The modest upturn in trade union membership in 2012 (by around 60,000; out of a total of over 6 million trade unionists) cannot mask the reality that trade unions are an embattled presence within Britain as whole. When New Labour was elected in 1997 trade union density in manufacturing was 33%, now it is a mere 19%. Three-fifths of all trade unionists in Britain work in the public sector; but only 1 in 5 workers in Britain work in this sector. In the private sector, where most jobs are, union density is a distinctly unimpressive 14%..
One answer to the long-term weakening of the unions would be to say that socialists should focus all our energies on the sectors with the highest levels of trade union membership, the logic presumably being that if growth takes place there, other groups of workers will inevitably follow them. On this analysis, the sharp edge of contemporary trade unionism would be the two large areas of the public sector with the highest overall density: education and the civil service (both at around 52%). Here, I’ll choose just one of them, education, which I know relatively well, having worked as a further education and university lecturer from 1998 to 2003 and then as an official of the old lecturers’ union Natfhe (now amalgamated into UCU) from 2003 until 2006.
When thinking about the place of teachers in the trade unions, a useful starting point might be to remind ourselves that the history of the relationship between teachers and the unions (and indeed between teachers and the left generally) is lengthy. Even the most sympathetic accounts tend to start in around 1970 with the conversion of a series of professional associations into conventional trade unions. But the history of the teachers and the left goes back much further still.
“A distinguishing characteristic of student agitation in early nineteenth century [France]”, writes Theodore Zeldin, “was that it was led by teachers. Persecuted professors were often the heroes of demonstrations.” Yet under the dictatorship of the 1860s he continues, teachers became a pillar of the Bonapartist dictatorship. The shift in their ideals can be explained in terms of the teachers’ ideology of Republicanism. It was the teachers’ job to teach, i.e. to install young French men and women in the virtues of the French revolution. When the logic of fealty to the Great French Revolution of 1789 pointed towards struggles, teachers led them. But when the logic of Republicanism was towards accommodation with the existing regime, no other occupation was more loyal.
To compare the teachers whose demonstration in Paris on 22 February 1848 began a revolutionary wave across Europe with the teachers who Zeldin describes as “the electoral machine” of Bonapartism in the 1850s and 1860s is not necessarily to invoke two different generations; in many cases it was the same contradictory souls which provided first the best and then the worst faces of the French left.
A similar contradiction can be seen at the edges of the twentieth century labour movement. Socialist pedagogues could be found in the Marxist parties, in the Socialist Labour Party which organised study circles, correspondence courses and even its own exams, and in labour movement organisations calling for a socialist education. The celebrated Ruskin College strike of 1908-9 was about whether a Liberal model of education for change could be transformed into a socialist one, with the strike giving birth to the Central Labour College (CLC), which promoted syndicalist ideas especially among miners’ and transport workers. John Maclean, nominated by the Bolsheviks to be their first consul for Scotland, declared in 1917: “The greatest crime I have committed in the eyes of the British government and the Scottish capitalist class has been the teaching of Marxian economics to the Scottish workers”. Yet even in 1906 or 1917 there were many more teachers in the explicitly anti-Marxist and anti-syndicalist Workers Education Association (WEA) than there were in the CLC. And the WEA’s purpose was, as its founder Albert Mansbridge explained to “divert the strong movements of the people from the narrow paths of immediate interests”. Self-interest meant for Mansbridge the railwaymen who had recently struck at Taff Vale.
Had Mansbridge been so minded, he might have found examples of strike action within his own profession. Members of the National Union of Teachers, set up in 1870, had taken part in strikes in Portsmouth just a few years earlier in 1896 (he was writing in 1903). They would be involved in strike action at West Ham in 1907. By 1910, the union had around 70,000 members.
Much of the union’s national character, even today, derives from a series of responses to the revolutionary year of 1919. The key question was whether the NUT should be a trade union or a professional association (i.e. a body that negotiated its members’ wages with the government and struck where negotiations failed, or one primarily concerned with issues of education policy), i.e. should it align itself with or against the syndicalism of groups such as the miners and the transport workers?
