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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)

Thursday, November 10, 2022

UNISON and the NEU - we need unity

On a day when news is breaking about strike action by nurses, civil servants, rail workers and Scottish teachers, if you heard that senior officials of two of the four largest trade unions affiliated to the TUC were meeting together under the auspices of the TUC you might think that it was to discuss coordinating action to defend the living standards of their members.

(This would, of course indicate a certain optimism about the attitude of the TUC to its role given recent experience).

In fact today's meeting is to discuss a complaint made by UNISON against the National Education Union (NEU) concerning the NEU’s campaigning activity.

The NEU have written to the government to demand increased funding for schools in order to pay for a more substantial pay rise for both teachers and support staff. They have balloted their support staff members, as well as their teacher members, for support for industrial action in support of this demand.

UNISON views this conduct as a breach of an agreement, brokered by the TUC, that the NEU would not seek recognition to negotiate on pay and conditions for support staff (the recognise trade unions for which are UNISON, GMB and UNITE).

The recognised support staff trade unions have, following a consultation exercise organised by branches, accepted the most recent pay offer for local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (including school support staff) although this amounts to a real terms pay cut for most members. This follows the shameful decision of UNISON's National Joint Council (NJC) Committee to refuse to make a recommendation either to accept or reject the offer when consulting members.

Whilst it is obviously embarrassing when someone else starts a campaign to fund a decent pay rise for members whose own union has accepted a real terms pay cut, there is no need for UNISON to view the NEU campaign as a hostile act. Any concession by the Government to the NEU demands would provide funding for a higher pay rise in future years, something with UNISON and the other recognised support staff trade unions should welcome.

Unfortunately, UNISON has not taken this view but has written to its branches recommending that UNISON should “temporarily suspend co-operation with the NEU at all levels of the union – National, Regional and Local - where this won’t have a negative impact on UNISON members or bargaining structures.” The Union has gone further, and suggested to branches that they write to schools “asking school employers to support UNISON’s position in relation to the NEU.” 

Certainly, when I was a UNISON branch secretary I would have filed such a circular in the waste paper bin. Apart from anything else I can't imagine ever having had the time to attend any meetings (with or without representatives from any other trade union) if my absence from that meeting would not have had “a negative impact on UNISON members or bargaining structures”. Whoever drafted the letter which UNISON HQ has sent to its branches they know very little about running a busy UNISON branch!   

UNISON officials may feel that they have a legitimate beef with the NEU and that they should raise this with the TUC, but there really can be no excuse for seeking to involve employers in taking sides in such a dispute between trade unions before that has even been an initial meeting at the TUC. We are all fortunate that the intemperate approach adopted by UNISON officials has so far led to only limited media coverage.

Underlying this conflict however is a longer term problem, highlighted on this Blog nearly 6 years ago, following the merger between NUT and ATL which created NEU. The NUT did not organise support staff in schools, but the NEU inherited the tradition of doing so from ATL. Six years ago National officials at UNISON HQ were worrying about this and, if any of them are thought that the deal subsequently struck with the TUC was some sort of permanent solution they obviously weren't paying attention.

Someone hasn't updated our website for more than five years since UNISON still claims to represent “more education staff than any other trade union in the UK” with 350,000 members in education and that “UNISON is the largest union in schools, representing over 250,000 members in support staff roles across the UK.”

The NEU has a better claim to being the largest education union, with more than 420,000 members contributing to its general fund in the last official return. Whilst the silly willy waving about membership numbers interests only a few bureaucrats in the trade union movement it is beyond embarrassing that UNISON's website continues to make a claim that was true once but hasn't been true for years.

(This embarrassing and long-running untruth told on UNISON's website rather makes the case for effective lay oversight of UNISON communications, something which has not been a feature of our trade union for decades).

Although Socialist party members active in both unions have seized the opportunity to promote their own particular interests by criticising UNISON's complaint to the TUC, they have been offered an open goal by the mistaken approach adopted. Rather than officials of the two unions squabbling, they should be discussing how to coordinate activity to improve the living standards of all our members in schools.

In the long run, as I have argued here before, it should not be beyond the imagination of our movement to find a way in which school support staff can be members of more than one trade union. We offer this option to high paid managers in the health service and I can't see why we could not offer it to low paid workers in schools.

In the immediate term, the general secretaries of UNISON and the NEU should be discussing how to establish a Confederation of Education Unions to coordinate campaigning and organising across schools, further and higher education. This would provide an established forum to avoid future misunderstandings and promote joint activity. 

UNISON should be supporting the NEU campaign for the government to fund a pay rise in our schools, and the NEU should support the role of the recognised support staff trade unions (albeit now that it is clear that the NEU have more members amongst school support staff than at least one of the recognised unions, the question of recognition will clearly have to be re-visited in the near future).

There is an opportunity here to take a most unfortunate episode and turn it to the good purpose of bringing our trade unions together in the spirit of an understanding that we are brothers and sisters in the movement and not "competitor trade unions.” It would be lovely to think that the officials of the TUC could bring this about, but I think it falls to leading lay activists in UNISON and the NEU to find a way to put the interest of our class first.

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