New super-union’s focus on FE sparks tensions

Disquiet within the UCU ranks that merged organisation is fighting on its turf
13th October 2017, 12:00am
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New super-union’s focus on FE sparks tensions

The merger between the NUT and ATL teaching unions to form the National Education Union (NEU) last month was a historic moment in union politics.

The move created the fourth largest trade union in the UK - and the biggest education union in Europe. The new union will, according to joint general secretary Mary Bousted, give a “louder voice to education professionals when speaking out against poor government policy and bad employment practices”.

But while the NEU was intended to unify education professionals, it appears to have had the opposite effect in the further education sector. The NEU has already described itself as “the professional and persuasive voice for post-16 education”.

It has also launched a campaign called “EfFEctive Education”, which aims to encourage MPs to visit their local colleges to raise the profile of the sector.

The NEU’s apparent targeting of the FE sector has caused some disquiet within the University and College Union (UCU), the biggest union for FE teachers, sources within both unions have told Tes.

Historically, the UCU had enjoyed a close relationship with the NUT. But a longstanding agreement between the unions - which formally acknowledged that the UCU would represent staff in FE and HE, with the NUT working in schools and sixth-forms, in order to “avoid competitive trade unionism across sectors” - has now been dropped.

This is understood to be related to the fact that the NEU now has a significant presence in FE colleges, after inheriting the ATL’s membership in the sector. The NEU refused to tell Tes how many members it has in FE.

Drop in FE workforce

Tension between the unions has arisen as the number of FE professionals is dropping because of redundancies and college mergers. Data published by the Education and Training Foundation suggests that the FE workforce has dropped by around 3 per cent per year, being reduced by 12,300 (full-time equivalent) posts between 2011-12 and 2014-15.

The UCU’s FE membership has dropped by 6 per cent over the past year, from 29,100 in August 2016 to 27,500 in August 2017. At the union’s annual congress in May, general secretary Sally Hunt said this fall was in a large part due to the “churn factor” of FE staff, and she predicted that if the UCU continued to experience a similar rate of decline, the sector would “account for only around one fifth of our membership by 2022”.

Hank Roberts, organising secretary of the Unify campaign for a single education union, believes that merging unions is the “logical” option. “We’re not allowed to directly and competitively recruit to nick members from the other unions, but [recruitment leads to the unions] spending money on handing out all these leaflets and all the rest of it,” he says. “Forming one union is like climbing Everest. It wasn’t done in one fell swoop - people got closer and closer, and eventually it was done.”

Jo McNeill, who stood as a candidate for UCU general secretary earlier this year with the backing of the UCU Left faction, says she believes that collaboration between the two unions would be a “positive” step.

“As far as unions merging and whether there would be space for UCU to join the NEU at some point, I think that for me, as a grassroots organiser, potentially it would be an ideal situation,” she says.

A UCU spokesperson says that the union is looking forward to “enjoying a positive relationship with the NEU, given that their overwhelmingly school and sixth-form-based membership so neatly complements our own”.

Bousted says that, given the government’s focus on technical education, “organisations supporting the post-16 sector need to work together”. “The NEU is keen to work in collaboration to ensure that the government gets the message about the need for more funding from all quarters,” she adds.

The unions were due to meet this week to discuss opportunities for joint campaigning.

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