England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

NEU General Secretary election: We need a strong left challenge to fight on pay, workload and equality

The election of a new National Education Union (NEU) General Secretary takes place early next year. Socialist Alternative believes that we need a strong left General Secretary who can respond to members’ needs and give a clear lead over pay, workload, funding, support staff recognition and many other issues over the next five years, with equality being at the heart of all the union’s work.

The amalgamation with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) led to a period of joint General Secretaries and this unfortunately contributed to a lack of clarity on policies and strategies of the NEU. Teachers and support staff cannot afford vagueness in our demands or delays over action. We need to win the pay ballot and elect a General Secretary who is prepared for conflict with the employers and the government. 

We need a General Secretary who is willing to lead members in dispute, aligning the NEU with other unions already engaged in defence of members’ pay and conditions. Support staff have gone far too long without recognition and we need someone who is willing to take on the task of breaking the recognition agreement in order to be able to negotiate their wages. 

Biggest vote ever in indicative pay ballot

78% of support staff members voted yes to strike action on pay on a 68% turnout and 86% of teachers voted yes on a 62% turnout. The sixth form ballot was even more conclusive with a 97% Yes vote on a 76.6% turnout.These are the best results for a national online ballot since the formation of the NEU.

The union is demanding a fully funded inflation+ pay rise, in response to the government’s offer, which amounted to 5% for all but the newest teachers. The Tories also want pay rises to come from existing school budgets, already stretched after years of underfunding and costs of the pandemic, which will accelerate redundancies and restructures which have already hit teaching assistants hardest in the last year.

We now move to formal postal ballots and the challenge of trying to beat the anti-union thresholds of a 50% turnout and 40% of our entire membership voting Yes. The sixth form ballot opened on the 17th October, running for three weeks and the others open on the 1st November and run until 13th January. The lengthy time period is to ensure all ballots can be returned without being delayed by the Christmas post and industrial action by CWU in Royal Mail. 

While there are obvious benefits to a longer ballot period, it also poses significant challenges. Most people vote early or not at all in postal ballots and maintaining momentum for over two months will require a thoughtful strategy and boundless tenacity from reps on the ground.  A lengthier ballot period can also provide more opportunities for those opposed to strike action at the top of the union to make mischief and slow things down further. 

The NEU has recruited over 35,000 ballot volunteers to support reps in the Get The Vote Out operation. We could borrow from the Los Angeles teachers, who built Contract Action Teams (one rep or volunteer per 10 members and a parent contact) to enable them to have face to face, one to one discussions when building their campaign. This could strengthen and consolidate a higher level of workplace organisation for the union that would last beyond this one dispute. 

One thing that can give the ballot the rhythm and impetus it needs is to map out what strike action would look like and what is needed to win. NEU members have learned the hard way that one day protest strikes and wishful thinking that concessions can be won early don’t work. We now need a democratic discussion involving as many members as possible about our potential strategy. 

Socialist Alternative will argue that action will need to escalate quickly from one day to two and three days if the government doesn’t budge. There will also need to be as much coordination with other unions as possible. NASUWT, another teaching union, and NAHT, the headteachers’ union, are currently balloting members on a similar timeline and joint meetings in workplaces, branches and between the union tops should be explored to discuss maximum impact. 

The left needs to fight for the general secretary position

Two candidates have declared that they will be standing. Niamh Sweeney was President of the ATL section of the NEU from 2017-18 and is the candidate of the right wing in the union; her campaign has – as yet – little to say about pay and workload. Daniel Kebede was President of the NEU from 2021-22 and he has been active in support of victimised reps, regularly visited picket lines, and spoken at rallies against the Tory government on issues such as a fair pay for all. He is the candidate of the union’s left.

Socialist Alternative believes that:

  • We need an active campaign by the left to win the GS position. This means regional, association and workplace hustings, if necessary virtual, in order to bring out the differences of approach and to test candidates (or their appointed representatives) on their policies. The stakes are very high. A victory for Niamh would have a seriously detrimental impact on the direction of the NEU, consolidating the strength of the old ATL bureaucracy, and threatening the idea of a fighting and democratic union
  • A left candidate, if elected, will face enormous pressure, from the Tory government, employers and the media, to backtrack and compromise. The best way to avoid this happening is for us to use the pay dispute and the election campaigns to build a strong, open, democratic organisation of reps and members. We hope the Education Solidarity Network (ESN) will fulfil this role, but such an organisation needs to be built, come what may, to counter the pressures from the establishment and provide some democratic accountability.
  • The current General Secretaries have faced attacks over their salary levels. While some of the figures quoted have been exaggerated and mischievous, the fact remains that a six-figure salary shields a trade union official from the conditions their members face. Socialist Alternative believes that a left candidate should, if elected, receive the salary of a main scale teacher; the rest should be donated to the movement in an agreed and audited way. We believe that if the left adopts this position it will have a powerful effect on members and the election outcome.
  • We must recognise the burning need for a political organisation that can bring together trade unionists, social movements and others fighting oppression and the climate crisis. It is clear that the Labour Party is not a vehicle for struggle but we hope that a new left party of struggle can be built around activists drawn into the battles over pay and workload.

We urge NEU members who agree with us to nominate Daniel Kebede and to participate in a strong left campaign for general secretary along the above lines.

Nominations opened on 1 October and close on 20 December.


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