At the National Union of Teachers conference, in Torquay between 6 and 10 April, activists finally began to get organised to fight for rank-and-file control in the fight over pensions. The behaviour of the NUT leadership at the conference, and the official "left" that supports it, showed how much such a rank-and-file movement is needed.
On the opening Friday night of the conference, NUT associations (branches) from across the country organised a fringe meeting to discuss the way forward for getting further national action, under the "Local Associations for Action on Pensions" banner. It was attended by over a hundred delegates. After a lot of discussion, the meeting agreed an amendment to the leadership's motions on pensions with a clear strategy for fighting to win.
Here is how the Workers' Liberty teachers bulletin issued after the debate describes what happened on the Saturday:
"The outcome of yesterday’s debate is not just ‘unfortunate’ or ‘disappointing’.
"The consequences for members of the Union may be difficult to salvage in the short term whilst the executive ponders its long game and seeks in vain to find some life in the NASUWT. Coming in to this Conference we were already close to an historic defeat on pensions and the vague words and shameful manoeuvrings evident in Conference have not removed that danger...
"On Friday night a hastily convened meeting attended by over one hundred delegates and representing a significant number of local associations and divisions drafted what became amendment 3 in the debate.
"A mixture of disorientation, political and industrial timidity on the part of the leading members of the CDFU and STA [Campaign for a Democratic Fighting Union and Socialist Teachers' Alliance, the traditional left groupings in the union that between them have a majority on the national executive] meant that this amendment was not vocally and practically supported by the majority of what passes for the NUT left.
"The SWP, who were present at the local associations meeting had the opportunity to influence the content of the amendment. They cannot have failed to notice that the meeting was composed largely of politically unaligned discontented rank and file members. But the SWP chose to put their party interests before the interests of winning a serious action strategy on the floor of Conference. Their amendment 1, motivated exclusively by SWP members was recognised by many as the sectional view of a political party.
"The real debate began in earnest when the President inexplicably gutted amendment 3 of its action content [claiming that this had already been coveredi n the vote on the SWP's amendment 1]. For a minute we were back in the 80’s -positions were sharply presented and it was evident in the furore that amendment 3 may well have passed un-castrated had it been agreed as the first amendment by CBC. Instead, members of the SWP, the STA and the Broad Left formed an unholy alliance on CBC to relegate the amendment to a position where they hoped it would be talked out.
"It didn’t quite work out as they planned but, despite efforts from the floor of Conference to question and challenge the bizarre decisions of the president, delegates were left with a distinctly suspect taste in their mouths at the conclusion of the debate. More than one delegate has spoken of a “stitch-up” to prevent the detailed, fighting strategy expressed in amendment 3 from being fully and fairly debated."
On Monday 9 April, the "Associations for Action" met again, this time attracting over 150 delegates, from a very wide range of associations. The discussion covered not only on what had gone wrong on conference floor, but also debated what viable strategies there are for the coming weeks and months. This debate is a healthy breath of fresh air in the union, and whilst there was some disagreement on strategy those who attended were united on the need for further days of national action.
Members of Workers’ Liberty argued for the need to combine national strike action with a series of fast-moving, rolling local strikes. This strategy is about making sure action is maintained, rather than de-escalated, in between national strikes. Not a week should pass between national strike days without some form of continual disruption in some part of the country.
This is a major positive development within a union where the organised left groupings — the CDFU and STA — have become very cosy, and therefore very complacent, within the official structures.
Since the conference, SWP teachers have admitted that they “missed a trick” by failing to get behind the self-organised, rank-and-file initiative, instead pushing their own, softer amendment, and have indicated that they will be getting involved.
The initiative taken by Associations for Action could open up opportunities for building an extensive network of union activists and representatives, as well as divisions and associations, that can push for and coordinate action on pensions and other issues. It could well be the beginning of an effort to build and mobilise the rank-and-file of the union into a living, breathing force.
Local Associations for Action on Pensions has called a follow-up conference on Saturday 16 June in Liverpool to discuss furthering the pensions campaign. Workers’ Liberty will be arguing for the conference to also take up the issues of workload and pay.
We encourage divisions and associations to support the conference, send representative delegations and encourage other rank-and-file union members to attend the conference as observers.
Fight for national action!
Many delegates will leave this year’s National Union of Teachers conference angry at the way the debate on pensions was handled, dismayed at its outcome, and confused as to what they should now be telling members in their workplace.
They are right to be all of these things. But all hope is not lost.
Conference passed a motion on pensions amended to instruct the Executive to organise regional strikes and to “aim” towards a national strike by the end of June.
Regional meetings of division secretaries were held after close of conference on Monday 9 April, and were largely tightly controlled by regional secretaries. In almost all regions, division secretaries were informed that they would be surveyed, and asked to provide data on membership density and the number of schools they think will close given further strikes.
One division secretary at the Yorkshire/Midlands meeting raised serious questions about how quickly a decision based on this data will be made if we are to have a regional strike in the week beginning 7 May. Many union activists will need convincing that regional or local action, without a clearly defined follow-up of national action, is even desirable.
AWL teachers want to see the NUT Executive name a whole calendar of joined-up actions, including both regional and national strikes.
Along with others in the newly-formed Associations for Action network, we want to see the NUT participate in any strike on 10 May — now a real possibility following the decision of Unite’s health sector to aim for action on that day.
“The response has been overwhelming”
We were expecting a manoeuvre to prevent a serious amendment being passed, but the way it was applied was disgraceful.
In fact I take it as a compliment that they reacted the way they did; they must have been scared. The response from delegates, particularly women delegates, has been overwhelming.
They said I was giving them a voice.
Julie Lyon Taylor, Liverpool NUT and NUT Executive (pc)
I became involved in the Local Associations for Action on Pensions initiative because I couldn’t go back to my association and say that we’re not going for national action.
I am here to represent members, and members mandated me to vote yes for national action. Over 50% of our members are the worst effect by the pensions changes.
This has got to come from the grass roots, and the fantastic fringe meeting on Friday night is a good start.
Sue McMahon, Calderdale NUT (pc)