On 28 February the Executive of the National Education Union (NEU) meets to consider the next steps in our campaign on funding and pay.
The most significant new information available to NEC members will be the results of a lengthy indicative ballot which closed in mid-January. After a number of "warm-up" questions about support for the union's campaign, the ballot asked whether members would support industrial action to achieve its demands.
Support for industrial action from those who voted was overwhelming (over 80%) but the turnout across the union was 31%. The 2016 Trade Union Act requires a turnout of 50% and a yes vote from 40% of eligible members.
The Executive is unlikely to call a "official" national ballot for strike action on the basis of this result. There must be a serious risk that industrial action will be shelved for the moment.
Instead the almost unanimous support for the Union’s demands may be used to inject new life into the funding campaign. If action remains on the table it is likely to be in the form of some sort of selective strikes in areas or phases with the highest turnouts.
A number of different versions of this idea are possible. The turnout was higher in London. Of the 19 areas to achieve a turnout above 40%, 16 were London boroughs. The sixth form sector saw a turnout of 46%. There may be an argument to ballot either or both of these constituencies. A much more messy option is to ballot all schools with a turnout of 40% plus.
There are major problems with all of these options. Members who voted yes to action in the indicative ballot did so on the understanding that they were supporting unified national strikes. They weren’t voting to take action only in their own schools or geographical area.
There is also little point in selective action unless the intention is to roll it out across the country.In the 2012 pensions dispute, London was called out for a one-day strike with the promise that other regions would follow. In fact no other region was called out. Many members in London felt used and misled.
At that time the Union had a live ballot mandate which would have allowed us to simply name strike days in other areas. This time we would need to conduct formal ballots under the new rules before spreading the action.
Out of around 170 areas, only eight reached the 50% turnout. The vast majority were around 20% short. And that was achieved in a ballot period of two months which allowed members to vote electronically (apart from in three trial areas). None of the three areas where a postal ballot was held got anywhere close to the required turnout.
During the ballot period, reminder emails were sent to members on at least a weekly basis. A formal ballot would be conducted by post to home addresses.
There are positives to be taken from the indicative ballot, but it also reflects very real weaknesses in the Union’s strategy. A 30% turnout is comparable to most of the ballots of the last 20 years or so run by the NUT (main forerunner of NEU), other than the pensions dispute from 2011 (40% turnout). Getting a comparable figure is somewhat reassuring, given that this recent ballot included members of the traditionally less militant ATL, now merged with NUT into NEU.
The demands of the proposed action were, however, a problem from the start. School funding is a critical and popular campaigning issue, but the main effects are yet to be felt and will be different between different schools and areas.
The pay element of the campaign was very weak. The NEU abandoned its own pay claim (for a 5% increase for all) and replaced it with a demand for 3.5% for all. This was justified by the claim that 3.5% was the recommendation of the School Teachers’ Review Body and it would embarrass the government to have that highlighted.
In fact it effectively killed the pay element of our campaign. The majority of teachers were already getting a 3.5% increase under the government’s pay award. The Union was asking the majority of teachers to vote for strike action which might gain an increase in the pay of school leaders and such but would not gain most teachers a penny.
It is unlikely that a viable proposal for strike action which really builds a national dispute will emerge from the 28 February Executive meeting.
However, the ballot should be a reminder of the need for a determined drive to fight the anti-union laws. The options for the NEU are cripplingly limited by the 2016 Act which sets unreasonable voting criteria. Earlier union law prevents any form of ballot other than the old-fashioned and cumbersome postal ballot.
It highlights a need to step up work to improve union organisation in the workplace, increase the number of trained reps, and generate collective action on the issues that affect school workers most such as workload, over-scrutiny, and bullying.
And it gives evidence that a major national initiative on the issues of education funding, pay and workload is possible.
The NEU should call a national demonstration on a Saturday to demand increased funding, decent pay, an end to the exam-factory model of education and bringing academy schools back into local authority control. We should call on Labour and the rest of the trade union movement to support it.
Such a demonstration would not only put education on the political agenda in a new way, and build confidence and engagement ahead of the national industrial action that will eventually be needed.