Speaking after the 16 June unofficial meeting of teacher union branch delegates in Liverpool, National Union of Teachers (NUT) Exec member and Barnsley division secretary Roy Bowser said that the meeting “surpassed all my expectations".
“More to the point, it was a true outlet for the way most members are feeling. I think behind the rhetoric there is a real base for a rank and file bottom-up push that hopefully will now help shape strategy”.
Bowser knows something about union organising: he was active as a coal miner in the 1984-85 miners’ strike.
In fact, the network set up from the 16 June meeting goes beyond — or potentially goes beyond — any unofficial grouping created in any union in Britain for many years.
Many unions have left caucuses of individual activists, focused on winning union positions and formulating motions for union conferences. The NUT has two such caucuses, and between them they hold the majority on the union Executive and the union’s top full-time official posts.
This was different. It was a meeting of more than one hundred delegates sent by over thirty National Union of Teachers Associations [branches].
It decided on an ongoing network which will be based on union branches and workplace reps.
The committee to take forward the conference’s work is constituted on the basis of one delegate from each NUT Association backing the network.
The conference took a speech from Jean Lane, a Unison rep for teaching assistants and other school staff from East London, and the possibility is there of extending the network to become a workplace-based movement, with input from non-NUT as well as NUT school workplace organisations.
Opening the meeting, Julie Lyon Taylor (Liverpool NUT secretary, and a member of the NUT Exec) explained the background:
“We’re here because... after 30 November [the big strike on pensions]... some of us on the Executive pushed and pushed for more action [and didn’t get it]. We organised a meeting at conference of over one hundred people [to address the issues]. It became clear that what happened at conference made another meeting necessary.
“There is now a further ballot taking place. We need to have a massive turnout; we need to make the ballot massive. We are the people who can do it.” Patrick Murphy (Leeds NUT secretary and NUT Exec member) explained: “What’s happening here today is a model for how trade unionists react when things go badly. When you have a setback you organise...
“The government thinks the pension dispute is done. They have good reason for that. There are no more meetings scheduled, no more negotiations. There has been no national action on pensions since 30 November.
“That’s why the government thinks the way it does and that’s why we are here. There’s anger in our union that this is the case... The proper response to this is to give our members a voice and to bring them into union activity...”
A steering committee had been working since the NUT’s national conference at Easter to organise the Liverpool conference. The committee included members of the Socialist Teachers Alliance, of the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union, and of the socialist groups in the union. The new network can go well beyond those groupings, to form a network of activists much more rooted in the workplaces and branches, and committed to winning effective action in the future.
A statement on future plans was adopted by the conference unanimously, after some amendments.
A defeated amendment from Croydon NUT was presented by Dave Harvey (NUT Executive). It called for the next Local Associations conference to be called in conjunction with the Campaign Teacher (CT) editorial board. CT is a newspaper supported and distributed by around sixty NUT divisions and associations, but, before an issue it put out just before 16 June, it had not appeared for some time.
Opposing the amendment, Pat Murphy pointed out that CT is a newspaper and not a representative organisation. CT’s editorial board was last elected more than two years ago and includes people who voted against further national strikes after 30 November.
The amendment was overwhelmingly defeated, although it got support from SWP members present.
The new ballot of NUT members, to authorise non-strike action and strikes with the NASUWT on issues other than pensions, must be won, and with a good turnout. However, we must organise for more than to give the top union leaders a good mandate and rely on them to use it well.
Some delegates argued that we should not “look backwards” at previous defeats. In fact, we must not only secure a yes vote but learn from the very recent past and create a network which can drive an effective strategy and a programme of action that can win.