Quite rightly, once you have declared as a candidate for as important a post as Deputy General Secretary, members and District Officers want to know where you stand on the issues that matter to them.
I am always happy to be asked, and always happy to give my opinion, even when the questions are on subjects that I know divide opinion within the Union. Further, in order to be transparent, I will use my blog to share my responses for anyone to read.
For a union where members are ‘listened to’, not just ‘talked at'.
I have been asked to comment on a range of different areas this week. The two areas to which I have given the most detailed responses - the 'Help a Child to Learn' appeal (see my separate post) and the limits on 'Honoraria' payable to Local Officers - may seem unconnected. However, the controversy around both issues contains a common element, and that is a worrying lack of prior consultation from the top of the Union.
As I have written below, one of the reasons that I am standing as DGS is to be a voice at Union HQ that will seek to counter a growing tendency to centralise and impose policy from the top, without sufficiently consulting local activists and listening to the concerns of members in the workplaces. As I have put on my initial campaign leaflet, I stand for a genuinely democratic union – where members are ‘listened to’, not just ‘talked at’.
That's certainly not to say that, as DGS, I would not be working fully with others as part of the HQ team - indeed, I think I am the candidate who will best strengthen that team. HQ colleagues already know from my work as a National Executive member, and then London Regional Secretary, that I work well with others, staff and local officers, in a leadership role. However, a leadership also needs voices that will not be afraid to question decisions, and to reflect on criticisms that have been raised, when it is necessary to do so. Without those voices being heard, mistakes will be made - as the last week has shown.
School and College Safety - we can't leave room for risk
Following the 'Help a Child to Learn' announcement, the Union yesterday released an updated "Education Recovery Plan". There's much within it that will gain wide support from NEU members - such as the call for a 'recovery curriculum', an end to child poverty, guaranteed access to broadband and laptops and increased staffing budgets to employ additional supply teachers and others in schools and colleges.
However, once again the plan seems to have been released without sufficient prior consultation with the National Executive and others such as the Health and Safety Organising Forum. If that had happened, once again weaknesses could have been addressed in advance of a Union announcement.
In particular, the section of the Recovery Plan on Safety in our Schools and Colleges lacks the detailed clarity that was rightly included in the recently released joint union checklist for 'partial opening'. A call simply to 'limit' numbers and bubble sizes and to call for 'arrangements for distancing' is insufficient to protect staff, students and our communities. Unless we make specific demands - such as the call in the checklist for schools to be operating at a maximum 15% of normal capacity at present - a dangerous return to fully open schools will be much harder to resist.
The Recovery Plan does, however, rightly add a footnote to page 9 of the Government's 'Children's Task and Finish Group' paper of 17 December 2020. That summary provides the answer to the false claims now recirculating again that schools are not, after all, "vectors for transmission".
It confirms, for example, that school-aged children "are more likely to bring the virus into the household than those aged 17+" and that "young people (aged 2-16) are much more likely than those aged 17+ to be the first case in their household". Surely, it must be obvious - at least to those looking with their eyes open - that fully open schools were the places where those young people were most likely to have contracted that infection!
For our own sake, and for the safety of our families and communities, we must not compromise on insisting on a genuinely safe working environment in schools and colleges.
Honoraria - my reply to questions asked by Districts:
I was a Local Secretary for Lewisham NUT for many years and, as with many NUT Associations, there was a long-standing practice that a small honorarium was awarded to a small number of officers as a token of the work that they had done for the union over the year.
I appreciate that some Associations did not support the practice, and, in a very few cases, there may also have been highly questionable uses of honoraria with large sums being paid to certain officers without real democratic oversight from the members of the Association. However, Local Associations were given autonomy and trusted to make their own decisions.
I am sure we would all agree that nobody should be pursuing Union office for personal financial gain. That’s one of the reasons why I have pledged that, if elected as DGS, I will not accept more than a teacher’s salary for carrying out my role. But, equally, no one should be out of pocket for undertaking trade union work and, for example, necessary expenses and caring costs should always be met to ensure nobody is excluded from doing so.
I can appreciate that, on developing the National Education Union as a new organisation, past practices needed to be examined and critiqued. However, I am concerned that the way that limits to payment of honoraria have been agreed by the NEU Executive are one example of a growing top-down centralising tendency within the union that, as DGS, I would seek to counter. I fear that the changes to honoraria have also been drafted by HQ staff and National Officers who do not all have first-hand experience of the hard work required to build a Local District, nor of the hard-working volunteers who carry it out.
