By a Unison Schools Convenor
The Trades Union Congress has fined the National Education Union £153,000, bang in the middle of their strike campaign. This is an outrage that every trade unionist should protest.
The money will be shared between Unison, GMB and Unite who complained to the TUC that the NEU was recruiting school support staff by balloting them on strike action.
When the NUT merged with the ATL in 2017 to form the NEU, they inherited thousands of support grade members, with over 50,000 now in the union.
Although the NEU agreed back then not to ‘actively’ recruit support staff – office staff, premises officers, cleaners, caterers and teaching assistants – it would admit them if they applied. The three general unions, however, refused to admit the NEU into the National Joint Council, which negotiates terms and conditions for the majority of these workers.
This unhappy arrangement survived until autumn 2022, when the NJC unions balloted their local government members, including school support staff, on pay. All three ended up accepting the employers’ offer, meaning even NEU support members were paid the sub-inflation pay ‘rise’.
This left the NEU in a dilemma. Its members, teachers and support staff, demanded a strike ballot over pay, as is their right. Both sections returned resounding Yes votes and passed the threshold of 50% participation – something none of the Big Three had ever achieved in schools.
That led to these megalithic unions’ complaints. Outrageously, Unison assistant general secretary Mike Short called on branches to stop campaigning alongside the NEU on any issue at all – even when schools were threatened with closure and academy conversion.
What do socialists have to say in these circumstances? Clearly ‘poaching’ on all sides could be counter-productive and play into management’s hands.
But it is equally clear that all workers in schools would be better off in one union, with sufficient stewards and resources. Most importantly it would help break down any craft prejudices among teachers, making them relate to those on much worse pay and conditions.
The NEU is the union most able to make this leap – from craft unionism to industrial (all grades) unionism. Consequently they should be admitted into the NJC immediately. Unison, GMB and Unite should return the money to the NEU so they can use it as a strike fund.
Support staff should be able to freely and democratically make up their own minds which union to join. Yet they are the one group of people who have never been consulted!
At present this is almost impossible to achieve at a national level, members will be suspended or expelled by the Big Three for even expressing such views. But we can start the process by passing motions for our respective union conferences and by organising local meetings of support grades, putting the options before them.
More likely than not, however, this matter will be resolved in action. Those unions best able to defend support grades will recruit them.
The NEU will probably win out, though it remains oriented to the professional layer of relatively better paid teachers and needs to be reformed so support grades have their own stewards and accountable officials.
Such a campaign for industrial unions is urgently needed not only in education but even more importantly in the NHS. Socialists’ guiding principle is to build one union per sector, to overcome fragmentation and division, and ensure the greatest resources are spent on uplifting the most vulnerable and poorest sections of workers.