Ballot papers have been sent out for the National Education Union’s Deputy General Secretary election, in which Socialist Alternative members are supporting and campaigning for the Education Solidarity Network candidate, Martin Powell-Davies.
Martin is an experienced organiser, trade unionist and educator, with a track record of fighting the bosses – and winning. As Lewisham NUT Divisional Secretary he led a number of successful struggles, and helped to build a fighting, militant branch.
Building in the workplace is crucial given the ongoing issues of health and safety. We face new government guidelines on Covid which can be summed up as ‘learn to live with it and get back to normal’. We’re being told to ensure windows and doors are opened to guarantee good ventilation. However, most schools are old buildings which were never designed with this in mind. We’re told to promote ‘hand hygiene’ – changing the advice from regular hand washing. This is virtually impossible in schools which have at best a couple of toilet blocks for hundreds if not over a thousand students. Contact tracing has been abandoned as the NHS will allegedly pick this up. Likewise self-isolation has been stopped for those identified as a close contact. In fact, even if a parent or sibling in the same house has Covid, pupils can continue to go to school. Staff who are double vaccinated no longer need to self-isolate if they have been in close contact with someone with Covid. Vulnerable staff have been told they are now safe to continue going into work; forget facemasks and social distancing, these are apparently no longer needed despite cases now being higher than during the previous lockdown.
Safety at work
We need a strong union response to ensure the workplace is safe! This means not just national opposition to the government guidelines, but union reps and branches setting the standard for Covid regulations in schools.
Socialist Alternative member and NEU Executive member (pc) Louise Lewis has publicly endorsed Martin, for his “strong Union track record … [which] will be crucial to lead us in the upcoming battles we face, from campaigning against the recent pay freeze, to the leaked white paper of an end to 1265 [directed time hours] and the return of SATS at 14.”
The fight for a national contract for education workers, binding on all employers, is a key struggle that the Union must take up seriously in order to defend pay and conditions, and to reverse the deterioration these have already seen in recent years. A campaign on this issue must include preparing for a national ballot on industrial action, as proposed at the National Executive and Conference by Education Solidarity Network members. The need for a new national contract, a longstanding policy of ESN (and formerly LANAC), has been recognised as a salient demand during this election but must be turned into reality by campaigning on the ground.
The Tory pay freeze for education workers is a kick in the teeth following the disruption and economic impact of the pandemic – and the further speculation about an end to 1265 hours of directed time sharpens the issues facing the NEU. These should be key campaigning priorities for the Union – the NEU should join other public sector unions in organising strike action to win a decent pay rise, for example Unison and Unite are both currently balloting, recommending rejection of the local government pay offer. Martin is the only candidate who has pledged to endorse national industrial action, but this needs to be organised in workplaces, with a clear message from the leadership on what the strategy is, to ensure that firstly the ballot threshold is hit and that strikes are well organised. Action should also be coordinated with other unions across the public sector.
Martin has pledged to take only the average wage of a teacher, if elected, and to donate the rest back to the labour movement. Regular reports detailing how much money was donated and to which causes would be an important part of demonstrating this pledge in practice, as a way of holding our representatives accountable. A concrete example of this is elected council member Kshama Sawant in Seattle, a Socialist Alternative member currently facing a right wing recall campaign. Kshama takes $40,000 of the $135,000 salary and donates the rest back to trade union and grassroots movements recently pledging $10000 to a fund for striking carpenters. .
Niamh Sweeney’s platform doesn’t indicate that she will lead a fighting union that would benefit all our members, particularly support staff. While 76% of the profession are women and Niamh speaks strongly of the need to support women, electing a fighter like Martin will do more to actually fight for female members – and building a grassroots left in the Union will improve representation for women as well.
Gawain Little, the candidate of the misnamed “NEU Left”, represents more of the same from the leadership – more letters to MPs and strongly worded statements, which are rarely escalated to industrial action. Serious questions have also been asked about his position on trans rights and the Gender Recognition Act and at the time of writing he has not responded to any of these questions.
Fighting leadership needed
Electing a fighting leadership is only part of what we need to do to beat the Tories, but it is an important part. Members of the Education Solidarity Network – the fighting grassroots left in the NEU – who were elected to the National Executive in the recent elections have used their position to push for an active, militant and democratic union. Louise Lewis has made her priority challenging the recent pay freeze and having a clear timetable on a national campaign and ballot for strike action coordinated across the whole public sector; supporting local and national protests for the COP26 this November; improving the workload pressures for education workers, who this year will be back to facing classroom observations, book scrutinies and OFSTED inspections.
Electing Martin as Deputy General Secretary, and continuing to build the ESN and the number of activists in the NEU,is a further step towards doing that. Recent elections in Unite and Unison have important lessons. Firstly, to win positions, campaigns must be based on the active members in the unions, as Sharon Graham did in Unite, linking the candidate manifesto to the demands of workers in dispute. It needs to be based in the workplace and cannot just be won online. Secondly, winning just an individual position – or even a majority on the national executive – is not an end in itself, as illustrated in Unison where an unelected bureaucracy has defied the decisions of the elected NEC. It must be coupled with a strong broad left and networks of reps and activists who can force through genuine democratic change in the unions, to ensure that they fight for their members. Socialist Alternative is committed to building the necessary struggle for this, and is supporting Martin as one part of this.
We say build the struggle for a democratic, fighting NEU and vote Martin Powell-Davies for Deputy General Secretary.