Standing up for Education – Towards a fighting education workers union
Teachers, along with most other workers, employed or not are facing the biggest attack on our living and working conditions in a generation. After coming for our pensions, and no doubt strengthened by a timid and spineless response from union chiefs, Gove has now set his sights on teacher’s pay as the next target for the chop. Without going into too much detail, Gove’s plans, which can be found in gory detail on the NUT website (www.teachers.org.uk) give head teachers the power to alter teacher pay by thousands of pounds a year based on a range of factors such as the schools financial state. As well as meaning a real-terms threat to pay, the plans would also do away with any national agreements on teacher pay, meaning that individual teachers – no longer bound by national collective agreements – would have to argue pay on a school by school basis. Further to this, as any teacher would be able to be placed on any point on the pay scale, despite length of service or other factors, individual teachers would be left isolated, negotiating over and justifying their individual pay to a boss with a licence to demand increasingly unrealistic targets in exchange for increasingly precarious pay.
I could spend thousands of words detailing the ins and outs of Gove’s latest assault on teachers, but I’ll leave it there. Instead, I want to talk about a factor we can control – our ability to fight back. I’ll be asking if even the NUT, the most ‘militant’ of the teaching unions, is fit to lead the fight for teachers, and if not, what can we replace it with, and how can we win?
Before going any further, I should point out that, although I am going to criticise the unions, this is not an attack from a stranger to our fight. As an NUT rep with over 5 years’ experience, I’ve worked hard to make sure that the union, and the workers that comprise it have a powerful voice in my workplace. I’ve spent endless hours building the union into a central part of the working lives of staff in the school.
I’ve had a few major disagreements with the strategy (or more accurately, the complete lack thereof) of the teaching unions for a while now. These feelings of disillusionment were strengthened by the union leadership’s complete failure to deliver a sustained or coherent challenge to the assault on our pensions. They have been confirmed by the recent unwillingness of the NUT executive to outline a clear programme of industrial action – not even one token strike day – to defend our pay, and our profession from the most concerted onslaught it has ever faced.
The disillusionment turned to anger as I called meeting after well-attended meeting, in which colleagues unanimously expressed the desire to strike, and strike repeatedly, only to have promises of action from the executive come to nothing. While there is enthusiasm for strike action, colleagues are increasingly questioning the ability of the union to lead in the fight, and I’m tired of reassuring them that our executive, or even the union in its current structure and role is a suitable vehicle to fight for our interests. I’ve been having embarrassing conversations where colleagues have been approaching me asking ‘when do we get those strikes we voted for?’ When answering their questions, I can no longer tow the union line, as I feel as let down as them by the execs structural inability to fight.
While the situation detailed above has been annoying, and has fed my increasing belief that the NUT, and certainly the softer NASUWT and ATL unions are not structurally fit to defend its membership, it was a relatively small incident that triggered this blog.
While going through my pigeon hole at work the other week, I received one of the regular NUT ‘Reps briefing’ letters. I’ve found these annoying for a while, as they’re full of ’10 reasons to oppose Gove’ rhetoric, while simultaneously refusing to outline a strategy with which we may effectively oppose him. Aside from this contradictory language, which tells us why to fear the bully, but not how to confront his behaviour, the content is pointless as the vast majority of teachers could pick dozens of reasons to oppose Gove off the top of their heads (he is so unanimously hated amongst teachers that a local primary school has his faced strapped to a punchbag in their staffroom!) – it is not the reasons to fight we need, but the opportunity. Anyway, at the bottom of this letter was a strapline reading ‘we must stop Gove winning his war on teachers’. After feeling vaguely uneasy about the language all day, I realised that, even in its most militant propaganda, the NUT has internalised its own structural powerlessness and is admitting its inability to advance the cause of its membership. In the letter, the unions’ maximum demand is that we should ‘stop Gove winning’. Stuff that – I don’t want to stop someone else winning, I want to win for a change! It is perfectly possible to stop someone else winning without actually winning yourself, so the NUTs most radical demand amounts to urging a return to an uneasy stalemate between us workers and our employer – an increasingly disparate and desperate defence of what we have left, rather than and advance towards winning something we deserve. It became crystal clear to me as I understood the message behind the line that the union is aware that, as it stands, it is incapable of actually improving the lot of teachers in any significant way – all they can hope (or want) to do is fend off the worst attacks, while our pay, conditions and manageable workload continue to be chipped away at from all angles. A truly capable and fighting union would be calling for ‘victory to the teachers’ (or better yet, to the workers), laying out a series of objectives to struggle towards which would amount to a collective improvement in the lot of its membership, accompanied with a strategy outlining how to get there.
