By Thomas Foster in Bournemouth
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2899

‘We can win a strike ballot’ say teachers at NEU union conference

A formal strike ballot is the best way to ‘serve notice on Sunak and Starmer’
Issue 2899
A crowd shot of striking teachers with placards illustrating an article about the NEU conference and the strike ballot over pay

Striking teachers on the march in London last year (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Teachers will hold a key vote at the NEU union conference in Bournemouth on Thursday which could lead to strikes over pay. 

It comes after NEU members overwhelmingly voted for strikes in a consultative ballot last week. Some 90 percent backed strikes on a 50 percent turnout in England, and 87 percent supported strikes on a 54 percent turnout in Wales.

But the NEU national executive is recommending not to move to a formal ballot. Its motion says, “The strongest use of the ballot at this moment is to serve notice on Rishi Sunak, and Keir Starmer, that members are prepared to act industrially if they fail to deliver.”

It says the union should wait to “review, and learn from, the indicative ballot to build capacity to deliver local and national industrial action”. 

But many NEU conference delegates are organising to win a formal ballot. On the eve of the conference on Tuesday, 200 educators debated whether the union should move to one. 

The fringe meeting showed a willingness to take hard hitting action over pay and funding. Paul, an NEU member from Tower Hamlets, said, “We face a simple choice—131,000 voted to say they are ready to strike.

“The union said it was going to bang the drums over school funding, but that wasn’t there in the spring term. In a few weeks we got 131,000 and over 50 percent to say they’re up for a fight on pay and funding.

“Imagine if we had a bit longer. The national executive’s strategy is to park that and do nothing, to serve notice on Labour and the Tories.

“Get real. It will be November when an election happens, then we are talking about January 2025 for budget plans and then we’d go for another indicative ballot.”

Paul said it would then just be a repeat of the whole process—“It will be like Groundhog Day.” He explained that, where the union had reps, the turnout was high. “We need to turn to reps and use the entire resources of the union for recruiting reps,” he said. 

“If we had a long enough ballot period that ran until September, that would be better than a dismal prospect of Groundhog Day.

“Delay would mean more job cuts, more workload crisis, more crumbling schools. Let’s not put up with that. We can drive this through the union. Let’s take the fight to the membership and the government.”

The best way to “serve notice” on Sunak and Starmer is to move to a formal ballot that could lead to strikes—not wait and give them breathing space. 

Melana, a NEU union member in Waltham Forest in east London, said from the floor, “My school is currently in a formal ballot. The power of strike ballots is that they transform consultation into negotiation.

“We have had our governors step down in one of our previous formal ballots. Balloting gives you the power to get those negotiations to be meaningful. Without that power, it’s just talk.

Under current anti-union strike laws, a 50 percent turnout is required for a strike vote to pass in a postal ballot. The consultative one was done electronically.

A speaker from the floor disagreed with moving for a formal ballot. “We have a far more organised union but it’s not in a place to win a formal ballot,” they said. 

“We just need to get the timing to be right and not throw away what we’ve won over the last few years.”

Joe from Croydon NEU in south London argued, “We don’t have enough active reps as we need to win.” 

He argued the situation had changed since NEU members won a ballot for strikes in 2023 and joined last year’s wave of strikes over pay. 

“The objective conditions are different,” he said. “Inflation was at 11 percent and Mick Lynch of the RMT was going viral on TV. We need to recruit more reps. I don’t think we are there yet.”

But others argued that the best way to build momentum, recruit more reps and members, and beat the thresholds is by fighting for a strike. They pointed out that NEU reps from areas that beat the threshold could help weaker districts win. 

Mike from Devon NEU argued that moving to a formal strike ballot would build momentum, helping to beat the turnout thresholds. “We started at a low ebb,” he said. “In Devon we got a 54 percent turnout.

“We built momentum because over the last 18 months we have built a fantastic rep network.

He added, “If we move to a ballot, it will be an election issue. If we don’t move to a ballot, it won’t be an election issue.”

Another speaker from the floor spoke about the Educators Say Yes To A Ballot meeting on Wednesday night. “I’ve seen the number of districts that have put their name to the meeting,” they said. 

“It’s 55 or 56 districts that want to go for a ballot. Some didn’t meet the turnout target, but if we had another week we probably would have.”

The speaker argued that districts that achieved a higher turnout can use resources to help districts that had lower turnouts. “We can offer to take on other districts that are struggling,” they said. 

“We can prioritise members taking on districts that are struggling and helping them.” 

Lisa, a Northern Derbyshire NEU member, agreed. “I disagree that the timing should be later rather than sooner,” she said. “We learnt so much in this period about organising for strikes—if we have good reps we can get turnout.” 

Lisa argued that having a longer ballot period where activists can organise to win is vital. “We got 46 percent and I’m proud of that 46 percent,” she said. “But if the indicative ballot ran another week, we would have definitely got over the line. 

“We would have got into schools with no reps and contacted members that didn’t know about the ballot.

“We can’t abstractly say we will return to this in the future—we have to build on what we have now.”

 Dave, from Hackney NEU in east London, argued against the idea that the union should focus on local struggles instead of a national campaign. He pointed out, “We have more local struggles than ever before because we fought a national campaign last year. 

“There is no alternative strategy. It’s either we raise the white flag now or we choose to have a fight. That choice will have an impact on cuts and local issues.

“If we fight a national campaign over funding and we say we are not going to let the cuts happen, then you will win people to more local struggles.

“The ‘let’s not go for a national campaign but turn to local struggles’ argument fails.”

Dave said that the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB), which recommends on pay, is “deliberating now whether to give a decent recommendation”. 

“They will be looking at our conference,” he said. “If we raise the white flag, we put no pressure on the STRB and no pressure on the government to stick by a decision they make.

“If we don’t hit the turnout in a formal ballot, that is less disastrous than raising the white flag now. You can’t guarantee victory if you fight—but you can guarantee defeat if you don’t.”

Pippa from Islington NEU in north London agreed, “If we don’t fight, we are automatically defeated. We have to give it a go and pull out all the stops. 

“We need to be fighting tooth and nail for our education system to be properly funded.”

Fringe meeting at NEU conference: “Educators Say—Yes to a Ballot”. Wednesday 3 April, 8pm, Franklyn Suite, Connaught Hotel

Called by Coventry NEU. Supported by Birmingham, Brent, Bolton, Bristol and CLF, Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester, Devon, Dorset, Durham, Ealing, Hackney, Halton, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Islington, Lambeth, Lancashire and Morecambe, Leeds, Lewisham, Oxfordshire, Manchester, North Somerset, Newham, Nottingham, Redbridge, Sandwell, Sheffield, Shropshire, Solihull, Stoke-on-Trent, South Gloucestershire, South West Lancashire, Sutton, Swindon, Tower Hamlets, Wakefield, Waltham Forest, Warwickshire, Wirral.

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