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  • Published in Interview
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United for Education protest, London, November 2016. Photo: Flickr/Jim Aindow

Alex Kenny from the National Union of Teachers talks to Counterfire’s Chris Nineham

What do you mean by social movement trade unionism?

Our thinking on this is inspired mainly by some of the teacher unions in the USA, particularly the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), but also a group called Rethinking Schools, particularly the work of Bob Peterson.

He talks about a three-legged stool, with the three legs being i) bread and butter issues ii) professional issues and iii) social justice and community campaigning, working together in order to make the union strong.

Clearly, trade unions have to deal with the bread and butter issues like pay and conditions. But, Peterson argues, they should also get involved with professional issues, that teacher unions should have a critique of education – what is taught, how it’s taught and so on - and have their own alternative vision. This is important to us because education is a contested area, its contested under capitalism and there is the question of what it might be like under socialism. The nature of education now and what it would be like under another system are two very different things.

The third part is building links in the community and developing a concern for broader issues of equity and justice throughout society, so that the relationship between teachers parents and children isn’t just be one of them arriving and receiving education, or calling parents when their children misbehave.

Breaking down these barriers means teachers need to be more active working within local communities on the campaigns that matter in the community. It means seeing questions of social justice, equality, childcare provision, health, housing, anti-racism, immigration and so forth as key areas of interest for teachers and the idea that we should weave these into the curriculum.

In short, what I think this means is that we have to develop a class–conscious perspective to our work as an education union.

How has this approach played out within the union?

The centre of gravity of the NUT shifted in 2004 when Steve Sinnott became general secretary and the union became more outward looking. Unfortunately, Steve died in 2008, which was the point at which Christine Blower and Kevin Courtney came to the forefront of the union and they were able to develop some of the things that were already happening.

We were coming out of a period that all unions went through in the 1980s and 1990s when the defeat of the miners and successive victories for the Tories had led to a retrenchment. Unions focussed on servicing members and on purely bread and butter issues. So when I first became active in the Union it wasn’t very outward looking. It had a very narrow remit and was trying to influence government policy only through the contacts it still had with the Labour Party, but not engaging members with this at all. The message seemed to be: “batten down the hatches and wait for Labour.”

Through this period the left in the NUT was patiently trying to win an audience for our ideas and demonstrate what was possible through self-organised activities and campaigns, not just through placing demands on the leadership and condemning them when they didn’t act – and I think this is the method of operating that we still have to follow.

It was the Blair government who really broke the NUT connection with Labour because they weren’t interested in what the NUT had to say. So this pushed people to look for different ways to work. The approach we take now is that we have a strong focus on engaging reps and building the grassroots of the union.

We are concentrating on recruiting reps, not just reps who will put things on the noticeboard but reps who will get involved in union activity, and we are concentrating on training them – we have a brilliant reps training programme put together by people in our staff who are tuned into this idea of unions as mobilisers and agents of change. So they see the union as something they are part of, not just as something that does things for them either when they are in trouble or in terms of negotiating things at a high level that they then benefit from.

This means focussing on workplace organisation, but it also and at the same time means looking outwards to engage members in campaigns. So, we have been developing relationships not just with local campaigns but also with organisations like the People’s Assembly, which has been critical for us in terms of getting people thinking and talking about austerity.

This is interesting because the way the movement is developing is very different from the 1960s, when there was a gradual accumulation of industrial confidence and muscle, which then helped shift society to the left. This time it seems is that the political radicalisation has come first with confidence to take strike still at relatively low levels. So, I suppose you are suggesting that ways can be found to harness this political radicalisation to deepen workplace organisation. This would of course in turn actually strengthen the politicisation.

I hadn’t thought of it exactly like that but that sounds right. Partly we are trying to get back to the idea that if you can win something in the workplace, however small, it gets people to take the union more seriously. We are nowhere near meeting the target of having a rep in every school, but we need to rethink the model of having all decisions, negotiations or bargaining made by the branch officers, which is the model that a lot of unions lapsed into. Having full time officers calling the shots served a purpose when we were in defensive mode. But now we need to give reps the skills, we need to trust them and empower them. They need to be the agents of change and get the confidence boost that comes from that.

The Socialist Teachers Alliance, which developed in the seventies out of a very small left in the union, always argued that we need to engage and empower the grassroots. It is not a rank and file current, but it always argued that the key to activity comes from the base of the union.

