Teachers strike and protest in London, October 2013. Photo: Anne Koerber

With the NUT strike on Wednesday 26th March, Orlando Hill looks at why we need to follow in Finland’s footsteps and create one union for all the teachers

“We are in a particular point where division (among teachers) is no longer acceptable”, said Howard Stevenson (School of Education, University of Nottingham) in his speech to teachers in the Speak Up for Professional Unity conference hosted by the NUT recently.

Stevenson argued that is down to two factors. The first is the government’s attack on trade unions, and the second is that “we don’t know what the future of teaching looks like.” In the USA there are virtual charter schools owned by businesses. Charter schools are the equivalent to free schools in the UK and the business model of these virtual charter schools does not include qualified teachers.

The conference was a further step on the road to professional unity. Speakers from NUT, ATL, NAHT and UCAC addressed the conference hall packed by teachers from the various unions including the NASUWT, which did not officially attend.

Building unity in action

Building unity is not an easy process, but it is definitely worthwhile.  The consensus in the conference is that unity can only be built on the ground with practical actions.

An example of this was in June 2011 when members of the NUT and the ATL took national strike action in defence of pension and pay, joining with UCU and PCS in a 750,000 strong strike. This further broadened in November 2011, with the even bigger public sector strike over pensions.

More recently NUT and NASUWT joined forces for a series of regional rolling strike actions which started on 27 June 2013 in the north west and continued in the following school year.  This demonstration of unity forced the government to hold talks with both unions. However, the government was willing only to talk about how it would implement the policies it has imposed and not the concerns which both the NUT and NASUWT are in dispute: pay, pensions, jobs and workload.

Unfortunately, the NASUWT has voted not to strike on 26 March along with the NUT and UCAC. This is an obstacle to unity and a sign of weakness. Some of the NASUWT members cannot understand why their union has made such a decision and have expressed their discontent. Sometimes on the path to unity some unions are forced to work at different speeds – it is quite right that the NUT doesn’t allow the attitude of any other unions to prevent further action.

Professional unity in defence of education

An interesting aspect of the recent conference was Paul Whiteman from the National Association of Head Teachers announcing that they have applied to join the TUC. Although he is sceptical of forming a single education union, he believes that unions should find a way of speaking with one voice.

Christine Blower was more emphatic:

“The unprecedented attack on the profession makes it more vital than ever that unity is achieved. Our organisations may have differences but what unites us is our concern for education and our desire to do what’s best for children and our members. It therefore makes sense that we stand together. The high education standards achieved in Finland owe much to the voice of the profession being heard strongly through a single teachers’ union. The NUT is very proud of our history but we would be as proud to be part of forming one union for all teachers.”

Staff and classroom teachers cannot see why there are more than one union.

Dilwyn Roberts-Young from UCAC (Wales’s education union and member of the TUC) supported the idea of unity. “In these challenging times we need to work together for the sake of our members, but also for our pupils.” The UCAC has been working with the NUT and NASUWT on a path for a truly devolved Welsh education system. UCAC’s motto is “unity is strength”.

Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the moderate ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) was not able to attend the conference, but sent a pre-recorded video message. She started by reinforcing the idea of unity. “The ATL wants to work with other unions, and this is the start of a beginning of unity.”

However, she was frank about the problems teachers face. There are four main classroom unions, and two main head teacher unions. Some union leaders argue that teachers do better when there is choice. However, times have changed. This government is determined in smashing unions and implementing ideological motivated changes in the education system.

Unions are strong because of their presence on the ground. A problem is that schools are atomised and decisions are taken at school level, so unions need to work to overcome this.

Towards a single union?

Ritva Semi of OAJ, the teachers’ union of Finland told the conference of their experience of professional unity. Forty years ago the two largest unions (one representing elementary school teachers and the other secondary) merged. Today, OAJ has 122,000 members and a unionisation rate of 95%. There is a strong cooperation with the ministry of education.

OAJ’s history goes hand in hand with the educational reform which established a comprehensive system. The consequence of having one union is that since 1984 there has been no strike. In the last 40 years teachers have been close to striking, but due to their strength the government has realised that it is better to talk to the union. An interesting fact pointed out by Ritva Semi is that 20% of member of the Finish parliament have a teaching background.

Howard Stevenson gave an historic overview. “In 1870 state education was fragmented and chaotic with schools competing against schools,” he recalled. Teachers were paid by results and were caught in a race to the bottom. This resulted in teachers organising against this method of payment. It took 49 years to achieve national collective bargaining. Some chances may a take a long time, but nothing lasts forever and we should not give up. It has been said that ‘teachers don’t do change’. But they do.

What took half of century to achieve may be destroyed in less. In recent years there has been a push back on all the victories. “Payment by results has returned, national pay has been abolished and Qualified Teacher Status, for long a campaign objective of organised teachers, is in peril.”

That is why division is no longer acceptable. In one way we are in a better position than Finland. According to a research commissioned by the Department for Education, “all but 3% of the teachers [that] responded belonged to a teaching union.” In other words, there is a 97% trade union density rate. That is an extraordinary starting point.

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.