My union, the NEU, has been the latest to achieve promising preliminary ballot results. 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 17 October, running for three weeks and the others open on 1 November and run until 13 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 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.
NEU members have been visiting picket lines of other unions throughout the summer and building local strike support committees. Coordinating through trades councils and local conferences of resistance can turn this into a strike that mobilises the wider union movement and communities behind a call to fight for decent funding for education.