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Teachers call for unity to fight New Labour

This article is over 17 years, 9 months old
Kevin Ovenden reports from the largest teachers' union's annual conference
Issue 1897

THE NATIONAL Union of Teachers (NUT) has maintained a course for bitter confrontation with the government. And it has called for a wider alliance of unions to fight New Labour’s ‘modernisation’ of the public sector. The NUT conference in Harrogate unanimously refused to compromise its opposition to the government’s drive to bring in teaching on the cheap by replacing qualified teachers with underpaid assistants.

It voted for a range of actions, including a possible national half-day strike next term. But the experience of the campaign against compulsory national tests, where no action was taken despite an 86 percent vote for a boycott, shows it will take huge pressure from the union’s rank and file to get the leadership to implement any industrial action.

Delegates also unanimously voted to campaign to defend comprehensive education, oppose privatised ‘city academies’, and fight any government move to turn education for working class 14 to 19 year olds into 1950s-style training. The conference heard that one in three schools face budget deficits in the run-up to the new school year. Delegates voted, again unanimously, to fight redundancies and cuts not only in schools but across public services.

Croydon delegate Philippa Harvey said her area faces £8 million of cuts. ‘Some schools have been advised to have class sizes of 60,’ she said. She said a primary school child had written to a local paper with this message: ‘Mr Blair, how about spending more money on schools, not on explosives?’ Delegates called for ‘maximum coordination with all other unions in the TUC prepared to resist the government’s agenda of job losses and budget reductions’ in a campaign that ‘may include action up to and including strike action’. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the civil servants’ PCS union, received a standing ovation.

Civil servants face 85,000 job losses under the government’s modernisation drive. Mark Serwotka called for ‘unions to come together’ to resist. There were calls for the union to build for a national demonstration over pensions called by the TUC for 19 June. The conference called for a ballot for industrial action over attacks on pension rights.

Candidate slams ‘hostile government’

DELEGATES’ DEEP bitterness with the government meant most votes at the conference were overwhelming or unanimous. Doug McAvoy addressed the conference saying, ‘The government is hell bent on dismantling the public education service.’ But there was another reason. The NUT will elect a new general secretary in June.

Those who want to move the union away from confrontation with New Labour refused to argue at the conference. They did not want to lose votes and damage the prospects for their general secretary candidate, Steve Sinnott. But it is an open secret that Steve Sinnott and his supporters want to return to the failed ‘partnership’ between the unions and the government.

Tellingly, Sinnott refused to say in hustings held at the conference that he would never sign the government agreement that replaces teachers with low paid assistants. But that agreement shows signs of unravelling. Unison members in Croydon, south London, struck recently alongside NUT members.

In the NUT’s hustings Ian Murch, the candidate supported by most of the left, called for resistance to this ‘hostile Labour government’. ‘The biggest task is to recreate the NUT as a campaigning union,’ he said. Outgoing general secretary Doug McAvoy’s favoured successor, John Bangs, played up his anti New Labour credentials, but is part of the current union leadership that has failed to act on words of opposition to the government.

In fringe meetings there were strong calls from activists for a fourth candidate, Martin Powell-Davies, to withdraw in order to back Ian Murch and maximise the left’s chances.

The last year has shown that a grassroots activist organisation is needed urgently. More teachers have joined the NUT. But the failure of the union’s leadership to call a boycott of SATs has damaged confidence. So this year’s conference was smaller than last year. There is a frustration at the gap between anti-government rhetoric and a lack of action.

Unless rank and file organisation helps to fill that gap, frustration will grow whoever becomes NUT general secretary.

Anger with Iraq war

OVER 180 delegates attended a fringe meeting on the war and occupation of Iraq. Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, said, ‘It gives us no pleasure to say that the disaster unfolding in Iraq is precisely what we said would happen a year ago.’

To frequent bursts of applause she outlined the growing resistance in Iraq and the impact of the anti-war movement. Carole Regan spoke for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The national officers of the NUT had ruled ‘out of order’ any reference in motions to affiliating or even talking to both campaigns.

The meeting gave tremendous support to newly elected NUT president Mary Compton when she said that, despite that, she would speak at anti-war events.

‘The unions must stand together to win victory’

MARK SERWOTKA was the first representative of a non-teaching union ever to speak at NUT conference. He outlined Gordon Brown’s plans to slash tens of thousands of civil servants’ jobs. One in three PCS members in the education department face the sack. Mark Serwotka was loudly applauded when he called for delegates to support the 100,000 civil servants who struck over pay this week. Part of Brown’s mass redundancy scheme is to re-hire former civil servants as classroom assistants in schools.

A joint statement by the NUT and PCS committed both unions to ‘jointly campaign against outsourcing to the private sector and any cuts in posts or service delivery’ under the guise of modernisation and efficiency. It called on ‘other public sector unions to work with us’. NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy says he will be meeting Mark Serwotka this week to discuss the campaign.

The NUT is also seeking to involve other civil service unions and those education unions that have not signed up to New Labour’s teaching on the cheap scheme-the lecturers’ unions AUT and Natfhe, the EIS teaching union in Scotland and UCAC in Wales. Such a front of unions is necessary, says Doug McAvoy, because the TUC has failed to oppose the government’s cuts.

The new move by the NUT piles further pressure on TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, who is fighting a rearguard action to smother any union criticism of New Labour.

He says the TUC brokered the teaching on the cheap deal, and sees it as ‘a model for the rest of the public sector’. But there was huge applause from NUT delegates for Mark Serwotka when he said, ‘If we stand together and campaign together we have a chance of coming through these attacks with a victory.’

‘I have no doubt that part of what McAvoy is doing is a manoeuvre in the run-up to the general secretary election,’ says Nick Grant from the NUT in Ealing, west London. ‘But teachers and other workers do want to resist the government, and there are some shifts taking place at the top. No matter what the current leadership’s motivation, activists have to seize the opportunity to make talk of united action against the government real.’

Delegates pledge to campaign against the BNP

IN AN impassioned debate delegates unanimously mapped out a serious campaign against the BNP in the run-up to the June elections. They endorsed the executive’s decision to affiliate to Unite Against Fascism, the body backed by two dozen unions and major black and anti-racist organisations.

Sue McMahon from Calderdale, where the BNP has three councillors, said that the fascists ‘are targeting vulnerable young people’. Mac Andrassy from Oldham emphasised how teachers are in a position to mobilise against the BNP. ‘Four of us went out leafleting after school,’ he said. ‘It was doubly effective because we were leafleting the area our students come from. One teacher had never done anything like that before, but was incredibly pleased to be able to do something.

‘The national union should be encouraging every school to do the same.’ A 230-strong fringe meeting heard Doug McAvoy, Natfhe union general secretary Paul Mackney, Labour MP Frank Dobson, Weyman Bennett from Unite Against Fascism and Nick Lowles from Searchlight outline how to build the campaign against the BNP. Over 100 delegates signed up to be put in touch with local Unite groups.

ONE HUNDRED and ten delegates packed into a highly successful Respect fringe meeting.

Michael Lavalette (Respect councillor in Preston), Steve Metcalfe (from the RMT union in Lancashire) and Paulette North (an NUT delegate and Respect candidate in the South West Region) addressed the meeting. ‘I’ve thought long and hard about this,’ said Steve Metcalfe. ‘I’ve been a trade unionist and a socialist for many years and I’m convinced the Respect coalition is the next step for advancing the interests of the working class.

‘People just cannot bring themselves to vote New Labour. That’s why five RMT branches are backing the election campaign.’


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