But part of our political project was always to say as well that teachers won’t win anything significant on our own, we need to be part of more generalised campaigning. We can’t win a pay rise for teachers for example without the wider pay cap being challenged. So, we have always argued that outside struggles need to be brought into the NUT. At times there has been resistance. During the miners’ strike in the 1980s for example, other than in a handful of branches, it was quite hard to get real solidarity beyond Labour’s purely formal position.

So, for us, wider political issues and campaigning is crucial, and I would add to this the important question of developing an international perspective in trade unions and explaining to members why this is important.

As well as important questions of trade union solidarity and support for global education campaigns, I am really pleased that the NUT has developed work around what I think are key international questions such as military intervention by our government, and Palestine and Cuba. So I think our involvement with the Stop the War Coalition over the years has been really important, as is our work with Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Cuba Solidarity Campaign. We are now sending regular delegations to Palestine and Cuba, involving lay members from all over the country. This is really deepening the understanding of this work and why it is important – this is a good example of something being taken down to the members and not just remaining as a paper exercise.

Having said all of that, one thing we do have to be careful about is to keep the three legs of Bob Peterson’s stool in balance so that members see that they are working together and that you are not, for example prioritising politics at the expense of bread and butter issues. It is a question of making the connections and ensuring you actually make a difference to people’s lives.

Since the election it is clear we are going with the flow. The funding campaign we ran during the election was a real breakthrough for us in terms of both engaging with the public and getting our members involved. We even had people like Chris Cook from Newsnight and the right wing education commentator Sam Freedman talking about the NUT as a major player in influencing the general election! They are clearly not friends of ours but they could see the scale and involvement in the campaign.

It was at a completely different level from anything we have done before. We started not from pay but from the damage being done by the government to education.It became a campaign with a halo as someone described it – we were campaigning for the children, not starting with our own interests. We began with the big data but took it down to a local level. On the website we created you could tell exactly how much money you were going to be losing at that particular school due to the cuts.

We started before the election, but as the election got under way we could feed in all the different parties’ policies and come up with more figures. Basically, the Tories’ policies were bad, Lib Dems’ quite bad, and Labour’s were OK. People really started to pick it up locally. And then crucially we set up alliances with heads and parents and said to them ‘come on, we have to go really big on this’.

We worked with heads to put on a series of meetings in the mornings when parents were dropping their kids off, you would get 300 parents at a meeting. This was thinking beyond the routine. Some people on the left were not always comfortable. Some were saying you shouldn’t build alliance with heads. We said to the local Labour parties we are on the same page on this, lets campaign together, it is mutually beneficial. Some were unsure about working with the Labour parties. But in fact, going beyond the routine was crucial. We broke way beyond our normal audience.

The election and the general political situation gave us a huge opportunity that we went for. We had big assemblies and picnics in parks. In Tower Hamlets we had 1,500 parents and teachers at an event in the park – way more than we have ever managed before. It took us all by surprise.

What kind of impact has this had on the union?

People saw that we were making a difference and that we were able to relate to parents. It has definitely increased the level of self-organisation and confidence in the union locally. Where members feel as if they are part of something broader it lifts their horizons. It means they are now thinking maybe we can start to win something at the school level.

Through the work we did in Tower Hamlets we have recruited five new reps, and this in a place with high rep density anyway. It has demonstrated that we are serious about what we do to head teachers, to the council, to the local Labour Party. The other big impact is on the parents. To give you just one example, on the back of what we did, some parents got the council to invite me to speak to a parent’s forum that it organises which has a thousand families on its database to talk about our views on education. We have now been asked to run a workshop at their annual general meeting, so that is us reaching parents on a scale not seen before. It is about thinking big, but also going small to do this – the phrase I have been using throughout this campaign is “we go small to grow big”.

The situation is very exciting when you think about it. The Tories have run out of road on education. They have lost out on grammars, been knocked back on wholesale academisation, their approach on the curriculum and assessment is breaking down. And their project is falling apart at the same time as a left-led Labour Party has developed a project which the NUT can align itself with.

The election has turned the world on its head. The idea of another kind of education is no longer an abstract question. It is real, people are starting to ask questions about what education could or should look like, what should happen in the classroom, about how education can transform lives. As we go into an enlarged union, with Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and possibly prime minister we have big opportunities. The left has to make sure we make the most of them.

Further reading: How To Jump –Start Your Union – Lessons from the Chicago Teachers (published by Labour Notes)

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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