A National Education Union (NEU) is likely to be formed by a merger of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). This merger is a step forwards for school workers organising.
Both the NUT and ATL held special conferences on Saturday 5 November to decide whether or not to ballot their members on the proposal to create a new union. The merger would create the largest school workers’ union in the country, organising 450,000 members. Although the majority will be teachers, the ATL also organises a number of support workers who would be included in the NEU.
The process towards this new union has been going on for sometime. However, the rule book and the sole motion which could be put to the conference only came out on the 10 October. Given schools have a half-term break at the end of October and a deadline for amendments and delegates on 26 October, this gave members a bare fortnight to discuss the shape of the potential new union.
Unsurprisingly, this led to concerns about being bounced into a decision. The NUT special conference was noticeably smaller than annual conference. The level of debate was low, with a general “bigger is better” line dominating. An amendment to give more time to discuss the details of the new union was heavily defeated. Had the amendment been passed it would have allowed more discussion over issues which are major areas of concern from the new rule book. These include the continuation of both unions’ policy of independence from political parties, stopping us from affiliating to Labour and joining the fight for the transformation of the Party in to one that better serves workers’ needs.
We also did not get to discuss concerns about a perceived slippage from a conception of the NUT as a trade union struggling alongside other unions to a view of the new union as an education campaigning body and professional organisation. Nor did we get to discuss that the new union will have one of its deputy general secretaries appointed rather than elected, in line with existing ATL practice but against current NUT practice.
Fortunately, an amendment to guard against potential witch-hunts under general “bringing the union in to disrepute” rules was passed with Executive support. An amendment to ensure supply teacher representation was lost. In keeping with recent annual conferences there was a successful push to have the “main question put” without further discussion. The anti-democratic use of this tactic was supported by the right of the union and shamefully some on the “left”. It stopped the conference discussing a further, softer, amendment to try to push for supply teacher representation and more crucially an amendment initiated by Workers’ Liberty supporters to argue that the new union should actively organise support workers in schools and build towards a school workers’ union.
The amendment had been endorsed by the Executive despite the opposition of the Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA) and the SWP. They argued that they didn’t want to “step on the toes” of Unison, GMB and Unite who currently organise (some) support workers. How people who believe themselves to be socialists can put the bureaucratic needs of the existing union movement ahead of the industrial logic of one school workers’ union is hard to understand. Besides, the majority of support workers remain un-unionised and the new union could build itself here without the need to poach members from other unions.
An united school workers’ union would be a powerful education campaigner and have increased industrial clout, being able to threaten and deliver more effective strike action. The only possible alternative was to keep the support workers currently in ATL in the new union but to do little with them or for them. The SWP and STA were so convinced of their arguments over this issue that they felt it better to not let conference hear the discussion at all!
An indication of the level of “debate” at the conference was shown when, towards the end of conference, Kiri Tunks, Junior Vice-President of the NUT, summing up on the main motion, cited the Cuban teachers’ union, “one union and with a veto over government education policy”, as a model to aspire to. She is either unaware that the Cuban teachers’ union is a Stalinist, state-run union and is nothing to aspire to, or too cynical to care.
Despite all of this we should be in favour of members voting to create the NEU. It does create a larger and therefore stronger teachers’ union. It will put more pressure on the remaining teaching unions to discuss unity. It does afford us the opportunity to organise and work with support workers and push towards a genuine school workers’ union.
We will need to fight to ensure that democracy remains and is improved within that union, that the union continues to see itself as an integral part of the labour movement in Britain and not a professional body or education lobby. We will also need to push for the union to affiliate to the Labour Party so that we can be an active part of creating effective working-class political representation.