By a Unison activist
THE NATIONAL Education Union has won an impressive mandate to call an official strike ballot for a cost of living pay increase.
Not only did over a quarter of a million teachers vote by 86% on a 62% turnout for strike action in support of a fully-funded (i.e. increasing school budgets) above-inflation pay rise, 50,000 support staff members also backed strike action by 78% on a 68% turnout.
Hopefully this result will galvanise NHS and civil service workers to emulate their achievement—as well as school educators in the real ballot. With the Headteachers (NAHT) and the other teachers’ union Nasuwt consulting their members too, this could herald the biggest school strike for a very long time.
Nurseries, primaries and secondary school workers have an advantage over office-based workers in that they do not work from home. They share common experiences working with young people and families and, like in the health service, form strong workplace bonds and friendships, due to the intense emotional as well as physical nature of their jobs.
Having worked as a Teaching Assistant for 14 years, I can testify that, where the barriers between teachers, educational and office support staff, cleaners, caterers and premise officers are broken down, there trade unionism is stronger.
The logical conclusion to this is to build one industrial union that speaks for all grades and defends every worker. Unity is strength; an injury to one is an injury to all: these are not age-old trade union slogans for nothing.
However, the NEU is not the main union for school support workers. Bargaining rights for these grades are monopolised by the three big general unions, Unison, GMB and Unite. They form the National Joint Council (NJC), which negotiates wage increases for these workers, as they are on local government pay scales.
What irks the bureaucrats who run these unions, especially Unison and GMB, is that their members accepted the employers’ pay offer after extremely lacklustre ‘campaigns’, only for the upstart NEU, with only 10% of the unionised workforce in its number, to vote to strike.
What will their members think? Another union making a better fist of a fight than them, the established leaders!
As a result Unison (with the most members to lose) has dragged the NEU before the TUC, claiming they have breached an agreement not to actively recruit or seek negotiating rights for school support staff.
Unison’s ‘Head of Local Government and Education’ Mike Short has instructed branch secretaries to stop all collaborative work with the NEU at every level of organisation unless there are ongoing campaigns or members’ direct interests would be harmed—as if this would not be the natural outcome of this ludicrous decision.
Worse, Short has gone further and written a model letter for branches to send to school employers (the bosses!) informing them of their breaking off of relations with the NEU, saying, ‘Where possible we are asking school employers to support UNISON’s position in relation to the NEU.’
This is yellow unionism. It crosses the line of the class struggle. It is calling on the employers to side with them against a union that is on the verge of taking national industrial action.
It is calling on its members not to support a legitimate strike by a fellow trade union for purely selfish, monetary reasons—the membership subs they fear they will lose and which form the basis of their high-paid positions.
All local government Unison branches should condemn such behaviour, call for Short to be sacked and urge their members to respect NEU picket lines at the least or to take out dual membership of the NEU so they can participate in the strike vote and walk out with them.
Sadly the NEU bureaucracy, having unleashed the genie from the lamp and got their wish for a Yes vote from support staff, are, like Aladdin, frightened of the consequences. While they are clear about moving to a strike vote for the teachers, they have remained silent on the next step for support staff.
Rank & file NEU members should demand the union ballots all its school members on strike action for a united pay rise of inflation plus 5%—like the nurses are doing. Support workers in other unions should agree collectively to support the strike and, where possible, take out dual membership so they can actively have a say in the strike.
Elected strike committees can cement this unity in every school, making it harder for the unions to divide them or accept a partial victory for teachers alone, leaving the others tied to the dysfunctional NJC bureaucrats, who are more concerned with their union finances than our pay.
There is only one response to yellow unionism—industrial unionism waging the class struggle.