Sunday, September 23, 2007

Friendly Society or Trade Union?

If 95% of teachers belong to a trade union why do we have low pay (for a graduate career), Ofsted, performance management and long hours?

Trade Unions replaced Friendly Societies in the nineteenth century. Only the better-paid, skilled workers could afford the high fees. Friendly Societies were known as the ‘sick and burial clubs’, they provided some kind of safety net before the state began to assume that function. They didn’t negotiate directly with employers for increased pay to alleviate poverty; it took collective action by trade unions to achieve that.

During the 1990s the concept of the Friendly Society was re-invented with ‘credit-card trade unionism’ – strikes were outdated; all that members wanted was cheap finance deals. Out went shop stewards or union reps, branch meetings and conferences. The only relationship the member needed (as with their credit cards) was with the national HQ. There’s an interesting section in Naomi Klein’s book ‘No Logo’ where she describes how some charity and voluntary groups went along this route as well, the drawbacks were the loss of active members and a high turnover from the new recruits who didn’t necessarily have any loyalty or commitment to the organisation.

If you looked at the condition of the teacher trade unions you could describe them as fairly comatose. The NUT had a turnout of 22% in the last General Secretary elections and out of the 27 seats on the National Executive only 9 were contested. However, last year just to prove there was still life in the old dog yet, when Management Allowances were scrapped in favour of Teaching and Learning Responsibilities, where the union was strong, there were strikes in over 100 schools. Basically to get more money you had to prove you were jacking up results, no payments for pastoral care.

Management Allowances payments were protected for three years, but research by the School Teachers’ Review Body shows that 30,000 teachers will eventually lose pay and 22% of schools, mostly primaries, said they had no plans to make any TLR payments.

The National Association of Schoolteachers (NAS) have gone a step further and signed up to the government’s ‘remodelling of the workforce’ agenda and allowed payment by results, cover of classes by non-teachers and the scrapping of Management Allowances (under pressure from their members they had to support a limited number of strikes, just to show they really weren’t a tame pussy cat of a union).

Whilst the NUT has stood alone in opposing all of this, it has been fairly tame vocal opposition; they haven’t actually done much to shake the Government, who because of this can safely ignore them. At this year’s NUT Conference there were unsuccessful calls for national action to protect pay and conditions. At the recent National Executive meeting the two main left organisations, the Socialist Teachers’ Association (STA) and the Campaign for Democratic Trade Unions (CFDTU) combined with the moderate ‘Broadly Speaking’ group to support an anodyne motion on pay that didn’t mention national action. The only Executive members to back national action were Linda Taaffe and Julie Lyon-Taylor.

I’m not saying that teachers are straining at the leash, champing at the bit to come out on strike, they aren’t. There’s also the sort of knee-jerk reaction that you get from groups like the Socialist Workers’ Party who shout out in a very loud voice, ‘All Out Strike! NOW!’ over dirty cups in the staff room sink. However, if there is one lesson from TLRs it is that isolated strikes in a handful of schools will not protect pay, for that you need national action.

In support of this principle, Martin Powell-Davis is standing in the NUT Vice-Presidential elections, he also spoke out on this issue at the NUT National Conference. I’m not claiming that just supporting candidates for national positions will change anything. There is a long and inglorious tradition of radical oppositionists being elected as General Secretaries or Presidents and then becoming as bad, or worse, as the clique they replaced. What is more important is to get members active in the union, to have reps in every school, well attended branch meetings and a sovereign national conference that actually debates issues relevant to teachers.

The STA and CFDTU are also standing candidates (the Judean Popular Front have declined to nominate anyone) so there are accusations of ‘splitting the vote. However, the election is based on Single Transferable Voting (STV) so the ‘wasted’ votes of an unsuccessful candidate are re-allocated to other candidates.

Martin is, by all accounts, one of the most effective branch secretaries in the union (always good to have someone who can walk the walk and talk the talk). He is also a member of the Socialist Party (former Militant Tendency) the left’s version of the ‘Flat Earth Society’ – clinging on to outdated theories. I’m not trying to organise some kind of ‘red scare’ I’m sure his opponents are more than capable of that. On many issues I’d completely disagree with Martin, but on national action to defend pay I’m with him all the way.

I always try to vote on the issues and the wider background. For teachers the choice is clear, a pale imitation of a Victorian Friendly Society or an effective national union.

TES Staffroom Debate

Martin Powell-Davis Leaflet

Elect Martin


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