This is a guest post from Martin Brown, the editor of Education for Tomorrow.
It’s ridiculous. If you’re a classroom teacher working in England you have a choice of three TUC-affiliated unions competing for your membership. If you’re a teacher in Wales you have a choice of four. That could mean separate union notice boards, separate teacher union reps, separate workplace union meetings – and that’s just the teaching staff. It’s wasteful of resources and more importantly, time and again, employers and government have exploited these divisions to the detriment of both teachers and state education.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) evolved from professional associations based in the old grammar schools but nowadays recruits in all sectors including colleges. The National Association of Schoolmasters, Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) is an amalgam of a 1920s breakaway from the NUT by male teachers opposed to equal pay for women teachers, and a union of female teachers who campaigned for equal pay. It tends to be stronger in the secondary schools. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) was formed by the coming together of geographically based teacher associations in the Victorian era to end the scourge of ‘Payment by Results’ (now reborn as performance-related-pay in this neo-liberal era).
Back in 2003, the then TUC general secretary Brendan Barber wrote In the NASUWT magazine Teaching Today; “Having worked with the (teacher) unions quite closely on different issues over the years, it seems to me inexplicable why there should be this organisational difference . . . The people they serve are pretty much identical . . . there are some differences but the common issues absolutely overwhelmingly outweigh their differences.”
Perpetrators of ‘betrayal’
Writing in Education for Tomorrow (81) the next year, Bill Greenshields, (NUT president 2008-09) commented;
“Remember the ‘gladiator’ scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which a nervous Brian approaches a small group of revolutionaries to ask hesitantly, ‘Are you the Judean Popular Front?’ ‘Fuck off!’ comes the indignant reply from their Leader, ‘We’re the Popular Front of Judea!’
“Now ‘fast-forward’ to the 21st Century in Britain, with the three main teachers’ unions about to meet separately at their National Conferences.
Three unions divided, apparently more seriously than ever in recent times, in terms of policy, activity and organisation.
“The NUT has for some months publicly attacked its teacher TUC fellow affiliates as ‘Government Unions’ and latterly as perpetrators of ‘betrayal’. The NASUWT has recently responded with a communication to all its members asking ‘Has The NUT gone NUTs?’, and has followed this up with an instruction to all their full-time and lay Officers and Officials to withdraw from all joint working with the NUT. References in their material suggest that the ATL shares their view, and may be about to say so publicly.”
Since then we’ve had a change of government, further attacks and joint industrial action by first the ATL and the NUT, with the NASUWT abstaining, and then by the NASUWT and the NUT with the ATL abstaining.
In 1996 an organisation was set up to promote professional unity amongst teachers. First named ‘Professional Unity 2000’ and then relaunched as ‘UNIFY – one education union’, Its organising secretary is Hank Roberts, a member of all three unions and currently national president of the ATL. At the UNIFY AGM in 2012 he reported;
“In 2002, the teachers’ unions came close to unity. The NASUWT general secretary Eamonn O’Kane supported it, as did the NASUWT officers. The ATL general-secretary Peter Smith was in favour. The NUT had professional unity as its policy. An independent TES survey showed a majority of the members of all unions in favour. The media had it as a done deal. Unfortunately it fell at the last hurdle.
“If it had succeeded would we have been in a better position today? Would it be Nirvana? – certainly not. We would still have serious problems. The neo-liberal privatising agenda would still be being pressed by finance capital – the super rich and their government. But we would have been better placed and more successful in our resistance.”
The recent merger of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) and the Association of University Teachers (AUT) to create the University and College Union (UCU), should have set an example to schoolteachers. On a whole series of issues teacher unions have been victims of government divide and rule tactics. With thousands facing pay cuts and reduced promotion opportunities as management allowances are scrapped and replaced with teaching and learning responsibilities, schools are thrown into chaos, teacher unions snipe at one another over who’s to blame and the government gets on with its anti-democratic, anti-working class, pro-elitist education privatisation agenda unhindered.
“With trade unions merging at an unprecedented rate, school teacher unions alone continue to defy gravity,” commented Hank.
Yet at a local and workplace level there’s near unanimity over what needs to be done and staff can find ways to overcome these national organisational differences. Campaigns against academies and free schools have been successful in at least slowing down the pace of privatisation and have brought new forces into the struggle.
The joint action by the NASUWT and the NUT in defence of pay, conditions of service and pension rights has been a hard fought-for advance. As Kevin Courtney, NUT Deputy Gen-eral Secretary, wrote in the Summer 2013 issue of Education for Tomorrow:
“Unity in action between the NUT and NASUWT, representing the vast majority of classroom teachers is our best hope to protect teachers and defend education. All the elements of our joint campaigns – the rallies, the action short of strike and the programme of strike action – are important parts of trying to change the balance of forces in the argument with Government. NUT and NASUWT activists need to be planning together at every level on how best to take this campaign forward.
“It won’t be easy and will require much work but who ever told us trades unionism and the defence of our education service would be easy?”
Martin Brown (Editor, Education for Tomorrow)
EDUCATION FOR TOMORROW is produced by a collective of teachers of like mind most of the time and certainly on all vital matters of education and politics. It does not claim to represent any political party of the working class. Nonetheless its aim is at all times to speak in the interests of that class and indeed of all working people. Visit the Education for Tomorrow website here.