By Socialist Alternative members in the NEU
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. 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.
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. 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 backdating 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. It is likely that in many schools this will lead to the job losses of support staff.
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.
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? A key factor was the position of the leadership.
In April, the union was united in calling for ‘reject’. In July, there was huge pressure for members to accept. The idea of a strategy for escalation, which could have been 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’.
Some members of the Executive correctly voted against recommending acceptance. Along with some other reps and activists, Educators Say No was launched. 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 has already achieved a lot. A meeting was held immediately after the official union briefing on the pay offer, which attracted 1,000 people to it. This was the limit of the Zoom room – hundreds more were in the waiting room, wanting to hear the alternative strategy.
Educators Say No
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 not a task that can be rushed.
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 focused 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.
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.