Demanding a fighting strategy for education workers: NEU conference report
The 2021 National Education Union Conference took place at a high point in the radicalisation of education workers and students. January 2021 saw a mass revolt against the Tory plans to reopen schools in the middle of the second wave of Covid-19. A 400,000 strong online meeting of NEU members saw the union’s leadership finally use the power of the members, advising all to use Section 44 letters to refuse to enter workplaces, and to work from home instead. This forced the Tories’ hand, and schools were immediately closed to the majority of children.
Fast forward to April and schools are back open, many still without appropriate safety measures in place, but with a union membership that has seen it can win. A number of union groups around the country are balloting for strike action, particularly against management bullying and victimisation of reps.
The Conference itself had a number of high points, but generally did not reflect that radicalisation. A number of delegates from the Education Solidarity Network, the grassroots broad left in which Socialist Alternative participates, attended the conference and some spoke. Unfortunately, many of the other speakers did not challenge the union’s leadership to go further in fighting the Tories. The significant time constraints of the event exacerbated this, as they prevented the full debate of motions and second amendments to motions from being heard.
A number of positive motions did pass, including a motion on casework moved by Socialist Alternative member Louise Lewis which commits the union to further funding and training for caseworkers. The support staff motion, moved by Executive member Tracy McGuire (a supporter of the Education Solidarity Network) contained a number of positive pledges, but unfortunately some of the most crucial elements were removed by a leadership amendment.
A very important motion, being moved by ESN supporters, calling for the union to campaign for a national contract for education workers, was cut from the agenda – ostensibly for time reasons. This highlights our concerns about the limited time alloted to motions at the conference. The motion called for the union to begin negotiating on a contract with clear limits on working hours and a “significant pay rise” and other improvements in working conditions. Crucially the motion also called for industrial action: “The call for negotiations should be combined with preparation for a national ballot for strike action, starting by building for a national indicative ballot.” The campaign for a national contract remains a crucial one, and is a central part of the left candidate Martin Powell-Davies’ campaign for Deputy General Secretary of the Union.
Conference passed important policy opposing testing, but sadly after an amendment stopped short of an immediate plan to ballot all primary staff for a ballot on testing. Unfortunately, on an issue impacting many activists around the country – an amendment trying to ensure that “leadership members [i.e. headteachers] cannot hinder the collective functioning of school groups” – much of the so-called “left” in the union backed the bosses, and did not vote to protect the rights of ordinary education workers. This is particularly disappointing in the current climate of victimisation against union reps.
Socialist Alternative members helped organise and spoke at a Defend Reps fringe meeting, following the victimisation of trade union reps including Louise Lewis and Exec members Kirstie Paton and Tracy McGuire. RMT reps Declan Clune and Gary Carney also spoke about the victimisation they have faced, raising the need for co-ordinated action across workplaces and throughout the labour movement.
Two important emergency motions were passed, one opposing the Policing Bill and another on Sexism and Violence Against Women. While there is a question of democracy and conference time over any emergency motion, both of these motions contained positive policies for the union that we must mobilise members around. Socialist Alternative members tried to move a slight amendment to the Policing Bill motion calling for the NEU to organise stewarding of protests, to help prevent police violence against demonstrators – unfortunately the amendment was not heard, but despite that others in the union attacked this as “patronising”. It is not patronising to be organised, it is crucial! We need to be organised on protests, in our workplaces and in our communities.
One historic moment for the Union, particularly trans and non-binary members, was the passing of the “Pride in Our Union” motion, calling for the union to develop a definition of transphobia that can be used to protect our members but also the children we work with. Despite attempts from a section of the union bureaucracy to amend the motion and make it toothless – even making the appalling argument that the union should not go “above and beyond” legal requirements to protect trans and non-binary members! – the amendment was rejected and the motion overwhelmingly passed. Sadly, not enough time at conference was given to the Equalities sectors, with 45 minutes divided between Black members, LGBT+ members and Disabled members. This must be rectified at future conferences, rather than continually marginalising some members.
Ultimately the power of the union is not in its conferences, it’s in the membership – and a leadership that doesn’t act as a barrier to struggle, but takes action when necessary and empowers the membership to do so. We need a leadership like that. That’s why Socialist Alternative members are supporting and running in the Education Solidarity Network slate of candidates for the Executive elections. Vote for Martin Powell-Davies in the upcoming Deputy General Secretary election, Tracy McGuire in the Support Staff election, and for the ESN candidates in your District in the Executive election.