On 5 December, a slightly revised version of an agreement between the National Education Union (NEU) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) was put to the NEU National Executive for approval.
That agreement had been used in June, as I'll describe, to sink an NEU dispute at Harbinger primary school in East London.
Kirstie Paton, one of the four Executive members representing Inner London, where the strike took place, moved an objection to reject the agreement and I seconded it. We reminded the Executive of the Harbinger story and emphasised the flat-out contradiction between the agreement and the principle of a lay-led union.
In an indication of the degraded state of our movement, all but four members of an Executive of over seventy members voted to approve the agreement.
The entire so-called NEU left voted for a "get out of jail free" card for bosses. Of the four speeches against, two were taken by members of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP], and the SWP then voted as a bloc against the objection and then to approve the grubby pact. Their argument, such as it was, relied entirely on referring to a section of the agreement which they claimed limits its use.
What's wrong with the agreement?
In May 2019 workers at Harbinger primary school in East London took several days of strike action in opposition to the unacceptable way in which they were being treated by their school’s head teacher. They felt bullied, harassed and mismanaged.
Like far too many workers on far too many schools.
Anyone with any experience of trying to challenge this kind of behaviour will know how difficult it is to develop a collective response. Strike action is never easy to build in workplaces whose main purpose is to look after the vulnerable, in this case primary-aged children in the most disadvantaged area of the country. That difficulty is so much greater when workers have to consider taking on their day-to-day boss in an industrial confrontation.
Despite these barriers, and the restrictions of the anti-union laws, the Harbinger members found the confidence and determination to vote for a campaign of strikes to protect themselves from "unacceptable management practices". Their action was well-supported, picket lines outside the school were large and lively and they were clearly prepared to continue until they won.
The employer was on the rack. It was hard to see how the staff could be defeated.
But defeated they were - by their own union acting at the behest of the union representing the headteacher, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).
The NAHT chose to invoke an obscure joint agreement with the NEU which allows either side to put a hold on any dispute between their respective members to allow for conciliation. The key section of this agreement states that, if enacted, “NAHT and NEU *paid officials* will, by advising their officers and continuing informal dialogue between the two organisations, seek to agree status quo ante, a cooling off period and the establishment of negotiations”.
That process was used to suspend the strike action at Harbinger and, in effect, impose this decision on the demoralised and bewildered members.
The clause which the SWP used to justify endorsing the agreement states that “should either organisation conclude, having consulted their respective officers, that this form of conciliation will not assist, no further action will be taken under the protocol”.
The decision as to whether to call action off is with "either organisation", not with the members in the workplace, who don’t even merit a mention. It doesn’t even rest with local elected officers. They are merely to be consulted.
The story of Harbinger tells us that concerns about these gaps aren’t scaremongering. Successful strike action there which was popular with a determined, newly-confident workforce, was suspended by decision of paid officials without the support of members on the ground or, as far as we know, the local branch of the Union.
That’s the agreement endorsed with enthusiasm by people who consider themselves militants and socialists. □
• Patrick Murphy is a member of the NEU Executive, writing here in a personal capacity.