England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

NEU Conference: Build on the preliminary to fight for education

The NEU’s Annual Conference in Bournemouth takes place with a Tory government in its death throes and in the midst of the union’s preparations for another national industrial dispute, only six months after the last one was settled. It is a complex terrain for a brand new leadership of the union to navigate and the need for a thorough democratic conversation throughout the union is required.

By Socialist Alternative members in the National Education Union (NEU) 

The preliminary ballots of teachers in England and Wales closed a few days before the start of the conference with huge YES votes for action. Turnout in Wales stood at 54.1% and 50.3% in England. Both ballots beat the government’s draconian thresholds but we will be reminded that there is often a fall in turnout when moving from an online to postal ballot. The support staff ballots are still open until mid-April with a fairly healthy turnout and a concerted effort between now and then can easily get them over the line.

It is clear that this ballot, despite doing well in comparison to many other national campaigns, has not connected at the same level that it was this time last year. That is partly objective; inflation is not running as hot as it was, a change of government is imminent and other unions are not out on strike on the same scale.

However, there are subjective factors that need to be addressed too. The messaging and the way the dispute has been framed is one obvious factor. The ‘Pay Up’ moniker does not instantly link the campaign to our demand for increased staffing and better funding. It is also proof that, if you settle a dispute and demobilise members, it is very hard to pick up again without there being a level of fatigue and scepticism from some quarters. The leadership has failed to frame the dispute correctly and the timing was misjudged. When the Tories ‘miscalculated’ pupil numbers and effectively took £370m from our schools and children in October, seizing that opportunity and using that attack as a hook to bring members back into action would have given the campaign a clearer purpose and urgency.

There is no shortage of issues that are angering members at the moment; we have seen record numbers of local disputes as members have gained more confidence in using the strike threat as their means to fight back. Crumbling buildings, strike bans (Minimum Service Levels) and stubbornly excessive workload all linger in the background. Linking these together with clear demands in our ballot could put our union on the front foot.

This conference has to hammer out a clear strategy, underpinned by a seriousness to building and taking industrial action. The huge surge in votes in the last couple of days of the ballot demonstrates that the union is capable of overcoming the deficiencies in the preliminary but we will also need to box cleverly with a targeted campaign guided by the preliminary data. Well-planned meetings in schools and districts that had a comparatively lower turnout this time round can open up a space to listen to members’ concerns and refine our messaging. Mass rallies and a battle bus tour of the nations can also light a fire under it. This, coupled with a longer formal postal ballot throughout the Summer Term, can enable us to take action early in the Autumn Term to shift the Tories and put the Labour Party on notice. Organising and mobilising our industrial strength would be the best bedrock to build an intervention into the General Election on.

In the last year, the NEU has turned a corner. It is a growing and fighting independent union. This has to be maintained and any move to partnership working resisted. We should not accept crumbs from the table or a ‘softly softly’ approach from Labour. After privatisation and chronic underfunding have ravaged the education system and the creation of a hostile environment for any critical voices, we can only reclaim education if we are suitably ambitious in ideas and willing to back it with action.

One such group of workers who have successfully done that are the Ash Field strikers from Leicester and we look forward to welcoming their rep to address our fringe meeting at NEU Conference at the beginning of April. Their fight is a microcosm of the one we are in and can be summed up with a few important lessons: the rank-and-file must take control of their disputes, you have to hold your nerve at some really tough moments and the tenacity and ingenuity of workers is extremely powerful when given a lead.

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