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Editorial - Unions, you're in a hole. Better stop digging

It could not have been missed by even the most casual of spectators that delegates at last weekend's union conferences were angry. Regional pay, Ofsted, overwork, classroom observations and pupil behaviour were but a few of the areas subject to fuming rhetoric (see pages 10-11). Oh, and solidarity for provincial Colombia's leftist teachers, of course.

Classroom union leaders have many good reasons to be gnashing their teeth. Take workload, for example. Teachers work exceptionally hard and questioning a secretary of state's casual use of the phrase "clock-watching" is very much the job of their representatives. So, too, is challenging the government's embryonic plans to introduce regional pay bargaining - these reforms could have wide-ranging and profound consequences.

And this is without even getting into the pesky issue of pensions.

It is unsurprising that the coalition's programme of academisation and free schools was also subject to delegate rage at the NASUWT and NUT gatherings. There are those in both organisations who are opposed to these reforms based on a logical assessment of how they may affect results for children. But there are others who reject the changes because of the impact they will have on the unions themselves. Severe cuts to local authorities will seriously damage the structure of their work, while decommissioning the national pay structure will undermine their leaders' core strength in Westminster. As such, principle can become mixed with self-interested navel-gazing - and the result can be unflattering.

It can alienate the membership, too. Take as one example TES forums contributor minnieminx, who wrote that the Easter weekend was "slightly embarrassing" and that she wished the TV cameras would give the conferences a miss so that she didn't have to justify them to her friends and family.

As for the near-constant flow of strike threats, they are hard for education journalists to keep up with, let alone a knackered head of department with two attention-hungry pre-teens and more interest in the test match than Motion 1124c in Torquay. Strikes are a key, possibly the key, weapon in the armoury of any serious union. As such, they should be treated as the "nuclear option", not deployed as freely as a US Army drone attack. The merest mention of a walkout should be enough to make one sit up and take note, not shrug one's shoulders in apathy.

While few in attendance in Devon or Birmingham would be prepared to admit it, at the heart of many of these failing is the fact that there is far too much unnecessary competition between the unions. It's all too easy to get the impression that the biggest two are falling over themselves to out-militant one another. If one threatens strike action, the other can be expected to follow suit.

It is perhaps a pipe dream, but as another Easter at conference drifts into memory, many an observer would be left with the impression that the profession would be infinitely better served by union unity - one union arguing passionately and coherently for the interests of its members and their pupils, strategically deploying the power that comes with being the sole representative body for organised labour. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Pigs might fly.

ed.dorrell@tes.co.uk.

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