Sunday 6 November 2016

Unite to Defend Our Members

Below is the text of my speech to the NUT Special Conference on 5th November 2016, seconding the motion that NUT should endorse, and put to a ballot of members, the proposal to amalgamate with ATL to form the National Eduation Union.

On 25th June 1870, the National Union of Elementary Teachers was formed, through the amalgamation of a number of local, regional and sectional associations. It was formed in the context of the fight against performance-related pay and the controversy surrounding the 1870 Education Act.
The principles that brought teachers together were the demand for a single pay scale and the need for the proession to have a united voice to influence education reform.

What made the NUET, or the NUT as it became, unique was that it organised all elementary teachers without regard for rank, qualification or seniority. Unlike the craft unions that were predominent at the time, our union organised everyone, from assistant and trainee teachers to head teachers, in a single union.

As Roger Seifert and Mike Ironside put it in their book Industrial Relations in Schools, "The important thing about the NUT is that its practices and its structures developed on the basis of a broad membership base, bringing together qualified and unqualified, women and men... The holding together of a national union in such cicumstances reflects an impressive determination to secure improved conditions through a united policy".

Underpinning this were two principles:
  • A commitment to unity - if you worked in the classroom, you were in the union, and
  • A commitment to democracy - the policies of the union were decided through democratic debate at the annual conference.
Well, once again we face a situation where national pay scales are being dismantled and preformance-related pay is becoming the norm. We work in a fragmented system where the academy and 'free' school programme is dismantling the state education sector. And we face a government that is unwilling to listen to the voices of teachers, or parents, of students because of its blind adherence to the dogma of neoliberal free market privatisation.

These ideas have dominated education since the early 1980s and teachers have been on the back foot. We have faced a coherent and co-ordinated education reform movement with divided forces. As a result, we have seen the imposition of a curriculum which is not fit for purpose, excessive testing which is educationally and prychologically damaging to our children, and a level of workload which is driving teachers out of the profession.

So we are faced with a choice. We are asking you today to endorse these rules to go forward to a ballot of the entire membership. But we are actually asking a much bigger question. We are asking you to take an historic step towards unity; a step to strengthen our union.

And we have three possible options.

We can reject unity and deny our profession and our students the voice they need at the time they need it most.

We can delay, amend the proposal at our annual conference, and of course wait for ATL to do the same, then restart the negotiations. If we do, there is a slim chance that maybe in a year or two years' time we might be back at a special conference with another proposal, probably after negotiation not dissimmilar to this one.

But are we really willing to take that chance, knowing that the most likely outcome will be the same as if we reject it out of hand; in the full knowledge that the rules and structure of the new union will be open to democratic change by the membership from its first annual conference in 2019, just months after they come into effect?

Or we can do what working people have done throughout history when their interests are threatened by the rich and powerful. We can unite to defend our members, our students and our communities.

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