A couple of years ago, I sat around a table in the Department for Education, with numerous trade-union general secretaries, deputy general secretaries and officials, where I was told in no uncertain terms that the creation of Edapt had “marketised” trade unionism and was damaging unity in the profession.
As I listened to the arguments made by the different representatives, it only became clearer to me that our hypothesis in setting up Edapt was correct. With so many unions taking different views around the table, fragmentation had already occurred in their squabble for members. We could cause no further damage. Supporting teachers needed to be the priority.
Constant calls for strike action
Only a few weeks later, at the Easter conferences, union delegates shouted rowdily, “Gove must go!” Moderate members of the NUT teaching union became dissatisfied with constant calls for strike action, and with the damage that factions of the hard left were doing to the public perception of the teaching profession. Apparently, debate was futile and industrial action was the only option, with some representatives launching motions for a coordinated general strike.
The teaching unions always insist that they are a broad church, and that they remain united. But public perception is critically important in carrying along teachers and parents in any campaign.
The reality is that the majority of union members, regardless of the union they are in, are politically moderate professionals. They want to be represented as such, ensuring that they have professional support when they need it.
Remove the politics
At Edapt, we already knew that a teacher’s primary reason for joining a union is for support in allegations, and in disciplinary and grievance cases. Ensuring that teachers have a choice in who supports them when they need it most is more important now than ever. Removing the politics from the table, and providing only the core, professional support service that teachers require in their hour of need has proved popular with educators and support staff from all different types of schools.
Demonstrations have already taken place outside the DfE, against the announcement by George Osborne that all schools should become academies by 2022. Proposals for a general strike are already appearing in colleagues’ Facebook feeds. It’s looking clear that we can probably expect further motions for industrial action from the upcoming teacher-union conferences.
This coming weekend, thousands of representatives will come together in Brighton and Birmingham for the conferences of the two main teaching unions, NUT and Nasuwt, and the ATL conference will be held following week in Liverpool.
While some of the 12 motions brought by the NUT this weekend have commendable intentions around reducing workload and improving teacher health and wellbeing, the motions listed also include calls for “sustained strike action” and “building a campaign to persuade members that national strike action will be necessary”. Another asks the NUT executive to support moving towards a TUC general strike, in order to influence the outcome of the general election. It seems the direction of travel over this Easter conference season may be set.
Having seen how poorly the unions handled Gove, I can only hope the teaching unions think long and hard about the motions to be proposed over the Easter conferences this year.
Regardless of your position on the political spectrum, with so many proposals in Nicky Morgan’s White Paper over which bloggers, teachers, advisory groups and unions could have debate and influence, I propose a motion to all the teaching unions: constructive dialogue first; industrial action last.
John Roberts is chief executive of Edapt, the trade-union alternative.