NUT 'action' in sixth form colleges

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NUT 'action' in sixth form colleges
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Shortly before the half term break it was announced that NUT (National Union of Teachers, UK) members in sixth form colleges would be staging a one day strike in the week after half term (23 February) following the results of two ballots, one on pay and conditions and one on cuts to funding in this sector of education. At our college, there was very little discussion about this, although there was a visit from the leader of the Waltham Forest NUT to explain what the action would be about. As usual in such circumstances, there was no attempt to explain the issue to workers who weren’t in the NUT, such as non-teaching staff.  One or two members of the NUT, who normally keep myself and Miles (another ICC comrade) informed about what’s going in the college branch, asked whether the Open Discussion Forum would be calling a meeting so there could be a wider discussion about the strike. Once again, we faced the possibility of a strike involving just one part of the workforce, facing other workers with the problem of crossing a picket line. This is precisely what we had discussed in previous meetings of the forum prior to the June and November days of action on pensions, and these meetings had played a positive role in convincing a number of employees that they should join the strike and not cross picket lines.  We agreed to try and get a meeting organised, although given that it was on the eve of a week’s holiday, it would be difficult to do much publicity other than sending an email to staff, which pointed out that the issues affected everyone in the college, and trying to contact one or two of the more politicised students. My feeling was that there was a real danger that this strike would have the effect of creating divisions between employees that would undermine the potential for united action when bigger events (such as a possible  big protest around pensions in March) were on the horizon.


By the end of the half term the confusion about this action had trebled. Miles had learned that the NUT had decided that this would be a London action only, involving just 12 colleges; that it would be a half day not a whole day; and that the focus would be a lobby of parliament. The NUT members at our college were very unsure of what was happening. There is no rep at the college because the previous one, an SWP guy who was very keen, had moved to a different job and nobody was very enthusiastic about replacing him. A couple of members called for an NUT meeting on the same lunchtime we had called the forum meeting. This meant that the only person who came to the room where the forum was to be held apart from Miles and myself was the Unison shop steward who has recently started work there as part of the site staff. So after a brief discussion the three of us decided to go along to the NUT meeting and there was no objection to us taking part.


The sense of disorientation among the NUT members (about half the college membership were present) was palpable. Virtually everyone felt pissed off with the union for the way it had mucked them about, changing the focus from a national action to a London action, and from a day-long strike, which would have made it feasible to organise a picket line and might have had some impact, to a half day one, in which everyone is already at work and which would be more like an outing for a few people. Some people felt that they should go on with the half day strike because it would look like backing down, or that it should be maintained because some kind of action needs to take place within the remit of the ballot or there would have to be another ballot. But the majority thought that the half day strike would have no impact and would mean losing half a day’s pay for nothing. In the end it was decided that a delegation of four or five would be sent to lobby parliament. Probably an arrangement could be made with management so that they would not be considered to be on strike. It was also agreed that a letter should be sent to the NUT complaining about the whole way this had been (dis)organised.


It would be interesting to know whether anyone else who works in this sector had similar experiences.  




Alf, there's a discussion on libcom about teaching staffrooms that might take up these points.


I noticed that. Am thinking about making a post. 

Wouldn't it have been easier

Wouldn't it have been easier and more productive to argue from within the union amongst the members?

I'm aware of the ICC position on unions but this just seems like you're making it more difficult to effect things and very impractical especially when you talk about time constraints etc.

valid question


Radical Chains poses a valid question. For the ICC, the key question is to understand the class nature and function of the unions as organs of capital (which is far from being clearly grasped even within the proletarian political movement). For the individual communist in the workplace, the most important thing is to work towards the formation of independent organs of struggle and to reject the idea of building the union or standing for election as a representative of the union. The question of formally belonging to the union is a secondary issue: although the ‘closed shop’ is a relative rarity these days, it has not entirely disappeared and there are other pressures coming from both bosses and unions which can make it difficult not to be in a union. This is why we don’t make this question of individual membership  an absolute. Neither do we at this stage in the class struggle call for workers to quit the unions on an individual basis. Mass resignations by combative workers is another issue and they are not unknown today in certain circumstances.

Whether it’s easier to relate to your fellow workers if you belong to a union is another matter again.  Having experienced both being inside and outside the union, I would argue that it’s easier to explain a communist position on the unions while acting ‘independently’ and trying to set up bodies that are definitely separate from it. Having been a member of the NUT for many years, an incident that convinced me that I had to quit was when, despite all my criticisms of the union and attempts to explain why we needed to go outside it, several members at the branch in the school where I worked at the time said that I should be the union rep when the previous one resigned. It struck me then that my arguments against trade unions had been rather undermined by being seen as an active union member! The problem is not restricted to taking on the role of union rep. All the decisions made at union meetings and in ballots are framed within the logic of trade unionism and it is very hard to reject this while you are acting within this framework.   Of course being a member gives you the possibility of going to the meetings of the union you have joined, but where I work now there are several teaching unions and other unions for non-teachers, and in general members of other unions are not invited to typical union meetings. This is why it’s all the more necessary to argue for meetings which are open to all employees, of any union and none.  

Hmm, Alf's last paragraph

Hmm, Alf's last paragraph sounds a lot like the exchange between Lenin and Gorter/Pannekoek on the union question. Should communists "go to where the workers can be reached" in the unions or defend a principled position against the unions (even if it means momentary isolation) less communists end op reinforcing the very habits, instincts, customs, etc. that tie the workers to capital?

I can relate to Alf's story about being asked to be a union rep even after taking a stand that workers must organize outside the unions. I am constantly amazed at how often one can talk to interested people about communist positions, gain their general agreement about the state of capitalism but then be told they will still vote for the Democrats or Labour or whatever! I think Gorter/Pannekoek's insights about how workers (primarily those in countries with a long tradition of bourgeois democracy and trade unionism) can become culturally integrated into a series of habits that are very hard to break probably needs renewed attention today. I think Alf's cocnerns about being seen to be acting within the unions expresses very well the dangers of reinforcing these habits on a subconscious level. There is a possible extension of this that could take into account Freud, but I will leave it at that for now.