The 2008 National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference was unlike any other in the recent past. The difference? For almost a year NUT activists have been preparing the ground for the first national strike in over two decades. The attack on teachers pay and the unions' industrial response to it shaped the opening days and determined the mood of the rest of conference.
By the time of conference the ballot had already opened, but results were not due for another week (in the end 75% voted for action on a 32% turnout). The Executive put a priority motion on pay outlining a commitment to continue the campaign but with no time-specific strategy for further action.
Members of Workers' Liberty met to discuss an amendment to the motion that would ensure some form of action in the summer term, thus avoiding a six month wait. We formulated a strategy of selective action, targeting the constituencies of cabinet ministers and other leading proponents of public sector pay cuts.
This strategy was taken to meetings of the Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA) and the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union (CDFU) for further discussion. Some in the STA claimed that such action in the summer term would be a de-escalation, but then baulked at the idea of insisting on a time-specific strategy altogether. Most CDFU members felt the strategy unrealistic and un-winnable on conference floor. Together, leading members of the STA and CDFU formulated an amendment committing the Executive to ballot for further action at the "earliest opportunity". This passed almost unanimously, with the support of the right-wing of the union.
This unanimity with the right wing demonstrates how far the NUT has come from the open warfare of the recent past and indicates some of the issues facing the NUT left. There is a semi-truce between left and right in the union, with both sides committed to campaigns against academies, privatisation, workload and most recently on pay. No real clear-red water exists between the two sides.
This does not mean that the union is now a happy and harmonious place, where everyone agrees with one another — simply that very real divisions are played down.
The left now has a slim majority on the National Executive with 22 out of 42 places. The sudden death of NUT General Secretary Steve Sinnott certainly means new elections in the short-term. The personal tragedy for Steve's family and close friends should not mean a cessation of politics. The union has committed itself to forging ahead with strike action on the 24th and the left will play a major role in making this day a success.
We should go on to consider how this action can be transformed into meaningful gains for a democratic and fighting strategy in the future.