Such important decisions should not be taken without full consultation and appreciation of the difficult and different circumstances that face different Districts, particularly those where facility time has been limited and the pressures of workload on colleagues mean it is difficult to recruit and sustain local officers. Yet I understand that the Executive has now agreed further limits to the payment of honoraria, again without having considered the impact it could have on Districts such as yours.
A “lay-led Union” cannot just be a slogan. The National Union needs to make sure it is the reality.
In summary, my view would therefore be that:
• Honoraria should never be paid in a way that can be seen as Local Officers simply voting for each other to be paid additional income without democratic oversight. As should always have been the case, honoraria should be subject to approval at a quorate AGM, publicised fully in advance.
• In Districts where the union has been successful in maintaining facility time, and where most officers continue therefore to be released for trade union duties on their existing salary, any honoraria, if agreed to democratically by the District AGM, should only be a token additional amount. There will be other officers, including those who carry out trade union activities as well, that could, as now, also be eligible.
• In Districts where employers are refusing to honour our entitlement to reasonable paid time off to carry out trade union duties, and it is felt that the payment of larger honoraria is required to assist the recruitment and retention of local officers, then this should continue to be payable, subject to the agreement of the District AGM, up to the existing limit of £2,000 per annum.
• Where Districts feel that they are unable to operate without payment of honoraria that exceed these limits, then there should be full consultation with the local Executive members and Regional Office about what support can be given to the District to secure sufficient facility time and to recruit more workplace reps and Local Officers. If, as a result of those discussions, it is clear that additional honoraria are required as a temporary measure, then that should be agreed by the Union.
• I do not support any stipulation that honoraria can never be paid to those who are carrying out trade union duties, such as retired caseworkers. Of course, it would be preferable if casework could be carried out by serving NEU members released on their existing salaries from their posts for the 'reasonable time' needed to carry out our trade union duties. This is, sadly, a legal right which is being denied us by far too many employers and which we need to pursue more vigorously as a Union. But where this is not the case, and others are having to take on those duties without paid release, it is self-defeating to impose an inflexible ruling that threatens to undermine the work of the Union at a local level.
A related question, that I have also been asked, is about my views on the strategies that the Union has been following over recent years to oppose the attacks that have been made on 'local facility time' by successive Conservative governments.
Many Academy Chains and Local Authorities have sought to cut the budget used to pay the costs of releasing trade union officials for carrying out their duties. At the same time, the pressure and demands on members, and therefore on the Local Officers who support them, is growing ever greater. The need for a successful strategy to defend - and indeed, increase - facility time is therefore pressing.
The approach taken by the Union, of employing additional organising staff, hasn't been the main problem. The Union can certainly benefit from having an organising team, just as long as as there are clear organising goals and strategies, the organisers themselves are confident in what they are doing, and they are deployed as part of an agreed overall plan that is being worked on together by both Local Districts and Regional & National staff. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
As DGS, I would call for an urgent review of our approach to defending facility time, particularly listening to the experiences of both Local Officers and the organisers themselves. I would propose we place a greater emphasis on our legal rights as a recognised trade union. We need to insist that our representatives have a right to reasonable paid time off to carry out union duties and undertake training, and that employers need to find the budget to allow the law to be followed.
At the same time, the Union needs to explain to members why our legal rights have to be defended. We need to go back to basics and make sure that members appreciate that many of the officers they call on for help are volunteers, teachers and support staff like themselves, released from work part-time to carry out union duties, not paid officials. We have to campaign and organise members to insist that their employers honour those rights, including through taking industrial action if necessary.
Finally, I was asked my views on the repression of the Uighurs by the Chinese regime. I replied to say that, as a Union, we should certainly add our voices to those rightly speaking out against the persecution of the Uighurs and the mass detention and repression in Xinjiang. In showing solidarity, we should also help workers across China build a united opposition to its dictatorial regime and the inequality over which it presides.
Suffice to say, we obviously also need to distinguish our trade union solidarity from governments whose 'support' to national struggles too often comes only as a calculated part of their foreign policy, empty words designed to weaken their international competitors, rather than being a genuine offer of support to the struggles of people to free themselves from poverty and oppression.