The NUT is far from alone in refusing to call or coordinate a coherent fight back. In fact, the vast majority of TUC unions, constrained by anti-union laws which they are too timid to break. Union chiefs also quite like the uneasy status quo – it is that which guarantees them their exuberant salaries and ‘company’ cars. The union chiefs have, in finding themselves alone around a negotiating table with the enemy, found that compromise is in their best interests, so long as they make enough militant rumblings to satisfy the rank and file. So rather than coordinating an effective series of strikes and actions, the union bosses will call us out just often enough to give the impression of being proactive, while kicking their heels, waiting for a Labour government, who they deceitfully allege will put an end to the suffering and oppression of workers. The topic of TUC unions being ideologically and structurally incapable of leading a campaign in defence, let alone advancement of workers interests is subject enough for an entire blog, so I’ll leave it there for now. Besides, any teacher with even a passing interest in their union is acutely aware of the inability of the leadership to defend us.
So, aside from moaning, is there actually anything we can do about it? Even if our current unions cannot defend us, the principle of a union – workers banding together to fight for their common interests – is the most important tool we have. But if we’re going to win, our unions will have to look very different than the current ones. For a good starting point, we could do much worse than look at the example of our follow government employees in the civil service. Sick of their union (the PCS) repeatedly selling them out and dragging their feet in calling and coordinating effective industrial action, civil servants set up their own union initiative, the Civil Service Rank and File (CSRF). The CSRF came about after hundreds of civil servants in Coventry took unofficial direct action as walked out of their workplace in protest at a visit from unpopular (aren’t they all?) government minister Francis Maude. As a first action, the CSRF called for a day of protest to coincide with a European strike against austerity last November. As the idea gained traction amongst civil servants, the PCS sprinted to catch up – half-heartedly endorsing the day of action, and calling more in the future. In this, the CSRF gained 2 victories. The first, and probably least important, showed how terrified union bosses are of losing control of their workers. Seeing a group within the PCS organise themselves for action, the PCS leadership had to kick themselves up the arse and catch up – not because they wanted action, but because workers taking action without their nod would send out the wrong message to the bosses(and workers who want to go further that the PCS can take them). However, the most important victory gained by the CSRF was to show that we are capable of organising ourselves without compromise obsessed, structurally weak union bureaucrats leading us. Since their first action, the CSRF have organised several campaigns and actions, as well as holding a founding conference. At the conference, it was decided that the CSRF would be run as a directly democratic organisation, in which different workplaces send delegates to a wider meeting to co-ordinate the initiative. Although currently small, the CSRF is gaining appeal amongst civil servants who are recognising that they can build their own, genuinely democratic and fighting organisations as an alternative to the largely unaccountable, stale and collaborationist TUC unions. The CSRF also recently circulated an open letter, calling on us education workers to set up our own rank and file alternative to the unions, the full version of which can be found here – http://csrfnetwork.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/an-open-letter-to-rank-and-file-education-workers-from-the-civil-service-rank-file-network/
After years of putting up with disappointment and mismanaged campaigns from the NUT, I think it’s time education workers (not just teachers) set up their own fighting organisation. If we sit back and let the unions co-ordinate our fight back, by this time next year, we will have had a token strike and Gove will have pushed through his attacks on our pay, not to mention a stifling, nationalistic, Victorian-style curriculum and assessment regime that does nothing but damage to our pupils. How often have you felt powerless as your head pushes through redundancies, when your capable colleagues get judged ‘unsatisfactory’, when you see people around you losing sleep, planning and marking well into the night, when OFSTED bastards judge and belittle you, when you have to submit every little lesson plan, when you are made to feel like a naughty child, incapable of being trusted to do your job, when bright, creative pupils are made to feel like failures by a floored and crooked assessment regime, when more and more layers of meaningless middle management are created, and you still don’t have a TA in your class? If we controlled our own struggles, and felt confident to fight back, for ourselves, unconstrained by the red tape of the ‘official’ unions and supported by a genuinely combative and democratic organisation, these problems could disappear. When we work through our TUC unions, the bosses feel safe, knowing that we are structurally bound by a weak organisation to a path of tokenistic protests, rather than fighting to win. Sure, it would take a bit of effort, but if we don’t find a new way of defending and advancing the interests of education and education workers, the future of our schools, for workers and kids doesn’t bear thinking about. We are under attack, and our traditional ‘defenders’ are not up to fulfilling their role. We have no choice but to find a new way to fight, not only to make sure Gove, Wilshaw and OFSTED don’t win, but to make sure we, and the children we serve, do!
To find out more about the CSRF, check out – http://csrfnetwork.wordpress.com/