Andrew Baisley on the importance of unity between the teaching unions in the face of the greatest onslaught on working people’s living standards ever
The NUT, UCU and PCS are often bracketed together - medium sized, left led, public sector unions. From the outside it is assumed that they are pursuing the same plan of attempting to unite public sector workers against the government’s austerity programme; however, there is an important difference in the approach of the NUT. The NUT’s first priority has been to unite the teaching unions and from there go on to build unity with other sectors. We recognised that we had to get our own house in order if we were to provide a reliable and strong ally for others in the movement.
The NUT and NASUWT are much the same size and between them represent eighty percent of classroom teachers. This has bred a certain amount of rivalry and given successful governments a quick route to pushing teachers about - divide and rule. As any trade unionist will tell you, divided workplaces are a recipe for bullying management and poor conditions. It seemed obvious to some on the left that the NUT and NASUWT had to put aside their old differences in the face of the greatest onslaught on working people’s living standards ever.
In Kevin Courtney’s election address (January 2010) he said,
It's time to work with the other teaching unions
We have to solve the split between the NUT and NASUWT. Elect me and I will ensure that the NUT works more effectively with the other teacher unions to:
- Protect your pension
- Protect your pay and your job.
- Reduce your workload
- Stop the break up of national pay and conditions through Academies and Trusts.
Outsiders may think Kevin’s address is the bog standard rhetoric that you get in all union election statements, for many insiders it was the shock of the new. Kevin broke a taboo by positively talking about the NASUWT in an election. Believe it or not this was a bold move.
Within a year of Kevin writing that statement, the NUT, ATL and NASUWT were talking about how they could collaborate to defend the teachers’ pension scheme.
The first NUT strike on 30th June 2011 was with the ATL (a first), and the PCS and UCU. Having the ATL with us significantly increased the confidence of teachers to join the strike and made it much bigger than without them. The strike received strong support and bounced all the public sector unions into action on 30th November 2011. The large and lively London march exceeded even my high expectations and encapsulated the mood of confidence and anger.
The strike on 30th November 2011 was the first time ever that the NUT and NASUWT have taken joint national strike action. That is something to celebrate, but speaking as an officer of a teacher trade union I am ashamed it has taken so long. Unfortunately the majority of unions were only ever committed to calling one day of action and were happy to settle for the 8% improvement that the strikes won; however, the NUT and NASUWT did not sign up to the agreement even though the ATL did.
The NUT looked to restart strike action early in March 2012. Having gone round the unions that rejected the deal, the only ones that would call action were the PCS and UCU. There was a not terribly convincing consultative ballot in favour of the strike, so the majority of executive members opposed calling a national strike, but after a hasty bit of negotiation voted to start a campaign of regional action with a London strike a week later on 28th March 2012. That strike taught me the importance of having a sound plan when trying to convince workers to take strike action. Schools in Camden closed in large numbers, but that wasn’t before the teachers had made it abundantly clear in meeting after meeting that they wanted a proper plan in future and a couple of schools voted to ignore the action. The effect across London was patchy; however, there was a demonstration of several thousand teachers in central London.
NUT Conference followed soon afterwards. There was a full and frank debate about the pensions campaign. The debate split over whether to join the strike called by the UCU, PCS and UNITE health on 10th May or to ask the executive to pursue the regional action started in London and consider a national strike in the summer term. The 10th May strike call fell because Conference wasn’t convinced that the alliance was strong enough and because of the date, about the worst in the secondary school calendar. I sympathised with the will of the delegates who voted for the strike, but the plan didn’t convince me. At that Conference, Local Associations National Action Campaign (LANAC) was formed to fight for the 10th May strike.
Shortly after Conference, the NUT and NASUWT began talks on a joint campaign. The issues facing teachers were increasing rapidly as Gove started his attack on teachers’ contracts. A partnership agreement was signed in June 2012 which commits the unions to joint campaigns at national, local and school level for three years. It covers all areas of education.
For me the agreement has a significance beyond the short and medium term, because I hope it proves to be the first step towards merging the unions. For the NUT it is the way out of the cul de sac of red trade unionism, which is a recipe for sterility and frustration. Red unions can, and often do, have the most left wing policies imaginable, but lack the strength to win them.
This year started with the announcement of the deregulation of teachers’ contracts, placing a responsibility on schools to link pay and performance. In response the NUT and NASUWT called an escalating series of regional strikes on 27th June, 1st October and 17th October. They were well supported and brought thousands of teachers on to the streets. I spoke at many school meetings and the arguments that won the support of teachers were: the scale of the attack from Gove; the united response from the NUT and NASUWT; and the winnability of our demand that Gove negotiate with us. It is not clear if Michael Gove will take the offer of talks seriously, but if he doesn’t then I have no doubt that NUT and NASUWT members will support a national teachers’ strike.
All of the above is about one side of the strategy - what is organised at national union. The other side of the strategy is aimed at building union power in schools. The best attended union meetings are in schools rather than at borough meetings. For twenty five years an increasing amount of decisions have been made at school level. In the world of deregulated pay and conditions created by academies and extended by the contract changes this September, it is increasingly the case that the most significant decisions are made by school governors. To meet this challenge the union has been trying to develop a confident shop steward layer by investing in the recruitment and training of school reps, and been encouraging union officers to prioritise campaigning and organising over casework. The joint agreement with the NASUWT adds another dimension to this work because it unites every staffroom. At the moment this is a slow process but with some notable successes. The left should strain every sinew to push it along faster. For those worried that unity with the NASUWT will result in a large passive union, surely the smart answer isn’t to keep the NUT and NASUWT apart, but to build a fighting union from the bottom up.
This transformation of the NUT isn’t happening as fast as I would like, because external circumstances aren’t as good as I would like, but the direction the NUT is going in is clear and short cuts don’t work.
From Andrew's NUT blog
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