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Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

UNISON and the New Education Union?

Looking ahead, as one presumably should at the beginning of January, it is clear that one of the most significant developments in public service trade unionism over the coming year or two will be the emergence of the New Education Union (NEU) should members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) vote to merge.

I have commented here before that, whereas this proposed merger can be seen as a major step towards the “professional unity” sought by many teacher trade unionists for so long, the fact that it appears the NEU will (like ATL) admit into membership teaching assistants (for whom the non-teaching unions, particularly UNISON, are currently the recognised trade unions) means that the advent of the NEU is being viewed with alarm by some at the UNISON Centre.

School support staff in general (and teaching assistant in particular) form one of the largest occupational groups within UNISON, organised in those of our local government branches which cover local authorities with responsibility for education. UNISON is currently backing our teaching assistant members in Derby and Durham in fights against pay cuts (proposed as a result of an unimaginative and penny-pinching approach to the implementation of single status).

School staff are already fought over by UNISON and the GMB – from a UNISON perspective, certainly in London, schools are the largest source of complaints from UNISON branches about GMB “poaching” of members – yet overall trade union density amongst school staff who are not teachers is very much lower than the (generally high) union density amongst qualified teaching staff.

The NEU, which will face limited scope to recruit non-trade unionists in teaching grades but will also face the significant challenges arising from the changing structure of education provision (and funding cuts), will likely be impelled (after a year or two of merger induced stasis) to recruit teaching assistants, and – since it is always easier to recruit to a trade union someone for whom the first argument about the necessity for union membership has already been won – it would seem that the scene will be set for a three way membership war between UNISON, the GMB and the NEU.

Abandoning, for a moment, UNISON “chauvinism” and looking at things from the perspective of a potential member working as a teaching assistant in a school, you can see that this offers a tricky choice. The support staff unions can offer national recognition as well as knowledge and experience of Green Book conditions of service – and, at least potentially, a strong and independent voice for those in schools who are not qualified teachers. However, the NEU is much more likely to offer school-level union organisation, with a local representative on site and – given the higher union density among teachers – the NEU will be the largest, and certainly the most visible, trade union in each school.

Particularly bearing in mind the declining value to local government workers of national collective bargaining, the balance of that comparison does not look too favourable from the point of view of the support staff trade unions. You can see that a newly appointed teaching assistant, looking to join their first trade union might well be attracted by the NEU (particularly since they are most likely to be the first union to approach them, being more likely to have a representative in the school).

There are, however, hundreds of thousands of school staff in UNISON and the GMB and in its early years a new trade union struggling to define itself will probably have neither the resources nor the will to try to win many of those already in membership of other TUC affiliated trade unions to its ranks, particularly since the bulk of the local activists of the NEU will have come from the NUT and will be used to work collaboratively, rather than competitively, with the support staff trade unions.

Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about whether there is some way in which our trade union movement can offer, to teaching assistants and other school support staff, both the benefits of the workplace organisation which the NEU will likely have and the relevant experience and national recognition of the support staff unions – since if we can do that we can also avoid devoting energy to wasteful competition.

I wonder whether a model applied in the completely unrelated area of health care senior management might be worth dusting off and examining.

Managers in Partnership (MiP) is a sort of “joint venture” trade union between UNISON and the First Division. It says of itself;
“MiP was launched in 2005 as a joint venture by Unison, the largest public service union, and FDA, the specialist management union. It was set up to provide trade union representation tailored to the needs of managers in healthcare, and its structures reflect this.
MiP is a national branch of Unison and a sector of FDA and members are entitled to all the benefits of membership of both unions. MiP is affiliated to the TUC through the FDA. MiP has its own policy making body and is not affiliated to any political party.
MiP's overall strategy and budget are determined by its management board, which is made up of senior paid and lay officials from Unison and FDA.”

MiP launched in June 2005 with 3,800 members, growing to 4,500 in its first nine months and now claiming 6,000 members. 

As a member of the UNISON NEC at the time of the creation of MiP I recollect the controversy which attended its birth, as many health branches were concerned that the concentration of NHS management grades into a single “national branch” would fracture local relationships – but the purposes of this blog post is not to assess the successes and/or failures of MiP per se.

The question which I think UNISON members need to consider – and perhaps try to engage in dialogue with teaching union colleagues around – is whether or not some elements of this model could not be applied, on a much larger scale (and with considerably more lay democracy) to school support staff generally, or teaching assistants in particular. MiP was created because both UNISON and, to a lesser extent, the FDA were trying to organise senior managers in the National Health Service but neither union was achieving the results they sought, and they recognised that by combining the benefits of each trade union they might recruit more members.

Whatever the differences between the circumstances of support staff in schools and senior managers in the health service (and they are legion) there is at least some similarity here, in that a trade union which combined the best of what the NEU and UNISON had to offer could recruit, organise and improve the working lives of thousands of unorganised support staff in schools.

Although there would be numerous, and probably insurmountable, obstacles it is at least a theoretical possibility that trade unionists could be members, at one and the same time, of a sector within UNISON’s local government service group and of a “sector” (or such other language as might come to be chosen) within the NEU.

There is no legal or logical impediment to those members being able to participate in the democratic structures of both trade unions (just as individuals who now choose to be members of more than one trade union may do so) and, as to the level of subscriptions which would be payable and how these might be divided between UNISON and NEU, this is also not a question which is, in principle, insoluble.

I have, of course, stopped mentioning the GMB...

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