Two of the UK’s education trade unions have decided to become one larger organisation. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) will merge into a new organisation named the National Education Union (NEU). The NEU will represented around 450,000 teachers and other education workers. It will be officially formed on the 1st September 2017, and on doing so will become the largest education workers union in Europe. Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, the general secretaries of the ATL and the NUT respectively, will share the role of NEU general secretary.
In a joint press conference, Bousted and Courtney both lauded their members’ decision. Bousted said that “With nearly half a million members, we will speak with a stronger voice on behalf of education professionals and the children, young people and adults they support“. She added that the move was a “historic moment” . Courtney agreed and took aim at the government: “For too long, governments have played divide and rule amongst education unions. Today marks the beginning of the end of that”.
The specifics of the vote were as follows. ATL members voted 73% in favour of the merge on a 25% turnout, and NUT members 97% in favour on a 23% turnout. Critics of the move will cite the turnout figures as too low to justify such a move however I disagree. By pooling their resources, the two unions will be able to more successfully agitate for changes in trade union laws and allow for workplace balloting, electronic voting and so on. Furthermore, the sheer number of members of the NEU will mean that the government will have to take the concerns of education workers more seriously.
The final reason that I see this as a positive step forward is that it will prevent unions trying to go after each others members. Although the overwhelming majority of trade unionists see other unionised workers as their comrades, there are some who like to use the labour movement as a means to an end in raising their own profile. Moves like this will prevent that tiny minority from pitting us against one another. As Abraham Lincoln famously said “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. Uniting is the way we can root out these careerists and fight on behalf of working people up and down the country.
A wider point I’d like to make is about the larger trade union movement. The bold move of the ATL and the NUT should be matched by other trade unions. In education there remain too many trade union organisations. Groups like the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) should consider joining the NEU. This way the concerns of all education workers will be considered in union discussions with the government.
Some may argue against this proposal because headteachers are essentially ‘management’ and as such their interests will be different to those of teachers, classroom assistants, and other education workers. I would normally sympathize with this view however I don’t think this is true in most of the public sector. Most headteachers have budgetary responsibilities, but these are often set by the local authority leaving actual headteachers unable to change contracts.
Further, in the case of many schools, the Department of Education is responsible for pay, conditions, and pensions. It would therefore be more practical to unionise all education workers under a common banner and then take the fight directly to the government. I would even go as far to argue that having all members of staff in schools speaking with one united voice against the government is a more powerful act than just teaching assistants, just teachers, or just headteachers lobbying the DoE.
The final aspect is that the power relations in a school are not the same as in the private sector. For example in a capitalist organisation, workers are exploited and the employer’s salary is the result of surplus value being expropriated from the workforce. This isn’t the case of a school because it isn’t a for-profit entity. Schools are more analogous to a cooperative, but one containing an arbitrary hierarchy of salaries, in that a headteacher doesn’t exploit teachers for their own benefit. In an ideal world schools would be run completely cooperatively, but until then I don’t think that workers in schools should be divided up. Imparting knowledge to children is the primary focus of education workers and that is true irrespective of their salaries. The ‘management’ in this situation is the government.
To conclude, I fully support the ATL and the NUT’s decision and believe that more education trade unions should unite to pool their resources and get the government to listen. The Tories want to smash the trade union movement and as such will want to divide us up and pit us against one another. We must meet this challenge by coming together and this is a universal call. There are many unions that represent the same industries as other ones. If these unions all came together in the way that the NUT and ATL have done, the government will be unable to divide and rule. The labour movement must stay strong in the face of this increasing right-wing Tory government, and creating larger and stronger trade unions would be solidarity in practice.