After years of school funding cuts and derisory pay for teachers, the National Education Union (NEU) has stepped up its offensive against the government and its neoliberal education policies. On 15 November, members of the NEU teaching in state-funded schools and sixth form colleges received a ballot on the issues of teacher pay and school funding. The hope is that this will be the first step towards nation-wide strike action.
Still in its infancy, the NEU was born out of the merging of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) in September 2017. With almost 500,000 members, the new union is the fourth biggest in the country. This ballot will be its first major test, instrumental in shaping the identity and outlook of the NEU.
Before the merging, the NUT had a reputation as the most radical and militant of the education unions. It struck more frequently and was more consistently involved in wider political work, particularly anti-fascist and anti-racist mobilisation. By contrast, the ATL, was often popular with education workers reluctant to strike.
Ex-NUT members outnumber the ATL four to one so the hope was always that the NEU would drag the ATL’s more conservative members to the left. This remains to be seen. With that said, indications so far are positive, with the leaderships of both predecessor unions supporting the ballot.
Testing the Trade Union Act.
In 2016, David Cameron’s tory government launched an offensive against collective action and the labour movement in the form of the new Trade Union Act, which requires a minimum turnout of 50% for a ballot to be valid. For disputes in health, school education, fire, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border security there is an additional requirement for over 40% of all eligible voters to vote Yes. It’s no coincidence that these are the sectors where the impact of industrial action is most profound.
In a localised dispute with a relatively small number of members, these restrictions may not have a huge impact. But with nation-wide action, comprising hundreds of thousands of members, meeting these thresholds will be tough. In 2016, shortly before the new act came into law, the NUT won a strike mandate with a staggering 92% Yes vote. Had the ballot taken place a few months later, it would not have met the new law’s requirements. The 25% turnout – good enough to elect a Police and Crime Commissioner – would have rendered it invalid.
If the NEU ballots its members for strike action this will be the biggest ballot any union has undertaken under the new law. The rest of the labour movement will be watching with keen interest. Success for the NEU will undoubtedly lead to industrial action elsewhere.
A broad coalition.
In the 2017 general election, the NUT’s campaign on school funding led to an impressive 750,000 people changing their vote. Its success, in large part due to the unity between parents and teachers, clearly rattled the government who responded in classic tory divide-and-rule style, awarding teachers with a meagre pay rise, but refusing to properly fund it. As a result, schools have been forced to find the cash from their already stretched budgets. Teachers get their pay rise at the expense of poorer and special needs students, who have been hit hardest by the cuts.
This will not wash. The government underestimates the respect that teachers and parents have for one another. With demands focused on funding, parents know that teachers are doing the best for their kids – not just in the classroom but in this dispute. Industrial action in schools is always disruptive for parents, but they can rest reassured that their children’s interests are being put at the forefront.
The bigger picture.
The NEU is stepping into a decades-long war with neoliberal education and right now the neoliberals are on the front foot. Academisation and league tables have ramped up competition between schools, while high-stakes testing has done the same between pupils, negatively impacting mental health across the board. At its heart, neoliberal education is designed to cream off a wealthy elite, leaving everyone else prepared for nothing but a life of low-pay and high-stress work.
The NUT’s school cuts campaign began to shift the tide, its focus on funding helping to build alliances with parents and community groups. But can the newly formed NEU pick up where NUT left off?
If successful, the NEU ballot will cement its militant status, galvanising the wider labour movement and striking a major blow to the government. An NEU that is strong and united can only mean good things in the fight against neoliberal government policy to create an education system for the many not the few.