A tale of two foes as pay deal nearly topples giant

1st July 2011 at 01:00
Only universal antipathy towards Cosla helped to take some of the heat off a bloodied EIS leadership at the AGM, writes Henry Hepburn

The decision by the EIS to accept a controversial deal on national pay and conditions drove an almighty wedge between its leadership and grassroots members. In recent weeks, many have questioned their fidelity to an organisation that, they believed, has fundamentally let them down; other unions have opened their arms to welcome EIS refugees, fuelling rumours of mass defections.

As the opening formalities played out at last month's EIS annual general meeting, the air was heavy with impending turmoil. Scotland's largest teaching union was in crisis, it seemed.

Dotted around the lines of tables filling Perth Royal Concert Hall were several delegates wearing white T-shirt with the words: "Why must our members pay?" - a sarky subversion of the official EIS anti-cuts slogan, "Why must our children pay?"

Usually routine AGM business was punctuated by vexed questions from the floor:

Which EIS body had the powers to ignore policy opposing education cuts?

Did the handling of a ballot on industrial action represent a failure of leadership?

By how much has a supply teacher's pay reduced since the national agreement?

The leadership looked on impassively from the stage as committee conveners tried to swat away the questions. That was far from easy at times: when it was asserted that, contrary to what many were arguing, the national agreement had not been imposed on members, a ripple of hollow laughter went through the hall.

Low-level antipathy became a clamour of dissenting voices as attempts were made to "disapprove" decisions taken in the salaries committee, as a way of protesting against the chain of events that paved the way for a two- year pay freeze, pound;45 million of cuts, and a hefty blow to supply teachers' income.

There were grave warnings about the repercussions of rejecting previous decisions. It was "tactically self-damaging", insisted incoming president Alan Munro. "If carried, this puts this organisation in limbo," said employment relations convener Eric Baillie.

But the naysayers were emboldened. The democracy of the EIS was at stake if those on its council and committees could ignore the instructions of last year's AGM to oppose cuts, come what may, said Dumfries and Galloway's John Dennis.

Tempers and tension were rising. Past president Helen Connor felt impelled to come down from the top table and thunder that members were in danger of an "irresponsible", possibly illegal, course of action if they overturned previous decisions.

One speaker retorted that the EIS was "the only public sector union not to take action to defend our members". The hyperbole from the sceptics was cranked up, reaching a peak when a Martin Luther King aphorism - that non- cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good - was invoked by one T-shirted delegate.

By the time it came to vote on the most contentious disapproval notice, it had taken nearly an hour of debate; in a time of harmony, committee minutes might be approved within seconds. A short time later, the results emerged: one notice of disapproval was defeated only by 164 votes to 141. It was official, reported the media over the coming hours: the EIS was "at war". But there was a more nuanced picture behind the scenes: considerable anger at the leadership, yes, but a widespread acceptance that directing it internally for too long would be counter-productive. One senior EIS figure said it was a good thing there had been such a close vote; dissenters might feel they had made their point and move on. There had been tales of significant numbers of defections - one delegate said 50 out of 100 members had been lost locally - but some of the most ardent opponents of the national deal had no intention of leaving the EIS. A few weeks ago, the word on the grapevine was that many members were waiting until the AGM to decide whether to stay; now there are signs that many will defer judgment until they see the union's response to the McCormac findings later this year.

Glasgow member Charlotte Ahmed remained angry at leaders she accused of "hiding behind legalistic arguments". She accepted that they had had a difficult decision to make, but it rankled that they had been "more fulsome than the management side" in recommending approval of the national deal.

Back in the hall, there were still nearly two days of business to get through. There were still some spats and the occasional potshot at the leadership - gasps could be heard when South Lanarkshire's Andrew Fullwood demanded that Alan Munro apologise and withdraw dismissive comments he made about the RejectEIS online campaign in a TESS interview.

But the overall tone became lighter, with outgoing president Kay Barnett drawing belly laughs by chiding husband Jack and education convener Larry Flanagan for hogging the lectern. It seemed like the hostilities at the start of the AGM had been cathartic.

General secretary Ronnie Smith got up after hours of hearing speaker after speaker launch recriminations in his direction.

His address made no attempt to quell the anger on the floor - instead he wanted to fuel that ire and turn it in another direction. Cosla, the local authorities body, did much of the work for him.

In a submission to the McCormac review of teachers' pay and conditions, Cosla proposed that teachers should adopt more flexible working terms and conditions, even an extension of teachers' working year. In a subsequent press release it accused teachers of seeing themselves as more important than other public sector workers.

Worst of all from the EIS point of view was a line in Cosla's McCormac submission: "We would even suggest that the primary role for a teacher should not be to teach children but should be articulated in terms of ensuring the development, wellbeing, and safety of children."

Mr Smith pulled no punches in retaliation: "It is little more than an attempt to shred every meaningful aspect of the agreement that has brought stability and improvement to Scottish education over the past decade.

"At its heart is a conscious attack on the professionalism and autonomy of teachers. Teachers are not even to be seen primarily as teachers of pupils - but as some kind of generic local authority worker, open to being called upon to work wherever and whenever their managers decide, and carrying out such tasks as their manager demands."

From the floor, more and more anger was then directed at Cosla rather than the EIS leaders.

"We've got to show solidarity big style, because this mob's coming and we've got to get ready," said Renfrewshire's Brian McGovern.

Inverclyde's Tom Tracey, one of the most voluble anti-leadership delegates, concurred: "We need to move forward together."

