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If you’re in the building, you’re in the union: the next steps for the NEU

At the same time as responding to, and resisting, current attacks on education, we must build our strength and prepare ourselves for the battles of the future, says GAWAIN LITTLE

THE creation of the National Education Union, which from January will have completed its amalgamation at every level, should be welcomed by all educators as a huge step towards professional unity. 

For the first time in many years, the overwhelming majority of school teachers have come together in a union which represents all education professionals, to speak with one voice in the interests of teachers, support staff and the students they work with.

This is a truly historic development, which can only serve to strengthen the campaign for a fully funded national education service, with a broad and balanced curriculum for every student, which we so desperately need.

However, the history of union amalgamations also suggests that we need to guard against complacency.  

For a variety of reasons, there may be tendency for newly amalgamated unions to focus their energies initially on internal projects, developing the ethos of the new union and relying on their newly enlarged membership for growth. 

This may be understandable, with a significant proportion of staff and lay activist time focused on the logistics of the new union, but for the National Education Union it is not an option.

The creation of the NEU is only the first step towards professional unity. While teachers, support staff, lecturers and head teachers are still divided between a number of different unions, we must constantly work for collaboration and co-operation between those unions, while looking for strategic opportunities to turn this organic unity into organisational unity. 

We know that we are stronger when we speak with one voice — the entire history of our movement teaches us this — and so we should be using the opportunity opened by the creation of a new union to further the long-term aim of professional unity in education.

The second reason we cannot afford to pause is that the aggressive dismantling and denaturing of our education system continues apace. 

The specific policies may shift subtly but the end goals remain the same. For example, the rate of academisation continues at a similar pace, but with a greater focus on swallowing up stand-alone academies into big edu-business chains. 

Excessive testing and its narrowing effect on the curriculum have stepped up a gear with the proposed introduction of baseline testing of four-year-olds. 

At the same time, this trend is supplemented by increased support from government and Ofsted for a “knowledge-driven” curriculum which downplays critical thinking and prioritises the memorisation and regurgitation of facts over the development of conceptual understanding. And of course the attacks on school funding and staff pay continue.

The lesson from this is clear. We must constantly be ready to take the fight to government over these issues and, where we find ourselves on the front foot, as we have done previously over baseline testing, we must not let up and must push our attack home.

However, at the same time as responding to, and resisting, current attacks, we must build our strength and prepare ourselves for the battles of the future. So what are the next steps in this process, following the creation of the new union?

In order to answer this, I think we need to return to the concept of wall-to-wall union organising which inspired the drive to professional unity — if you’re in the building, you’re in the union.

That means a relentless focus on workplace organising.

For the National Education Union, this opens up three key areas: maintaining union density, involving all categories of members in the work of the union and mobilising existing members into union activity.

Teaching has long had one of the highest union densities of any occupation, with many estimates of membership density in the mid- to high-nineties. 

However, there are some signs that this may be falling. One of the possible reasons for this is the change in training routes. 

While in the past much union recruitment activity has been focused on university education departments, the development of multiple work-based training routes means that the majority of recruitment now takes place in the workplace. 

This shift, from one or two universities in a local authority to hundreds of workplaces, is significant and means that local and national organisations have to focus significant resources on training and equipping workplace reps to be the primary recruiters for the union.

We must recognise that the union will only recruit in the workplace if it is seen to be a strong campaigning organisation, at workplace level and nationally. Therefore reps must not only be the primary recruiters for the union, but must also lead and drive campaigns in the workplace.

At the same time, the new union has a number of categories of members, including teachers, leadership members and support staff, and all these members need to have a strong voice within the union and be engaged in union activity, not just nationally but at workplace level.

This means having adequate structures for support staff participation in particular and developing an inclusive culture across the union.

It also means co-ordinating and giving a voice to the significant number of school leaders who are NEU members, particularly over issues such as funding and testing.

In spite of high levels of union density in teaching, education unions have traditionally suffered from low levels of workplace engagement and activity. For this reason, unlike most unions, the bulk of our organising approach has focused not on recruitment but on the mobilisation of existing members, which must remain at the heart of our strategy for workplace organising.

While it has been argued that many teachers join a union for individual protection over employment or safeguarding issues, surveys actually suggest that a significant reason for the vast majority of teachers is the opportunity to raise their collective voice. 

This is borne out by the failure of government-supported attempts to supplant union organisation with individual insurance schemes. 

However, making this aspiration a reality means constantly reviewing union structures to ensure they focus solidly on the engagement and empowerment of members.

An important study of industrial relations in schools by Bob Carter, Howard Stevenson and Rowena Pass argues that there are three main responses of teacher unions to reactionary education reforms. 

Either they acquiesce to the reforms, while attempting to protect their members; or they resist; or they engage in a process of renewal. This combines resistance to hostile reforms with seeking to adapt union structures to engage and empower members more fully in the process of resistance.

This is the route that has been taken, and must continue to be taken by the NEU. As fragmentation forces industrial relations decisions from national to local to workplace forums, we must respond by developing a new concept of leadership, from the workplace up. 

The old concept, where local or national leaders could negotiate agreements that were binding on employers and rarely required membership mobilisations, is no longer suitable. 

Adapting to this new reality can at the same time make our union more democratic and stronger, as the primary focus of national and local organisations shifts to developing workplace organisation and workplace leaders.

The creation of the National Education Union is a huge step forward but now is not the time for any of us to sit back and expect our wonderful new union to solve all our problems for us. 

It is up to us to step up and build the campaign in our workplaces and our localities. Unless the National Education Union becomes a militant campaigning force in the workplace, the momentum of the new union will be lost.

As Frederick Douglass said (and he was someone who knew a lot about power), “Power concedes nothing without demand.” It is up to us to demand an alternative future for education.

Gawain Little is a member of the National Education Union joint executive council. This article is based on a speech he gave to the AGM of Unify — the campaign for one education union.



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