By Socialist Alternative members in the National Education Union
It was a tale of two ballots, the results of which were both released on the same day. One voted overwhelmingly, by 95%, to take further strike action. This is the third time the NEU teacher ballot has smashed the threshold. Members voted in this ballot knowing that strike action would likely need to be escalated in the Autumn term, looking forward to potential coordination with other education unions: NASUWT and headteachers’ unions NAHT and ASCL.
The other ballot, of the same NEU members, returned an 85% vote in favour of accepting the 6.5% pay offer from the government and ending the strike action. A similar situation was replicated in the NASUWT and NAHT: high majorities for strike action in the Autumn, high majorities for ending the disputes.
Some may explain this seeming contradiction by claiming that educators did not know at the start of the strike re-ballot, which began in May, what they knew in July, when the improved offer of 6.5% was put to the members. The message from the NEU’s General Secretaries was to say ‘strike action had worked and so members should now accept the offer’.
It is of course true that strikes had pushed the government further, increasing the offer to more than before. However, at the start of the campaign in April 2022, NEU conference voted to fight for a 12% pay rise. With inflation now at 8%, teachers are still receiving a real-terms pay cut. This will apply from September onwards. There will be no back dating for the last year where members were taking strike action. What’s more, it is only partially funded, meaning that schools will need to find extra money which they don’t have to pay teachers. In a classic case of pitting workers against each other, it is likely that in many schools this will lead to the job losses of support staff – who are vital workers and NEU members.
Still, this was sold to the membership as a victory and a deterministic situation was placed in front of the members: if you want to strike for more, you’re unlikely to get any better than this. This was reflected in the biased, misleading and even threatening way the question in the survey was presented.
However, this wasn’t a predetermined situation. If, as we now know would have been a reality because of the other union ballot results, we had seen coordinated strike action in the autumn, the government could have been pushed even further. A higher pay rise was possible. More funding for schools was possible. The defence of support staff jobs and a pay rise for support staff was possible.
It can never be definite that a struggle will end in victory. But assessing the growing strength of the union, the possibility for coordinated action and the weakness of the Tories, the odds were definitely in our favour.
Question of leadership
What changed between the overwhelming rejection of the 4.5% offer in April and the overwhelming acceptance of the 6.5% offer in July? An extra 2% in these economic circumstances was not what swayed the members. A key factor was the position of the leadership.
In April, the union was united in calling for Reject, with meetings organised which imbued a sense of confidence in the membership that we could win more. In July, there was huge pressure, and significant resources put into calling for members to accept. The idea of a strategy for escalation, which could have been framed as a rallying call to the members, instead was used as a way to whip up fear. The line became: ‘you will lose more money in pointless strikes with no hope of gaining anything differently’. This would have had an impact on many members who looked to General Secretaries Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted for a lead, and trust their assessment of the situation.
Some members of the Executive correctly voted against recommending acceptance. Along with some other reps and activists, Educators Say No was launched. Within a few days, a WhatsApp group grew to over 600 NEU members – mainly reps who represented tens of members in their individual schools. A meeting was held immediately after the official union briefing, which attracted 1000 people to it. This was the limit of the Zoom room – hundreds more were in the waiting room, wanting to hear the alternative strategy.
In the two weeks of the ballot period, members worked tirelessly to hold workplace meetings and discuss with members about rejecting the offer and the type of strategy that would be needed to fight for more. This was made difficult by the fact that it was the end of term, with the last week of voting taking place when many schools had already broken up for the summer.
Educators Say No
Taking from the experience of NHS Workers Say No, who have successfully been able to win reject votes in the health unions through organising active campaigning in the workplaces and across the unions, EdSayNo achieved a lot in the few weeks it has existed. Whilst some may be feeling dejected by the ballot result, many activists are looking to the future and how we can build on the work done so far.
Alongside the high vote in the teacher ballot, the support staff ballot for strike action over funding is still running. It is crucial that EdSayNo continues to put the issue of support staff at the centre of its demands: defence of jobs and a pay rise for all. Support staff make up 50,000 members of the NEU, and are some of the lowest paid and highly exploited workers in education. Solidarity between all education workers is necessary to fight for the type of education system we want to see.
Discussion is underway on how EdSayNo should continue in the coming months. We believe it is necessary to have a campaigning, rank-and-file organisation to build the union school-by-school. This is necessary for future strikes, which can not just be turned on and off like a tap, but require the building of members, numerically and in terms of confidence to fight on a consistent basis. This also means fighting at local level where necessary, for example, against job losses or academisation.
This is not a task that can be rushed. The trade unions, including the NEU, are littered with examples of failed attempts to build organisations fit for the purpose of transforming unions and countering bureaucratic trends. Patient discussion, experimentation, listening to the new generation of activists and the building of trust through joint work are all crucial elements of this process.
EdSayNo has support on the incoming Executive Committee. Executive members can use the network as a way of getting feedback, and as a lever on the rest of the NEC: a way of vocalising the views of hundreds of NEU activists in a democratic way at leadership level.
In addition, Executive members and the new General Secretary, Daniel Kebede, can be held to account through an additional mechanism to the main structures of the trade union. But a new fighting organisation in the NEU cannot be overly focussed on the maintenance of leadership positions. Its success will be weighed not on how many seats it wins in elections, but on its capacity to lead victorious struggles, primarily against employers but also against bad deals sold by union bureaucracies.
EdSayNo currently lacks a democratic structure, which is inevitably limiting. A new rank-and-file organisation needs to have a structure, as well as a culture that welcomes individuals as joiners and the affiliation of branches, districts and school groups. It should have a collaborative approach, making decisions based on consensus – not just in internal elections where the greatest unity should be emphasised, but in day-to-day campaigning. In terms of programme, this should be discussed and agreed democratically at a rank-and-file conference in the Autumn term, but could include campaigning for flat rate inflation busting pay increases, workload reduction and opposition to academisation, privatisation and Tory culture wars (including defending trans children and resisting the new ‘guidelines’ to out trans students to their parents).
The issue of Performance Related Pay has also had a low profile in the pay campaign. As budgets tighten, many schools will seek to use the denial of pay progression to take back with one hand what has been given by the other. In addition, there is much to be campaigned on within the NEU itself such as for enhanced union democracy, membership control of disputes, and how those disputes are settled (beyond a two-week online survey).
Overall, despite the vote to accept this pay deal, the future of the NEU is looking strong. Throughout Covid and the strikes over pay, many challenges have been faced but the union has grown numerically and in strength, with thousands of new workplace reps. It is important to build on this in the coming months to win on pay, defend jobs and fight for the funding that education needs.