Unions exist to bargain on behalf of their members, and those north of the border have the advantage of retaining negotiating rights over teachers' pay and conditions. They sit opposite the education authorities on the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee, which has just agreed a 3 per cent deal for this year. However, the authorities argue that union insistence on defending obsolete conditions of service hamstrings progress and prevents teachers getting a better financial deal.
The Educational Institute of Scotland retains its traditional numerical dominance, representing four out of five Scottish teachers. Its current membership of 49,000 shows growth in recent years. Strength in numbers allows the EIS to call the shots on the teachers' panel which submits pay claims and demands for better conditions.
Although the other unions resent the fact that they will always be outvoted, they must live with that. At least it allows them to point to shortcomings in the EIS's strategy, and argue that if only their preferred approach had been followed, teachers would now be in a better position.
The second largest union, the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, with 7,000 members, enjoys better relations with the EIS than in the past. It is less frequently heard decrying the EIS for being primary-dominated and neglecting secondary teachers' interests.
The two other classroom unions are offshoots of national organisations. The Professional Association of Teachers claims 5,500 members north of the border. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Woman Teachers, with just under 4,000, is the most trenchant critic of the EIS, arguing that classroom concerns, for example assaults on teachers, are not highlighted enough.
Although the Scottish unions retain their longstanding hold on the loyalty of the teaching force and the EIS in particular is very influential in the Scottish Trades Union Congress, they are no more immune from the effects of the Government's industrial relations legislation than those further south.
The EIS has responded to the changed climate in two ways. First, it has renewed the emphasis on its educational remit. Its Victorian royal charter states that it exists to promote "sound learning". So it has become heavily involved in debates about the curriculum and assessment. That allows it to tie educational concerns into a campaign about teachers' workload, which has been increased by classroom changes.
Emphasis on what goes on in schools and the alleged underfunding of the system has also led to fruitful co-operation with parents' organisations. A joint campaign impelled the Government to overhaul national primary tests. Recently the imminence of cuts forced on local authorities because of Government policy brought 40,000 protesters on to the streets of Edinburgh at the behest of the EIS, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and the local authorities themselves.
The second element of the EIS's changed strategy is devolution of power. Nationwide strikes like those seen during the two-year dispute of the mid-Eighties are now unlikely. The union has delegated negotiating authority to local associations, whose boundaries mirror those of the 32 new councils that take office next week. Disputes, too, are more likely to be pursued locally than nationally.
Although the profile of teacher unions is much lower than it was, and popular talk of teacher militancy damaging children's education has virtually disappeared, their capacity for obstruction - as over curriculum initiatives - is well understood at the Scottish Office. The EIS, with its mass membership, is well-funded and if necessary could call on a sizeable war chest.