The leader of one of England’s biggest teaching unions has spoken out against plans to create a new merged classroom “super union”, confirmed to TES this week.
After months of official denials, the ATL teaching union finally admitted that it is in talks with the NUT teaching union about “forming a new union for education professionals”.
Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, said that she would “respect the decision of sister trade unions”. But she cautioned against the impact of professional unity, claiming that it was “better” for ministers to receive six letters from unions on issues such as pay, rather than one with six signatures.
“If you look at some of the big industries where there is one union, there is no evidence that it has a bigger impact with government than several others” she told TES.
Her comments have shocked professional unity campaigners, who had hoped that a single teaching union was again becoming a genuine possibility (see box, below).
Next weekend, delegates at the NUT annual conference in Brighton will decide whether they want the merger discussions with the ATL to continue, TES can reveal. If both unions get behind the proposal, special conferences could be held in the autumn to consider whether to ballot members.
The move would bring the prospect of a single national classroom union one step closer – after decades of campaigning – if the NASUWT was prepared to cooperate.
But Ms Keates said that her members had not been “banging down [their] door” about professional unity. “The fact is, it’s not an issue among our members,” she said.
It has long been the NUT’s official policy that a single union would best represent the profession. Now the moderate ATL’s leadership is also considering it as a realistic option. Mary Bousted, ATL general secretary, said that merger talks had come in response to an “ever-changing education landscape” where members face “intolerable workload and stress”.
Strain on union’s resources
TES understands that the strain on unions’ resources as they deal with an increasing number of academies, which can each adopt their own pay policies, is a major factor.
Dr Bousted said that unions also faced restrictions on their ability to protect and represent members as a result of the Trade Union Bill, which contains new restrictions on national industrial action.
“In our talks, we have explored the practicalities of forming a new union for education professionals, taking this unique opportunity to create an organisation that is fit for the 21st century,” she said.
If the ATL and NUT merged, it would make them the largest teaching union in the country, as well as the fourth largest union. But the NASUWT general secretary told TES that she did not feel threatened by the proposal. “Our union continues to be successful,” Ms Keates said. “We increase our market share of the teaching profession in a shrinking profession.”
And she does not believe one “super union” for a profession equates success. “I am always of the view that it is better for the secretary of state to get six letters on an issue, all pursuing probably the same broad principle but bringing all the different issues that come in, than one letter with six signatures on,” she said.
Hank Roberts, a founding member of UNIFY, a cross-union body set up to campaign for a single teachers’ union, said the argument for multiple unions “doesn’t stand up” He highlighted the Educational Institute of Scotland as a good example of a national teaching union that has a greater impact. “The proof is in the pudding,” he said.
NUT general secretary Christine Blower told TES that the issue of professional unity was “more important than ever”.
A campaign that goes back decades
The campaign to bring together England’s teaching unions to create “professional unity” goes back decades.
Hank Roberts, a member of all three of the big classroom unions, who has spent the past 20 years campaigning for a merger, argues that it is “common sense” for teachers to support it.
In 2002, a TES survey found that the majority of teachers were in favour of a single classroom union – and 70 per cent of NASUWT members came out in support.
“I think it would be higher than that now,” Mr Roberts said, stressing that one union would avoid competition, reduce money spent on competitive recruitment and unite the profession to fight for the same interests.
“If people in the education sector don’t think there is a need to change things I would be extremely surprised,” he said. “It’s dire in the schools and it’s becoming worse. If we stay as we are that would lead to disaster.”
But such arguments are not always guaranteed to win favour with the delegates who make the decisions at teaching union conferences.
Fourteen years ago, merger plans stalled when NASUWT activists rejected a vision for a single classroom union put forward by their then general secretary, the late Eamonn O’Kane.
The NUT and the NASUWT formed a “historic partnership” in 2012, but it didn’t take long for the formal relationship between the traditional rivals to break down over a difference in industrial strategy.
Mr Roberts, who will carry out fringe sessions at both the NUT and ATL’s Easter conferences on professional unity, said the campaign had taken a “giant leap forward” in the past year, but acknowledged that it was “no done deal”.
Professional unity will be on the agenda at the NUT and ATL annual conferences this Easter.
Reports on merger talks will be presented behind closed doors in the next three weeks.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL, said: “Delegates at our annual conferences over Easter will consider progress so far, with the potential for further discussions at each union’s executives in the summer and for special conferences in the autumn, to consider whether to ballot each union’s members.
“At each of these stages, members will decide whether they want to continue towards the creation of a new union.”