Kenneth Baker never managed it. Not even Margaret Thatcher was able to pull it off. But this week, Michael Gove achieved a feat unmatched by any other education secretary: he united the NASUWT and the NUT.
The biggest two teaching unions have released a "historic" joint declaration, committing themselves to a unified campaign of strikes and other industrial action in the autumn, should the government fail to address their concerns over pay, pensions, workload, working conditions and job losses.
NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates and her NUT counterpart Christine Blower were both quick to scotch speculation that the move could pave the way for a merger between the traditionally fierce rivals. But the declaration has been hailed as a "tremendously significant" development that will have profound implications for the education union movement. And the unions, representing about 85 per cent of teachers in England and Wales between them, hope their united front will allow them to exert real pressure on Mr Gove.
"The move reflects the unions' perception of the scale of the threats they are facing," said Professor Howard Stevenson, deputy head of the University of Lincoln's centre for educational research and development. "Gove is changing the landscape; they have got to find a way of trying to stop him.
"The level of rivalry between the unions has been enormous. Historically, this agreement is tremendously significant."
While the two unions have held joint action in the past, it has always been sporadic and related to specific issues. At the press conference held on Monday to announce the move, Ms Blower quipped: "Michael Gove has actually managed to get us to the point where we are making a joint declaration." Ms Keates argued that, with teaching a "profession in crisis", the unions had been left with no other option.
The NUT is the only union to have explicitly made professional unity a goal. In 2002, former NASUWT general secretary Eamonn O'Kane floated the notion of a merger, but the idea has not resurfaced since Ms Keates took the helm in 2004. In November, she told TES that competition between the unions led to better customer service for their members.
The NUT enjoyed a flirtation with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) during the first pensions strike last June, but the NASUWT did not join in. And when it came on board in November, it steered a slightly different course, holding a ballot on a wider range of issues and starting its own work-to-rule action.
Although left-wing factions within the NUT executive have proposed several strike dates this year, the union has only held one, and even that was restricted to its London power base. Moderate members of the NUT leadership have displayed a more cautious attitude, fearful that many teachers could be reluctant to take strike action without their colleagues.
This week's announcement that the NUT will hold a fresh ballot similar to the one already conducted by the NASUWT suggests that it is willing to go along with Ms Keates' strategy in order to ensure both unions will - barring any dramatic interventions from Mr Gove - stand side by side come the autumn.
While the ATL, the third biggest teaching union, has refused to publicly comment, TES understands that, privately, some senior members are angry at what they regard as a betrayal by their fellow unions. But the move was welcomed by Hank Roberts, who will become ATL president in September and has led the campaign to unify the three biggest teaching unions.
"I hope the unions will work ever more closely together, and I also hope the favourable experiences deriving from the fact that unity gives strength will open up debates that could, in the long term, lead to there being one single education union," he said.
THE JOINT DECLARATION
"We will challenge:
unacceptable and excessive workload pressures, which are damaging to teachers' health and well-being, undermining teaching and learning and threatening educational standards;
the failure of the government to carry out the valuation of the teachers' pension scheme, the imposition of unfair contribution increases, and changes to make teachers work to 68 or higher to get a full pension;
the government's proposals for local pay and performance-related pay and the continuation of the pay freeze for teachers;
the attack on teachers' jobs and national terms and conditions of service, including those arising from the privatisation and academisation of schools;
threats to jobs arising from funding cuts and education and curriculum reforms."