Mood for unity and for action
By Kevin Ovenden
TWO MOODS swept delegates at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference in Cardiff over Easter-the desire for unity with teachers in other unions in England and Wales, and a feeling for industrial action. Running through everyone was disappointment with New Labour.
This bitterness was plain when the conference unanimously passed a resolution slamming New Labour's plans to introduce further selection. Tony Brockman, for the union's executive, said, "The prime minister's remarks on bog-standard or one size fits all comprehensives make Margaret Thatcher look progressive."
The motion committed the union to producing a statement in defence of comprehensive education, and to publicise and campaign around it during the general election.
Derek McMillan from West Sussex said, "If you want privatisation and attacks on comprehensive education you can vote for the Tories. If you want privatisation and attacks on comprehensive education you can vote for New Labour." He won applause when he ended, "It makes you wish there was some kind of alliance of socialists you could vote for."
There was also unanimous condemnation of privatisation. Ian Murch from Bradford described how companies such as Group 4 were trying to get their hands on education services in the city. Jenny Taylor, also from Bradford, said, "Privatisation of education is part of a wider agenda. The General Agreement on Trade in Services is part of the World Trade Organisation's discussions. Protests in Seattle forced the WTO to abandon its meeting 18 months ago. But the drive to privatise is coming back. In opposing privatisation we are opposing the neo-liberal agenda."
Those debates reflected the feelings of half a million teachers. So too did the support for united action by the NUT, NASUWT and ATL unions. A motion calling for a campaign by those unions for a 35-hour week and an inquiry into pay and workloads was passed overwhelmingly by all three union conferences.
The NUT, with 200,000 members, is the largest teachers' union in England and Wales. It has a reputation for being the most militant union, but members of the other two have increasingly expressed the same concerns as NUT members. The ATL, for example, is now affiliated to the TUC. Teachers in many schools hold joint union meetings.
There is a genuine mood among teachers for a single, united union. Union leaders want it too. The incoming general secretary of the NASUWT, Eamonn O'Kane, favours moves towards unity. But union leaders are using the feeling for one big union to undermine calls for action. So NUT leaders got away with calling off highly popular action over not covering for vacant posts and long term absences.
And NUT leaders are trying to present a more aggressive stance over excluding children from school in order to tack closer to the NASUWT, which has sought sensationalist publicity through claiming pupils are out of control. The left, which is most strongly organised in the NUT, faces a challenge. It has to put itself at the head of the mood for united action and challenge attempts by the union leaders to hide their own conservatism.
That means a sharp turn to building among classroom teachers over all the issues that were raised at the NUT and other conferences. For example, activists in Avon are inviting leaders from all three unions to address a rally next month on the campaign over pay and workload. The left has to come together and connect with fresh forces to provide an alternative based in staffrooms and localities.