From the Editor - The Red Flag has turned Burgundy. Unions must too

28th October 2011 at 01:00

It may seem odd to discuss the weakness of unions when they have so successfully articulated the fury of a pension-pinched profession. But history is littered with peaks that rapidly descended into troughs: the Roman Empire in 180, the British Empire in 1913, Tony Blackburn in 1984. Success has a nasty habit of never lasting. Does a similar fate await the teaching unions (cover story, pages 26-31)?

Three-quarters of teachers are in a union. Most join because they feel the need for some kind of insurance in the face of unpredictable pupils, parents and management. That proportion isn't going to decline any time soon. The unions command a good deal of affection, notwithstanding the odd barking performance at conference. They have, after all, delivered a lot. Decent salaries, equal pay and generous pensions head a long list. Their attacks on the Government's pension grab will have won them more friends than they lost. But there are signs that their influence is on the wane.

For a start, the unions face a Government that is cordial but cool. Their clout is not what it was. The days when general secretaries wafted in and out of Whitehall are long gone.

Nor do the unions seem able to work together. Sure, they share a hearty dislike of the Coalition; it occasionally trumps their profound suspicion of each other. But not often. The NASUWT couldn't even bring itself to strike with the other two in June, citing principle but in reality nursing a bruised ego. Divided they are much more likely to come a cropper.

More immediately, the explosive growth of academies has dealt a double whammy to their central power and local structures. National pay bargaining may limp on for a few more years but it won't be binding on large chunks of the system and it can't be long for this world.

The biggest threat to the unions' future, however, lies in their utter failure to be credible professionals. They talk excellence but tolerate mediocrity. They advocate career development but regard leadership much as UKIP regards Belgium. They back school improvement but not at the expense of their branch network. Why? Because unions are fundamentally conservative self-interest groups. There is nothing wrong with that. They cannot be blamed for being what they are. But the unions could be a lot more imaginative about promoting self-interest and a lot less inflexible about defining where those interests lie.

Take their language. Anyone not acquainted with schools would assume from union leaders that teaching was chiefly a drudge, a bind and largely to do with not putting up wall displays. Morale is always plummeting, workload forever increasing, the Government is so despicable it makes Herod look like Mary Poppins. It is the conversation of ideological purists. How is it supposed to appeal to the professional whose daily battles are a lot less epic, who loves teaching, who probably voted for the Tories, who packed in a good job to work in a school and who couldn't give two hoots if it was called an academy?

The unions do have a future. But to secure it they should merge and bury the egos along with the hatchets, they should belt out Jerusalem at conference, not the Red Flag, they should argue more in sorrow than anger, think BMA not RMT, professional not trade, colleague not comrade. To survive, brothers, you have to face up to what you are: middle class.

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