The NUT’s response was a complex fudge. Its 110,000 members voted against affiliation to either the Labour Party or even the TUC. Meanwhile, the government offered, and the NUT accepted, a tripartite committee of teachers, local authority and government representatives to determine teachers’ pay (the committee lasted until 1986). Finally, the union reasserted its long-standing policy of equal pay for men and women. A breakaway right-wing union the National Association of Schoolmasters (the predecessor of today’s NASUWT) was formed in opposition to the NUT to campaign against equal pay.
The National Union of Teacher’s turn to the left began in the mid-1960s, with the union’s conversion to a policy of comprehensive education, and then after 1970 with the need to defend that policy from Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher’s support of a selective education system in the Heath government. The first time NUT conference came out in favour of comprehensive education was 1965. By 1972, the same union, disgusted by the Tories, finally affiliated to the TUC.
It was exactly when the NUT was moving to the left that the best of the postwar socialists began to get involved in teachers’ trade unionism (there had been a Communist presence before then, and Max Morris of the Communist Party was President of the NUT in 1973-4). The International Socialists’ trade union base had historically been in engineering: Geoff Carlsson of SRG/IS had stood for the position of President of the engineers’ AEU as early in the organisation’s history as 1959. But once the group had passed the psychologically important stage of 1000 members in 1968, it was obvious that the group would have to think more seriously about its trade union work.
Two processes came together: first, the organisation had a relatively large number of former student members who were just starting their first jobs in what were then the most accessible graduate careers (school and university teaching, local government and the civil service). Second, the centre of gravity in these occupations was shifting to the left, precisely because of the recruitment of young people – not just IS, or CP, but plenty of other ex-students too – from a generation who had been repeatedly involved in protests.
In 1967, a group of IS teachers (including Duncan Hallas and Chanie Rosenberg) had sent up a joint group ‘Rank and File’, together with some supporters of the Communist Party. The group founded its own paper. Soon Rank and File was a model for what was assumed would be more significant initiatives, including rank and file paper for the miners (The Collier) and the car-plants (Carworker)
After the 1969 NUT conference (which had just voted through a pay package representing a real pay cut for most of its members, but a pay rise for headteachers), Duncan Hallas sat down to explain why it was that the NUT did not fight:
“The outstanding feature of the NUT is its complete domination at the top by the privileged minority of full-time administrators called headteachers. Not only is the executive completely controlled by them, they also dominate the great majority of local associations outside the London area and hence the national conference.”
“The majority of the membership are women and for understandable sociological reasons, they have, in their great majority been relatively inert and passive members. Even today when this situation is beginning to change, a glance at any union conference shows an overwhelmingly male representation. The minority of men in the union provide the vast majority of activists.”
“The completely autocratic structure of the school situation also reinforces conformity and ‘deference’. The union has absolutely no effective ‘shop-floor’ organisation.”
The purpose of Rank and File, he explained, was to seek a break with the top-down way of running schools, and of doing trade unionism:
“The strategy of Rank and File centres around a single issue, democratisation, of the schools and of the union.”
“The educational structure is an extremely sensitive part of the capitalist state machine and the school system is perhaps even more important in this connection than the higher educational system. The basic function of schools in Britain today is to turn out docile and suitably trained units who will fit into the slots provided by the economy. Docility is the main aim of the authoritarianism dominant in schools. When it is challenged the basis of the whole system is threatened…”
The idea that schools existed to teach authoritarianism was widespread in 1960s culture; in the compulsory PE of The loneliness of the long distance runner, in the glowering fury of To Sir With Love, in the cane-wielding conservatism of Goodbye Mr Chips.
