As to be expected, everyone on the Executive agreed to call on our TUC delegation to vote for motions supporting calls for co-ordinated strike action. Regrettably, when it came to the concrete question of whether the NUT should take such co-ordinated action alongside UNISON, GMB and UNITE on October 14, then, by 26 votes to 12, a majority voted against*.
This vote took place as part of a debate on a series of recommendations coming to the Executive which included:
* Confirmation of the members’ consultation ballot that will be issued later in September.
* Mass production and circulation of the Union’s education manifesto.
* Making clear that we will encourage requests by school groups for escalation to strike action over pay and appraisal policies – and, as I sought to clarify, where those policies have been unfairly applied too.
However, when it came to the action announced by support staff unions, the recommendation simply said: “That the Union issue material to members to indicate how they can and should support the local government union strike if they strike on Oct 14th following the TUC, the PSLG, and the second meeting with the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan”.
While one member of the Executive argued that this wording allowed the Union to revisit the question of participation on October 14 in the light of events, others in support of the recommendation disagreed with this interpretation. They made clear that they would oppose any emergency meeting of the Executive to review decisions - meaning that any decision on participation on October 14 had to be made today.
LANAC Officers Patrick Murphy and Martin Powell-Davies proposed and seconded the objection (eventually defeated in the recorded 26-12 vote) that instead recommended that “the Union calls for a further date of strike action to take place on October 14 alongside UNISON, GMB and UNITE to build on the united action that took place on July 10” adding, to take account of those who argued that plans might change over Congress, “If, following Congress and the PSLG any changes are made to the plans announced by the Local Government Unions, the Executive will consider these at, or before, the next meeting of the Executive on October 2nd”.
In a long debate, those opposing the objection relied on three main arguments. Firstly, that the NUT couldn’t call action until the members’ consultation had finished at the end of October. Yet even some of those voting against conceded that there was nothing to stop the Union calling action on October 14 while also consulting on what action then followed.
The second main objection was around the Local Government unions’ apparent failure to consult with the NUT over setting October 14 as the date for action and the fact that their dispute was separate to the NUT’s dispute. But any lack of open discussion at the tops of the movement shouldn’t be used to block the co-ordination that is so wanted at rank-and-file level. Co-ordinated action also inevitably includes unions with different specific disputes and demands but, together, we are battling against common attacks on pay and conditions and, together, we have a better chance of opposing those attacks.
The final main objection was from those who questioned the level of support that action would receive. Yet, with all the inevitable unevenness of a national dispute, previous actions have been well-supported. By October, the reality of performance-pay and ongoing workload burdens will have only added to teachers’ anger. The opportunity for joint action by teaching and support staff to close schools and have a real impact would have encouraged staff from all relevant unions to join the strike.
Those of us arguing for the objection explained that the Executive needed to take account of changing circumstances. Yes, NUT Conference had agreed we should “consult with members about a series of strikes through the autumn term and into 2015” but that didn’t mean that we couldn’t also decide to take the opportunity to take action alongside support staff colleagues and others on October 14 at the same time.
After all, NUT Conference also agreed to co-ordinate action “with other education and public sector unions where possible and showing flexibility to any timescales they may have” – and did so in agreeing to strike on July 10. Why? - because we know that co-ordinated action has a greater chance of achieving gains than acting alone – particularly in the months leading up to a General Election. What gains we did achieve over pensions – even if insufficient - were achieved by the mass co-ordinated action of November 30 2011. It was also no coincidence that Gove finally left his post after the co-ordinated action on July 10.
Unfortunately, by voting against participation in the action announced for October 14, the NUT has not only failed to take the opportunity to build joint action to assist our own dispute, we risk also shedding doubts amongst other trade unionists – not least support staff colleagues in schools who could be wary of taking action without teaching staff.
While there were many genuinely-held disagreements in today’s debate, I can only conclude that today’s vote will prove to be a setback. It will confuse and surprise many both inside and outside the NUT, especially school reps and local union officers, who would have been encouraged by the prospect of building broader co-ordinated action on October 14. If TUC motions about co-ordinated action are to mean anything, then certainly the NUT delegation at Congress should be lobbied hard to reconsider this decision.
The members’ consultation that has been agreed is also going to be vital. There is a risk, whatever is said in the consultation materials to encourage a positive response, that today’s vote could also demoralise some members. Some will conclude that the NUT is not sufficiently serious about defending them against the excessive workload, bullying and performance-pay that is ruining education - and teachers’ lives. It will be vital to counteract any disappointment and encourage a positive vote.
The key question in the ballot will ask if members “support the NUT calling up to two more days of strike between now and the General Election”. That question needs to receive a widespread YES from across the Union. Of course, even this does not really amount to a consultation on a “series of strikes” agreed by Conference and school groups should also additionally respond with proposals for a clear calendar of action up until the Election – the critical time to put politicians under pressure.
Last, but not least, today’s vote, with the bulk of the Executive members in the long-standing STA and CDFU groups joining those in the ‘Broadly Speaking’ group in opposing the objection, also shows the importance of building support for the more recently formed Local Associations National Action Campaign within the NUT. LANAC will be holding its next National Steering Committee in Leeds on October 11th.
* The vote on the objection was recorded so I can report that the 12 members voting in favour were Bater, Bowser, Byrne, Clarke, Conway, Glover, Hudson, Leaver, Murphy, Nellist, Powell-Davies and Simms.