Moan in person or not at all, says frustrated leader

SSTA general secretary attacks `absurd' online commentators

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A union leader was due to launch a blistering attack on his own members today, saying that those who use the internet to complain about his organisation show a "total failure" to understand how the union works.

The acting general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) was expected to tell delegates at the union's 70th congress in Peebles to stop emailing and posting "absurd and offensive" comments and start attending meetings to express their views instead.

Alan McKenzie's criticisms come just over a week after the SSTA sacked Sheila Mechan, less than a month into her tenure as general secretary. The reasons for her dismissal are said to include clashes over her decision to respond to members' complaints on a public forum on the SSTA website about how the union was being run.

Mr McKenzie's speech, a copy of which has been seen by TESS, will also defend the SSTA's decision not to join other unions in holding ballots on issues such as pay and conditions.

"For some colleagues [in other unions] this has been annus ballotus - the year of the ballot," he will say.

"There have been many ballots on many issues.However, the decisions not to ballot were taken with the same.respect for due process as [different unions] exercised in taking their decision to ballot."

Mr McKenzie was also expected to tell delegates that some of the SSTA membership appeared to have assumed that the decision not to ballot at various stages of pay negotiation had been a consequence of "some bizarre sleepwalking condition". This was not the case, he will say, but rather the result of "careful consideration of what was on offer and what the majority of members clearly wanted".

He will add that he has seen "simply absurd" dialogues on the web, with members complaining about decisions not to ballot on certain issues and unionists explaining that they need to attend district meetings to have their voices heard.

"Now, you may think I'm exaggerating here but the number of emails we have received with this kind of message is incredible," he will tell the conference.

Members are permitted to "have a moan now and again", he will say, but in the past year this has descended into something more serious than "simple ritualistic grumpiness".

"It represents a total failure - and I don't exaggerate here - a total failure to understand and recognise the proper decision-making structures of the association," Mr McKenzie will say.

The matter has become one of "considerable urgency", the acting general secretary will tell delegates. "To those of you who believe this is an invitation to develop a labyrinthine structure of alternative, accessory pathways to decision-making in the association, I would say think again."

He will tell members it was "wrong" to use the website forum or direct email to attempt to influence decisions and will call instead for strategies to encourage members to debate issues at meetings. "To those who wish to register concern, I say attend meetings, do not email", he will warn.

Other unions are understood to have embarked on similar drives to engage with members more productively in the past after experiencing similar issues. One senior education union source acknowledged that social media "tended to lend itself to abuse rather than reasoned debate".

The EIS and NASUWT in Scotland declined to comment on the issue.

A few weeks ago the SSTA removed a discussion thread criticising its work and briefly shut down its website. Ms Mechan, who had responded to the thread, condemned the union's decision, questioning its stance on freedom of speech.

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