Forty years later, Mark Thackeray has been promoted and is Head of the Sixth Form, Ruxton Towers no longer offers running races (not even against the local toffs), and Mr Chips has finally retired. The structures of the NUT no longer privilege men; the General Secretary of the NUT, Christine Blowers, is a woman. Relationships between the generations have been transformed to an extent that would have seemed quite extraordinary 40 years ago: without an accompanying social revolution between the classes. Neither the union nor the school retain their old authoritarian content, and yet the caution of the union leadership (the iron law of teacher politics) survives intact.
This is not to underestimate how much still needs to be done. Friends who teach complain of intrusive inspections, of ever-lengthening hours, of centrally-determined content, of shifts to and from phonics or citizenship or endless changes not merely to the syllabus but also the structure of GCSEs. There are campaigns against Academies and against Free Schools and against changes to the school history syllabus. The most interesting teacher trade unionism will be that kind that forges an alliance with parents and students against the market authoritarianism of our age. But the best will never be all. Teachers teach, they have a disciplinary function; and there is a recurring social basis within the teacher-pupil relationship for the idea (admittedly, more clearly associated these days with NAS than with the NUT), that schools would be a better, happier place if only all the disruptive pupils could be removed from them.
When I worked for Natfhe, we were lucky enough to have in temporary charge a generation of former activists who were willing to push the union quite as far in the direction of revolutionary politics as the union would possibly go. Paul Mackney and Roger Kline at the top had both been members of the IS, Mackney an organiser of the Jim Higgins faction. We had a story of where the union had come from (i.e. from the experience of former engineers who had begun working in FE colleges in the 1950s 1960s, and brought with them their traditions of rank-and-file trade unionism). Paul Mackney, in particular, had a plan for how the union would expand its influence within the trade union movement generally. This began with very simply getting the union “lefts” (RMT, NUJ, CWU, PCS, FBU) to meet regularly and caucus. From there, we would increasingly involve them in a series of political campaigns, including Stop the War and Unite Against Fascism, in both of which Paul played a proud part and to each of which we gave a physical home.
Part of this plan involved merger with the other lecturers’ union AUT (our sector’s NAS to NATFHE’s NUT), with increasing numbers would come greater influence. But personal circumstances intervened; Paul became ill and could not stand, and the race to be General Secretary of the new merged union was won by the distinctly New Labourite Sally Hunt.
There was, in truth, always something quixotic about the notion that a small union of lecturers Further and Higher Education could force itself to play a leading part in the affairs of the entire trade union movement. You see if most people in Britain were to close their eyes and think “Who is a trade unionist?” or “Who is a worker?” the images that would come to mind would be of people involved in hard, physical work containing an element of danger. For those of us in our 40s and upwards, we might imagine a miner in orange overalls coming off shift, or a firefighter, or a building worker. For those under 40, I imagine, there would be a different set of visual images, perhaps a nurse, tired after a long shift. But to imagine that school teachers, FE lecturers or even London-based University Professors might become the emblematic face of the working class is taking it too far.
In May 2013, the pollsters “YouGov” carried out a survey of which occupations people thought were paid too much or too little. Respondents divided different careers into essentially three groups. There was a first large band of people whose jobs are hard and (actually) poorly paid. So 62% of people thought nurses were paid too little and only 3% that they were too much. Shop assistants (50% too little, 1% too much) and call centre workers (31% to 7%) had the same positive treatment.
A second group of workers were also felt to be under-paid, essentially white-collar workers in the public sector (Social workers 30% to 13% and teachers 32% to 14%). They had a positive perception, but not by the same overwhelming majorities.
A third set of workers, doctors and head-teachers had a majority going the other way; they were seen to be generally over-paid.
What was most interesting, when looking at this middle group is how differently people saw them depending on their own social class. Using the standard sociological distinction between ABC1 (i.e. professional and supervisory occupations) and C2DE (skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers’ jobs), when people in the ABC1 categories looked at teachers, they saw them clearly as an underpaid group (by 35% to 12%) but when workers in C2, D or E were asked about teachers, there was a much narrower majority: only 25% thought they were underpaid, and 18% believed that they were in fact overpaid. Other groups of workers meanwhile (eg nurses) were viewed equally positively by every class. Meanwhile some occupations (eg builders) had the exact opposite perception to teachers – people in groups ABC1 through they were paid too much, those in C2DE thought they were paid too little.
