By a delegate
The big step forward at the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers, in Harrogate at Easter, was the passing of a motion calling for united public-sector strike action on pay.
Chances to push the union leadership into action on other issues were, however, missed.
Performance related pay will be introduced in September. Conference had a motion calling for a ballot for “a programme of national strike action” against it. The Executive proposed to amend the motion so that it called on them only to consider national action, and only if additional PRP measures were introduced.
The Executive opposed national action on PRP on the grounds that it’s not viable to take action both on that and on the basic overall pay rise. The membership won’t take it. The Socialist Workers Party and some other leading members of the main left caucuses in NUT — Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA) and Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union (CDFU) — took up this position and made it their own. Then the Executive amendment and another softening amendment were defeated!
Right-wingers opposed to the call for a ballot quickly got their act together and defeated the main motion in a card vote. The STA organisers on the conference floor switched to supporting the call for action when they realised that they had misjudged the mood of conference, but too late.
This chaotic debate pointed not only to a lack of organisation and confidence on the left. Evidently, if we want to win calls for action at conference, and then get them carried out by the Executive, we have to start by convincing the left that national action is possible.
It is right to take up and fight for national action on public sector pay, but it does not follow that we should “keep our powder dry” on all other issues. Teachers have already shown their willingness to strike (and win) over the imposition of the “Teaching and Learning Responsibilities” (TLR) scheme, which resulted in pay cuts for many.
Three lessons: (1) teachers will strike; (2) it takes effective trade union organisation to get a strike; (3) national action is required to protect all members. The NUT must retain its ability to take independent action. Any other position will leave the NUT hostage to the whims of other union general secretaries and will fail the membership.
In the run up to the conference there had been very little “clear red water’ between the union’s leadership and its activist base. Promises to affiliate to a host of campaigns — Cuba Solidarity, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Stop the War – narrowed the gap even further. Some in the STA and CDFU saw this as evidence of the union leadership getting much better, not of the left being feeble. But the events at conference should give them cause to reflect.
On 18 April, Tony Blair declared that “within a small number of years”, he expects every secondary school in the state system to be semi-privatised, either an Academy or a trust school. He expects 300 trust schools by the end of the year. NUT at present has little answer to this beyond a tame “write to your MP” type campaign.
NUT conference decided to establish a political fund. After years of arguing for such a move, conference finally voted in favour with very few objections. But like someone who buys an encyclopaedia to only ever read one page, conference insisted that our political fund limits itself to anti-fascist work.
Speaking at an STA meeting, Mark Serwotka explained how the PCS would use their political fund to survey every candidate for the May elections — with the exception of the BNP — with relevant questions and publish their responses. Local councils have decision making responsibility for Academy and trust schools and PFI builds; with a proper political fund the NUT could do the same as PCS.
The issue of political-party affiliation never made it to the conference floor. Both CDFU and STA meetings unthinkingly echoed Mark Serwotka’s position that unions should have no link with any political party.
But trade unions should mobilise to fight on every front available to them. For unions to exclude themselves “on principle” from joining with other unions in a fight within Labour Party structures is nothing to celebrate. It’s a sad consequence of a myopic politics.
The full measure the political confusion among the left came when a leading member of the Cuban teachers’ “union” addressed conference. Just minutes after arguing for “independence” from being able to voice opposition to the government within the Labour Party, most delegates gave the second standing ovation of conference to someone who represented a “union” completely under the control of the Cuban government.