Afterwards, even an organiser of the RejectEIS campaign (now renamed ReclaimEIS) set up in protest at the acceptance of the national deal, was "cautiously optimistic" about Mr Smith's speech. But the union's leadership had to put its weight behind the industrial action that was approved in principle at the AGM - that would be the true test of union togetherness.

Others warned that, while AGM attendees were uniting against Cosla and any unwelcome recommendations in the looming McCormac review, it might not be as easy to get the rank and file in the regions back on board. Judging by online reaction to recent TESS articles on the EIS, there remains a lot of convincing to be done: one commenter decried the "despicable sell-out of the union's most vulnerable members".

"The leadership know they have a fight on their hands," said Edinburgh's Andrew McGeever, one of around 50 protesters who formed a noisy - although not particularly hostile - gauntlet for the union's upper echelons to pass through on their way to the last day of the AGM. The "sense of betrayal" had badly stung the members he represented.

Yet amid the burning indignation in the regions, there is also a sense of resignation. South Lanarkshire's Linda Knighton was "mystified" as to why only about half of EIS members voted in the crucial second ballot on national pay and conditions (a previous ballot rejected the initial deal).

Liz Walker, a Highland member who made a six-hour round trip just to join the protest, believes the unfortunate flipside of a decade of relative harmony in Scottish education is a generation "not steeped in protest". She said: "A lot of young people just see the union as an insurance policy."

"The turnout in the recent ballot was the greatest stab in the heart for me, as a member of the union," said South Lanarkshire's Leah Francitti. "Lots of people don't understand the collective nature of being in a trade union."

The problem was typified, she argued, by the EIS magazine, the Scottish Educational Journal, whose content gave little sense that teachers were in seriously troubled times.

Education convener Larry Flanagan, a potential successor to Ronnie Smith, was desperately disappointed by the low turnout. It had ensured the union was never going to be in a strong position, whatever stance it took on pay and conditions.

"It's not a question of reclaiming the EIS," he told delegates. "It's a question of revitalising the EIS."


Scepticism is required when assessing the state of Scotland's education unions - at a time when teacher numbers have fallen, every union is claiming a rise in membership.

Ann Ballinger, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said her union was gaining new members at "what you might call an unprecedented rate". At its recent annual meeting, the figure was put at 9,000, although the SSTA's ranks traditionally have included a sizeable number of members from the independent sector who would not be affected by the national pay and conditions deal.

People were transferring from other unions at a time when the SSTA had unequivocally opposed the national deal narrowly approved by the EIS, Mrs Ballinger said.

The proposed changes were a deliberate policy to divide and rule but had been unsuccessful at the SSTA, she added.

She believes Scotland needs teaching unions for each sector, rather than one big union, to contend with the varying challenges being faced.

The NASUWT is also reporting an unprecedented surge in numbers. It has made a big push in Scotland recently, holding its UK-wide annual conference in Glasgow and opening multi-million-pound Scottish headquarters in Edinburgh.

Entire primary schools had been transferring membership to the union in recent weeks, said Scottish organiser Jane Peckham. "We are doing quite well," she insisted. "I get frustrated at other unions calling us a minuscule minority."

Members, she explained, appreciated the union representing their wishes; apathy, unlike in other unions, was not an issue.

Voice, which does represent teachers but is better known for representing those ineligible for other unions, such as classroom assistants, claims to have amassed around 3,000 members.

It told TESS that meetings had been held with disgruntled EIS members to discuss transferring membership, as a result of the fallout over pay and conditions.

"While members may have different perspectives upon the issues raised by the individual proposals within the package, the vote was to reject the overall package," said professional officer Jennifer Hannah.


Quietly spoken Shetlander Ronnie Smith has led the EIS since devolution - a period of relative calm which has seen teachers awarded substantial pay rises and improved working conditions in the national agreements following the McCrone inquiry - until this year anyway.

His style is very different from that of his predecessors in the general secretary post: Jim Martin and John Pollock were both ebullient figures who sought very much to impose their will on the union's committees.

Smith, a former Latin and modern studies teacher who taught at Broxburn Academy in West Lothian until joining EIS headquarters as an assistant secretary in the late 80s, now faces the most difficult challenge of his career. He has also faced unprecedented criticism from within EIS ranks over what many see as a sell-out deal.

The latest pay and conditions talks have been the toughest in more than a decade. And in a few months' time, with the publication of the McCormac Review of teacher employment, he could face an even more difficult set of negotiations.

It is an unenviable task, yet he has arguably more experience than any other teacher leader around just now. Close to both Jack McConnell and Peter Peacock when they were education ministers, he has also had the ear of Fiona Hyslop and Michael Russell. The EIS has been pushed on to the back foot, however, by the current economic climate.

His strengths in negotiations are said to be attention to detail, his calmness under fire and his patience in seeing things through. He has also had the good fortune to work with some of the most politically astute presidents in recent years: Dougie Mackie, Sandy Fowler, David Drever and Kay Barnett, to name but a few.

But some of these veterans of the EIS leadership class are due to retire, leaving a potential vacuum in terms of political experience. And Smith, too, has now reached retirement age. He may choose to stay on to see the union through the McCormac review - though the repercussions of its findings may continue for some time to come - or he may choose to pass the baton on to someone else.

Many tip the more mercurial Larry Flanagan as the front-runner to succeed Smith. As convener of the education committee, he has represented the EIS on the Curriculum for Excellence management board, and led the union's policy on the curricular reform, albeit not to every member's liking. He has resisted calls from some to withdraw from the board, arguing it is better to operate inside the tent than outside it - but some activists would prefer to have seen more vocal opposition to the changes. Others on the more moderate wing remember his political past - kicked out of the Labour Party for being a member of Militant some 20 years ago.

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