Can the unions get into bed together?

16th May 2003 at 01:00
The logic of a single union to negotiate for teachers is overwhelming but the devil is in the detail, says Mark Irvine

ONE in four marriages ends in divorce these days, but trade union weddings are a different kettle of fish altogether. If union members vote yes in a merger ballot, there is no way of going back and untying the Gordian knot.

Getting things right first time is crucial.

The most powerful argument in favour of a new super teachers' union in Scotland is blindingly obvious. In the long run, teachers have more to gain by uniting under a single organisation than they have by everyone going their separate ways, played off against one another by the employers. Yet the distinct culture and ethos of individual unions is often what attracts members to join in the first place, and it's this circle that has to be squared.

In the business world more people believe in the tooth fairy than mergers of equals. The Educational Institute of Scotland dominates north of the border with 78 per cent of Scotland's unionised teachers in membership, followed by the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association with around 15 per cent, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (say 5 per cent) and the Professional Association of Teachers and a few others making up the penny numbers. All have strengths and weaknesses, depending on your point of view or prejudice, and the majority of the 60,000 strong workforce are union members.

The EIS has the most impressive pedigree, established by Royal Charter no less. The institute finally became a modern trade union in the 1970s, by joining the STUC, and positioned itself as the union for all Scottish teachers regardless of the sector they worked in: primary, secondary or further education.

The SSTA, on the other hand, made a virtue of narrowing its appeal exclusively to secondary school teachers, as its name suggests. Old lags in the SSTA say the EIS sold out years ago with a long-term, if politically correct, bargaining strategy aimed at rewarding all teachers equally, when lots of secondary school teachers believed the nature of their jobs merited a healthy differential.

The NASUWT is the result of a shotgun wedding between two dinosaurs from another era: the National Association of Schoolmasters (NAS) and the Union of Women Teachers (UWT). Predominantly a UK organisation, with proportionately many more members in England and Wales, it has its admirers, but is a small player on the Scottish scene.

The PAT is another small organisation, yet its strategy of pursuing a no-strike approach to industrial relations could pay off handsomely one of these days, if the big beasts of the jungle get caught up in unpopular and damaging disputes.

The economies of scale involved in a merger would allow a new organisation to provide more and better services for a joint membership of 60,000 teachers; not the biggest union north of the border, but undoubtedly the most powerful and best resourced, which is important given the complex local and national bargaining arising out of the teachers' agreement.

Plenty of interesting precedents exist.

The latest super union is Amicus: a million members strong, born from the AEU (formerly AEEU and EETPU) and MSF (formerly AUEWTASS and ASTMS).

Amicus organises skilled workers across all sectors of industry, but its arrival was delayed for years because of in-fighting.

So, the noble cause of putting the interests of ordinary union members first can be a smokescreen for activists and officials to carve things up for themselves. Never in the history of the modern movement have grassroots members driven a union merger; the official organisation has always had and always will have its own agenda. Members are largely on the periphery of things until the day of the big vote.

The logic of a super union is overwhelming. But the marriage will only be made in heaven if the irresistible force of the EIS can be squared with the immovable object of the SSTA's heavyweight presence in the secondary sector. As the senior partner, the EIS will demand the lion's share of the spoils: who will be its first general secretary and senior officials? More important, what model of internal democracy will prevail?

High-minded reasons for merger will always come down to basic organisational questions, but the answers will set the strategic direction of a new teaching union for the next 20 years.

Mark Irvine is a freelance writer and former union official.

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