Sunday, April 01, 2007

Unity is Strength?

For people of my generation trade unions belonged to our cultural experience – there was the Boulting Brothers ‘I’m Alright Jack’ (I’ve known a few Fred Kites myself), The Strawbs ‘Part of the Union’ and TUC General Secretaries as household names. Brendan who?

Teaching is now the exception, because well over 90% of the profession are members of a trade union. But despite that exactly how effective are they? Why do they let Ofsted harass teachers, why are there such long working hours and why do teachers have such little control over what they teach? Unions don’t even directly negotiate on pay, they make submissions to the School Teachers Review Body (STRB) which then makes a recommendation to the government. In the recent British Social Attitudes survey only a third of all trade unionists thought they got good value for money from their membership.

Over the last decades we have witnessed their declining strength. Any union that sanctions ‘illegal’ strikes is liable to suffer crippling fines and solidarity action is outlawed. Part of the explanation lies in the destruction of old smoke stack industries, which were a strong hold for trade unionism. From a high point of 12 million in the 1970s, there are now only 6 million members. Membership tends to be concentrated in certain sectors and regions. If you are an older male, full-time worker in the public sector from the North East there is an extremely high likelihood that you will be in a union. If you are a younger female part time worker in the private sector in the South East, there is only a 5% chance that you will be a trade unionist.

Given this bleak background trade unions have begun to huddle together for warmth, mergers between unions is the latest survival technique. Most public sector unions have merged into Unison and if the T&G and Amicus combine that will take care of most private sector workers. In the era of the super-unions disunity amongst teachers provokes the call for ‘One Union’. In Ireland all teachers, including heads, belong to the same union. A few years ago the government attempted to impose a new science scheme on schools, the booklets were left unopened in the schools’ offices and the training courses were empty. Eventually the government had to retreat.

Teachers have three medium sized ineffectual unions to choose from and then there’s the smaller no-strike Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) with its eccentric conference resolutions, no losers but “deferred success” and dogs as classroom assistants. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has a reputation for ‘militancy’ despite the fact that the last national strikes were in the 1980s; the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) mainly organises in the independent sector; lastly there’s the National Association of Schoolteachers (NAS) which emerged as a split from the NUT in the 1920s due to their opposition to equal pay for female teachers, in the 1960s they were still championing corporal punishment in schools. Recently they have been the most prominent converts to the ‘National Agreement’ that sanctioned the use of classroom assistants to cover classes. Would one large, undemocratic, ineffectual union that is a government patsy make any difference?

Whatever happened to the unions? During the 1990s ‘credit card unionism’ made its appearance, the theory was that all members needed and wanted was cheap finance and legal advice. Out went the school rep, the union branch and the national conference, the only relationship was between the member and the head quarters. The NUT magazine is a good example of this trend, the 48 pages are chock full of finance adverts, legal advice, stories about the General Secretary, but anything from ordinary teachers? One page of letters and a few brief pieces by teachers in ‘Chalk and Talk’.

Branch secretaries and full time officials spend most of their time on case work (as important as they are to the individuals concerned) but they are fighting the symptoms not the causes. How to stop stress amongst teachers? A good start would be scrapping Ofsted and stopping the testing culture. Like all compensation agents unions cherry pick the best cases to fight.

Union structures have withered on the vine, the last three national ballots in the NUT – SATs, the general secretary election and workload – all had turnouts of around 20%, or to put it another way 80% of the membership didn’t vote. The NUT national executive has 27 members, but only 9 of them faced a contested election. Many schools don’t have union reps, or just someone who ‘opens the post’. Branches struggle to find officers and are often inquorate. The national conferences are heavy on procedure, guest speakers, reports and stage-managed debates.

The NUT conference has a reputation for being feisty when addressed by government ministers. It’s interesting how teachers have become demonised by these set piece events, compare for instance the booing that Jack Straw received from the ‘Bobbies’ at the Police Federation Conference or the slow hand clapping that Tony Blair got at the Women’s Institute National Meeting – all a jolly jape of course. Somehow at the NUT conference when faced by a bunch of teachers (let’s be honest, most of us couldn’t punch our way out of a wet paper bag) the politicians all turn into wilting violets. Mind you if someone was invited to my party and turned round and said that my family and me were all a useless pile of excrement, I think I’d give them a hard time.

Hundreds of union reps and branch officers still do a fantastic job – in their own time. The recent strikes against cuts in the new TLR scales showed that there’s life in the old dog yet. Where would we be if there weren’t unions to defend us? Trade unions are still popular with the wider public. The teaching unions have managed to steer well clear from the corruption scandals in America that have blighted them (Miami teachers’ union leader Pat Tornillo was jailed in 2003 for embezzling millions of dollars from union funds).

The theory under pinning credit card trade unionism was that you had to service the individual’s needs, collective action was outdated and solidarity belonged to another century. But individualism cuts both ways, what happens when teachers do the maths? In a teaching career you might spend £6k on union fees. Value for money? I’ve never found union sponsored financial deals to be cheaper and with such a heavy caseload, if you do have a problem, will it get the attention it deserves? Why not save the money and if necessary hire your own employment lawyer?

The other problem is that people ask, “What is the union doing?” As though the union is some kind of autonomous, external entity that can intervene on people’s behalf. My reply is always, “you are the union”. Maybe we should be asking not ‘what can the union do for me, but what can I do for the union?’ Let’s also remember that in history (before unions were even invented) every revolt began with someone saying that simple word, ‘No’.

The first plain truth is that teachers get a spectacularly bad deal from their unions, in case any union spokesman deigns to reply maybe they could address the following score card – Ofsted, long hours, workload, low pay (for a graduate profession), payment by results, the testing culture and teachers queuing up to leave.

The second plain truth is that we need effective unions like we have never needed them before. The raison d’être of the first trade unions was that one worker on their own was powerless, only when they combined together were they listened to – ‘Unity is Strength’.

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