The disparity in different people’s opinion of teachers occurs because large numbers of workers in Britain don’t see teachers as people like themselves. They are not be hostile to them, but nor do they see teachers’ trade unionism as a solution to their problems.
Other evidence too points in the same direction. Between 1995 and 2012, while net trade union membership fell by 600,000 or so nationally (from 6.8 to 6.2 million), this fall was accompanied by a very large rise in the number of trade unionists in the education sector (around 500,000 extra trade unionists). So for 17 years the number of teachers in unions has been growing very fast, without this doing anything at all it seems to draw other groups into the trade unions.
Teachers also serve to illustrate a further problem, not specific to them, but common to public sector trade unionism generally. When Gate Gourmet workers struck at Heathrow in 2005, a strike by 670 workers cost the company around £40 million, that is, vastly more than the salaries of the workers involved. When teachers strike, there is no financial loss to the government (but if anything a modest alleviation of the pressure on budgets). Of course the teacher’s lot is not altogether hopeless, their strikes can impinge on the profits of other businesses, which may in turn put pressure on the government. But inevitably, public sector strikes become to a greater extent than say tube strikes a battles for public opinion; which is always a weaker bargaining position than pure industrial strength. “Where the chains of capitalism are forged”, Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “there they must be broken.” She was not thinking of the classroom.
Some of my comrades will no doubt accused me once again of “suggesting that public sector workers are somehow a privileged layer compared to the private sector.” Or of “echoing the sort of ideas peddled by Slavoj Žižek about the ‘salaried bourgeoisie’ or – to be blunter – ideas about the ‘gold plated advantages’ of public sector workers” and “writ[ing] off those workers who have shown they are organised enough to hold off attacks on their wages and conditions.”
So I will try to be clearer. It is useful to think of teachers, and other white collar workers in the public sector, as a fraction of the working class. They do not own the means of production and have to work. But this cannot be sufficient. We need to be thinking of layers within the working-class strategically, rather than packing tens of millions of people together (like so many clothes in a mixed wash at a laundry). Once we do, we can start to think about how and why one or another has played a positive or a negative role in the political crises of recent times, and which are the groups on which we should focus any spare energy we have.
And even now, the left does still have resources to allocate. Most school or university leavers can expect to have in front of them several years of insecure or part-time employment. The jobs they find will be temporary (eg shop work, catering…) and probably non-union. These are the groups of people who were used in 2011-2012 to argue for the maximum positive response to the public sector pension strikes. Even now, they still stand outside workplaces, leaflet them, or take collections. The mere task of choosing the workplaces on which to focus, already involves some modest calculation about who is most likely to strike, and whose strikes will have the greatest impact. We choose the unions for which to produce leaflets. We choose which union conferences to leaflet and how many people to send to them. The branches of local parties, and their national leaderships ought to be capable of choosing the one union or the one workplace where that branch or the party’s interventions will best be tested. That process necessarily involves some selection of priorities.
It all depends on what question you are asking. If it is, “can teachers lead the working class?” then the answer will probably be No for some of the reasons I have outlined. A militant “teacher’s consciousness” is always going to rub against the sorts pressures that Duncan Hallas grasped all those years ago. IE teachers teach, education under capitalism is never going to be education for liberation, and the people who you are inviting to form the vanguard of the workers also play a disciplinary role in relationship to the children of the working class. The neo-liberal agenda, attacks on the public sector, etc, make teachers angry. But the day to day job leads people away from revolutionary conclusions.
Or if your question is, “who are the groups of workers that, by striking, would be most likely to encourage strikes among other groups of workers?”, then we might do better to focus a little of our energy on nurses or builders or on Britain’s 1 million call centre workers. They are layers of the working class which already have trade unions, but density is relatively low (i.e. there are opportunities for growth). Were they to strike, other workers might copy them.