A new chapter in the history of British education trade unionism opened today, with the official creation of the National Education Union (NEU).
The NEU, formed by the merger of the NUT and ATL teaching unions, is the largest education union in Europe, and the fourth largest in the TUC.
For those who have been fighting for “professional unity” among teachers, the creation of the new “superunion” has been a long time coming.
Hank Roberts, a past president of the ATL, and a member of all three classroom teacher unions, was one of a number of activists who started a campaign in 1996 for the education unions to come together.
“We called it ‘Professional Unity 2000’ because we thought within four years this ought to be a piece of cake,” he recalls. “Needless to say, it wasn’t.”
NEU: a game-changer?
While 21 years is a long time, some people’s memories go back even further. Fred Jarvis, the 92-year-old veteran trade unionist, remembers calling for unity when he was general secretary of the NUT between 1975 and 1989.
“I think [the merger] is highly desirable, in the interests of education as well as teachers themselves,” he says.
The creation of the NEU is designed to strengthen the hand of education trade unionists in a school system which has been fragmented by the rise of academy trusts. The leaders of the new union claim it is a “game-changer”. But is it?
The new organisation will certainly have an impressive membership base. According to the latest NUT and ATL figures filed with the trade union certification officer, the NEU will have 462,267 members.
Roberts argues that this will create new leverage. “It’s a numbers game,” he says. “Your strength depends on your numbers, and your percentage of the people in the particular institution who are in the union.”
Whether the NEU will be able to pile on additional members is another question. The membership figures for both the NUT and ATL have been relatively stable over recent years.
ATL had 128,023 members paying into its general fund in 2012 and 126,236 in 2016, while the NUT had 326,930 in 2012 and 336,031 in 2016. The two unions hope that by combining their recruitment resources, they will be able to unlock new growth.
As well as a hefty membership, the NEU will have considerable financial muscle. The NUT’s latest returns to the certification officer show it had net assets of £57.6 million in 2016, while ATL’s were worth £21.1 million. The combination of the two unions creates an organisation with net assets of £78.7 million.
Coming together could create opportunities for the unions to save money by sharing systems and resources. With both unions currently occupying prime central London offices, the NEU could also generate huge amounts of cash if it centralised its activities to a single site.
The NUT’s Hamilton House is situated opposite St Pancras Station and was valued at £26.5m in December 2015. ATL’s headquarters is a couple of minutes’ walk from Trafalgar Square in an office which was given an “existing use value” of £8.7m in December 2014.
However, Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the NEU, says they “don’t know yet” whether they’ll sell one of the offices. The NUT’s sale of Stoke Rochford Hall last year is reminder that property deals do not always turn out as expected.
An important question for the NEU will be how energetic it is in pursuing additional mergers. Roberts is hopeful – he insists the formation of the NEU is a “great development”, but only the beginning.
The University and College Union (UCU) passed a motion at its last annual conference to hold talks with the NEU. Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, says he wants the new union to “work with UCU to get closer and closer”.
“It’s not the end of the [unity] process, it’s a new phase in the process, and I am confident that it won’t take another 20 years,” says Roberts.