The main issue of contention at the support staff conference of the National Education Union (online, 14 November) was a composite motion which called for the NEU to seek bargaining rights and to find a way to be able to actively recruit support staff to the union.
The composite motion covered a lot of ground, including pay, conditions, funding, and collective representation. As well as addressing collective bargaining rights and active recruitment, it included calls for Living Wage campaigns for our lowest paid colleagues (e.g. cleaners, catering staff); for mobilising in support of a 10% pay claim; for nationally standard terms and conditions; for campaigning action against “job creep” (pressure to work beyond your job description); and for increased funding for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.
The conference voted by 85% to send the motion on to the full NEU annual conference next spring, despite the warnings from NEU joint general secretary Mary Bousted that it would be damaging to the union, and would be voted down in spring.
There are now more than 40,000 support staff members of the National Education Union. After Unison and GMB, the NEU is now the third largest union among education support staff. It is by far the biggest union across the board in schools, colleges, and nursery education workers, with teachers as well as support staff (teaching assistants, administrators, technicians, librarians, site managers, mealtime supervisors, cleaners, nursery nurses, catering workers, etc).
But so far the NEU has no right to negotiate collectively on behalf of its support staff members.
The wording of the composite was cautious. It placed the goal of winning bargaining rights in the context of approaching other education unions “seeking amicable joint work and cooperation, with the assistance of the TUC as appropriate” and also called on the union leadership to “seek, as a matter of urgency, a way to end the undertaking [to other unions] not to actively or knowingly recruit support staff”.
Mary Bousted was due to speak at the conference about Covid-19, child poverty, and holiday hunger.
She also effectively took a speech against the composite motion, although officially stressing that it was up to the conference to decide. The difficulties, as she said, are bound up with a TUC-brokered agreement, which includes the undertaking that “the NEU will not actively or knowingly recruit school support staff working in publicly funded schools” and that it “will not seek recognition and negotiating rights for support staff in publicly funded schools at local and national level".
The TUC agreement identifies Unison, GMB and Unite as “the schools’ support staff unions” even though the NEU now has many more support staff members than Unite. In addition, the Local Government Association, whether Tory-controlled (because the NEU is more despised than most unions by Tory politicians) or Labour-controlled (because Unison, GMB and Unite are all affiliated to Labour), is unlikely to agree to give recognition to the NEU for support staff. And then the Central Arbitration Committee is likely to conclude that a voluntary recognition agreement already exists, so will not grant recognition to an additional union.
The difficulties and obstacles are clearly real. Against that is the determination and impatience of support staff in the union, who see no good reason why, if they join the same “industrial” union as others workers in their workplace, it should not be able to represent them.
Unison, GMB and (to a lesser extent, Unite) bureaucrats are worried that if the NEU can fully represent its support staff members, then their own support staff members will leave to join the NEU. Their concern is not for workers to have the most effective union representation, but for their organisations to have a stable and reliable income from membership subscriptions.
The concern of the NEU leadership is to not fall out with the bureaucrats of the general unions, and not to face complaints and censures within — and potentially expulsion from — the TUC.
The alternative, Mary Bousted suggested, is for the NEU to continue to grow our support staff membership (without “actively or knowingly” recruiting, of course). A number of 90,000 (roughly 10% of the workforce) was mentioned. That would indeed be an important achievement and serves as a useful target.
However, there is nothing in the TUC agreement that suggests reaching this target would change the position of the general union bureaucrats and it looks like the number was chosen as big enough to persuade support staff members to bide our time.