Workers are calling for unity in action and the right to vote on strikes after a toxic row between unions threatens to derail their pay struggle.
Low-paid school support staff workers have become unwitting pawns in a fight between union leaders who are battling over their respective memberships. The row has been bubbling under the surface since the formation of the NEU union (see below), but has now come to ahead. Previously, teaching assistants were generally recruited into the Unison or GMB unions.
These unions, alongside Unite, are part of a body known as the National Joint Council (NJC) which negotiates and implements local government pay, terms and conditions for 1.4 million workers in England and Wales. But recently the NEU has seen its numbers swell to 47,000 support staff members.
Earlier this year the union held a national strike ballot for school support staff. The overwhelming majority of those voting backed strikes. But the ballot narrowly missed the 50 percent turnout threshold under the anti-union laws.
However, the NEU’s growing number of members and its strike move prompted a formal complaint from Unison, the GMB and Unite to the TUC union federation. These unions argued the NEU had been “undertaking actions which deliberately and knowingly led to a significant increase in support staff members.”
They added that the union had been “undertaking actions which undermined the position of the NJC unions in negotiating with the Local Government Associations over terms and conditions for support staff workers.” The TUC Disputes Committee upheld the complaints and fined the NEU £153,952. This is to be shared out between Unison, GMB and Unite.
Trade unionists such as Unison member and teaching assistant Julie Forgan, argue that workers need to remain focused on a united resistance. “To me, the main thing is that unions should work together, not view each other as rivals.
“Some union bureaucrats seem to think union numbers are a goal in itself—that’s what they’re worried about,” she told Socialist Worker. “It’s right to defend unions. It seems unbelievable that the one being vilified is the one that’s wanting to take action over pay.”
And Julie, who didn’t cross any of the teachers’ picket lines during their recent strikes despite being from a different union, said that “hopefully, in September, we’ll all be out striking together.”
The NEU now has to decide whether to ignore the TUC’s strictures and launch a new strike ballot. If it doesn’t, it will be letting down its members.
Teacher and NEU executive member Jess Edwards, who spoke to Socialist Worker in a personal capacity said, “The NEU has a conference policy to ballot support staff. That’s the right decision reflecting the needs of those who have joined the NEU.
“Trade unionists should be supporting everyone taking action and everyone fighting back against the Tories.”
Instead of relying on bureaucratic manoeuvres to snare members and discipline each other, unions should instead focus on making themselves irresistible to working class fighters.
It looks like it’s crunch time for the shadow of uneasy truce that has existed between the NEU and other unions representing workers in the public sector.
The NEU was formed in 2017, when the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers merged. It said the “game-changer” move would provide “broader support” and “a stronger voice in the education debate”. To prevent a clash of unions, the NEU promised not to “knowingly or actively” recruit support staff.
It’s not an abstract argument about which unions workers belong to. Local government unions such as GMB and Unison want to retain support staff workers, partly because it vastly strengthens any strikes. Many schools are forced to at least partially close when support staff refuse to work.
It extends their influence and the effects of action way beyond the council offices, refuse centres and care homes that would normally be hubs of resistance during a major local government dispute.
It’s right that socialists have generally called for workers to join unions that have the majority membership in their workplace. Doing so gives workers the biggest potential power.
But every worker has a right to vote on action and to go on strike—whether they’re represented by the “right” union or the “wrong” one, whether they have a formal ballot in place or are on wildcat action. But the rush of school support staff to the NEU also shows that when unions fight back, they can be more attractive to workers.
The union said that 74 percent of its new support staff members were never previously part of any union. It’s clear they chose the NEU because it was showing a lead on fighting for better funding and conditions inside schools. Thousands of support staff want to join that fight.
Meanwhile, in the last year, the NJC unions had meekly accepted a pay‑cutting poor deal for their local government members.
NEU members are currently battling an “insulting” £1,000 one-off payment and a 4.3 percent pay rise for teachers next year. As well as being below inflation, and therefore a pay cut, the union says that up to 58 percent of schools would have to implement cuts to afford it.
Teachers have been striking since February to stop the rotten pay deal—and to demand that any fresh offer is fully funded, and not largely taken out of squeezed school budgets. But the deal relevant to the teaching assistants is actually the local government offer.
Most local government workers—which include support workers in schools—have been offered a flat rate payment of £1,925. Workers in London are set to receive slightly more, while those on part-time or term-time hours stand to receive less.
For every worker, the two-year deal currently represents a pay cut as the staggeringly high rates of inflation outstrip the offer. And there’s no extra funding for this pay offer—local authorities will be forced to find money to pay for it by slashing jobs and services.
All three unions reject the NJC pay offer. Members of the Unison union will start their ballot on 28 May.
Workers in the Unite voted to reject the deal in a consultative vote, while the GMB members’ result is due to be released soon. The NEU must launch its own ballot.
Protesters told Socialist Worker why they were marching