I wrote the article below in 2011 – at the request of the Times Educational Supplement. They chose not to publish it – but instead published their own article, combined with a typically vitriolic anti-teacher union editorial written by the then TES editor Gerard Kelly.
I place it here now because I think the arguments I presented then, but which didn’t get an airing, are no less prescient now than they were in 2011. Indeed, they are now more urgent than ever. In a week when the ‘historic’ unity between the NUT and NASUWT has, rather depressingly, fractured it is understandable to feel pessimistic about the prospects of teacher union unity. However, the Professional Unity conference on 1st March offers some hope – supported as it is by NUT, ATL, UCAC and NAHT. This conference will be unlikely to lead to anything dramatic on the day – but it does offer the possibility of building a longer term grassroots movement for teacher union unity. If it achieves this, then it really will prove to be historic.
My (unpublished) TES article from 2011 . . .
Testing Times for Teacher Unions
Recent national strike action by two teacher unions has once again focused attention on the power and influence of the unions representing school teachers. As an occupational group teachers are, and always have been, highly unionised. In contrast to declining membership in the private sector in particular, union density in the teaching profession has proved remarkably resilient. As a result teachers have been better protected from the widening pay inequalities and loss of occupational benefits that have often been a feature of private sector employment.
However, the teaching unions now face perhaps their greatest threat. The rapidly diminishing role of local authorities (where teacher unions have always retained considerable influence) and the rapid acceleration of a market system based on Academies poses a considerable challenge. This is almost certainly no accident as politicians of the Right have long seen market-driven solutions as crucial to weakening the power of the teacher unions. In the USA for example, Charter schools (an equivalent of Academies) have been deliberately used to try to undermine the American education unions.
The creation of a divided and competitive market between schools is an inhospitable environment for teacher unions. They are forced to bargain with a multiplicity of employers and it becomes more difficult to sustain the organisation and solidarity that underpins effective trade unionism. Employment legislation, particularly that relating to secondary action, often compounds these problems. However, there is no inevitability that unions will be weakened by these developments. It maybe that the emergence of more school-based bargaining invigorates a new and more participative form of grassroots unionism. Previously passive union members may begin to engage with their unions more as they see key industrial relations issues, such as pay, played out at school level.
What is likely is that in the short to medium term those teacher unions likely to fare best are those with an established framework of effective school based representation. Certainly school based union organisation will be at a premium. In the longer term, a more dramatic outcome becomes possible. It just may be that the proliferation of Academies poses such a challenge to the teacher unions that it generates an impetus for teacher unions to consider the unthinkable – merger. The ultimate irony would be that the fragmentation of the school system may yet presage the unification of the teacher unions.