together, build power in the workplace and take industrial and political leadership of our union, we will constantly be playing reactive catch-up to the twists and turns of the bureaucracy.

If you are interested in discussing and developing a practical rank and file strategy in schools, register for our open meeting here. This meeting, hosted by rs21, will aim to discuss how we can start to cohere a wider group of similarly-oriented activists around a rank and file strategy.

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