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Union shies away from the important battles

Your recent article "4000 staff say they are bullied" (TES, March 17) about the survey conducted by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers interested me greatly.

Of all the teacher unions the NASUWT enjoys a track record of being a "no-nonsense" union with a direct approach to difficult employment issues. However, in view of several recent test cases, I (a former national executive member) am deeply concerned about the NASUWT's ability to deal effectively with intimidating and bullying employers.

The 1988 Education Reform Act, and others subsequently, has whittled away at legal rights of trade unions and working conditions of teachers while strengthening the power of governors and headteachers. A smoke screen exists, usually surrounding the word "reasonable" that, instead of being challenged in the courts by the NASUWT, has been met with ineffective half-measures. The national officers appear legally moribund. Yesterday's solutions only apply to yesterday's problems; but with Pounds 6.5 million in the fighting fund and a wealth of employment experience over amateur governors, why aren't they having a field day?

For example, in Walker v Northumberland County Council (1994), a case which was won by Unison, the public-service workers' union, the judge ruled that employers who failed to show a sufficient degree of care could be sued for causing stress to an employee forced into early retirement through ill health. Over the past nine years, the number of teachers retiring on the grounds of ill-health, that is, stress, has increased from 2,449 to 5,535. The NASUWT has not defended one of these cases.

It was also left to Unison, invoking European law, to establish that employees should have "no diminution in conditions of service" if they find themselves working for a new "private" employer. How many of the grant-maintained schools have issued new contracts of employment for teachers or de-recognised their unions? Of these, how many has the NASUWT challenged in the courts? Protesting over trade union rights each year at GCHQ Cheltenham is all very commendable but is in stark contrast to NASUWT's record.

Perhaps the most telling case however is that of Rob Prior, a NASUWT member, school rep and governor of the GM Claremont High School, Brent. Upon being sacked in 1992, Mr Prior sought a judicial review against the Secretary of State for Education on the grounds that the Department for Education had allowed the school governors to act ultra vires. After much bickering the NASUWT decided to support him, but because of its hesitation it was too late to include the governing body.

Amid much publicity, Justice Brooks found in favour of Mr Prior. The NASUWT then issued a writ for Pounds 104,000. At last, it seemed to be playing a role in significant employment issues. When the crunch came, however. the NASUWT again proved desperately short of fight: officials told Mr Prior to accept the mere Pounds 12,500 or lose the union's support.

The NASUWT seems content to reach the lowest level of agreement, regardless of the importance of a case or even the basic trade union ethos to defend the rights of members.

Since 1988, the NASUWT has not contributed one significant or innovative legal case to employment law. The message is clear. The NASUWT will do an efficient job at defending members who slip on a floor tile, or face low-level disciplinary cases. But members wanting support to establish important legal precedents in today's rapidly changing working environment had better look elsewhere.


5 Gosden Road

Woking, Surrey

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