Palestine, paycuts and protests. rs21 teachers report on the 2024 NEU conference. 

NEU strike march in London, 1 Feb 2023. Photo by Steve Eason.

The National Education Union (NEU) annual conference saw a sharp divide between activists keen to take the fight to the government with a ballot for new pay strikes, and a leadership anxious to stand the membership down.

This was a theme of the conference in Bournemouth on 3-6 April. Fighting words – against SATs, against Ofsted, against erosion of working conditions – but a coordinated effort from the centre-left leadership to pull members away from action. Motions from the grassroots to put strike action on the table for increased Planning, Preparation and Assessment time (PPA) and a boycott of SATs were successfully watered down after stern warnings from the national executive. Some of the speeches most praised in NEU Left channels were those arguing that ‘now was not the time’ for action.

The biggest fight was on the second day of conference – an emergency motion on how to best challenge another expected real terms pay cut. The national executive-backed motion responded to an indicative ballot in which nine out of ten members voted to strike, by emphasising that the Tories’ 50% threshold had only just been met, and cut its cloth accordingly. The debate therefore centred on a left-backed amendment urging the executive to formally ballot members for strike action this term. In response, great pressure was exerted on delegates. First, a sombre speech accompanied by a graph-laden PowerPoint from the general secretary Daniel Kebede, to persuade us that a formal ballot right now would not, could not succeed. Next, more pugilistic speeches from the centre-left of the national executive calling for members to be ‘responsible’, to not be ‘reckless’, to show ‘leadership’. More than one delegate likened it to a staffroom dressing down from senior leadership. Delegates were warned that ‘our members are not ready’ for strike action, their ‘appetite [for action] has changed’, and ‘members are not there yet.’

Impassioned speeches from left delegates which laid out a clear strategy for effecting the mandate the indicative ballot had given the executive did not overcome this pressure. There were accusations of sharp practices from the executive – branches were criticised from the rostrum using false turnout statistics, for example – but it probably did not affect a vote which was lost by 62% to 38%. An uncoordinated amendment from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) wrecked a would-be second opportunity to vote for ballot action, leaving only post-16 teachers, who achieved a 67% turnout in their ballot, with approval for strikes in the near future. 

It would be insufficient, however, to lay the blame purely at the door of the bureaucracy and the AWL. The defeat on a strike ballot demonstrated the difficulty activists face when the majority of the bureaucracy is not behind us, and the influence that they wield over a large proportion of the union. For this to be overcome we must continue to develop a militant rank and file within the union that is capable of acting independently of, and in some cases against, the bureaucracy. Some progress has been made in this direction. The “Educators Say Yes to a Ballot” meeting on Wednesday evening was standing room only, with many strategies shared on organising for the ballot at a workplace and district level. For consistent militant action to be possible this work must be consolidated and expanded to those areas of the union where it is weakest: typically, though not exclusively, in primary schools and rural areas. Ultimately, we should aim for a union where all elements of the bureaucracy are subordinated to the will of the members, with every paid position elected and subject to recall. Only a structure such as this will be reliable enough to carry out prolonged militant action.

Although defeated on strike action, the left argument for a ‘turn to the reps’ was a theme of the conference. The data from the indicative ballot confirmed that turnout and engagement was markedly better in schools with reps. There is no shortcut to meeting in person with colleagues, organising around issues of local concern, and inspiring members to see themselves as the basis of union power, rather than the expertise of officers.

There was essentially a collision between those arguing for a democratic and fighting union, and those who are keen for the NEU to be a policy-shop and lobbying vehicle for a new Labour government. Daniel Kebede’s closing speech tried to straddle these alternative approaches, understandably focusing the majority of his fire on 14 years of Tory attacks on education, while also saying that Labour’s promises did not go far enough and we would challenge them when necessary. 

One of the first tests of this, as debated in conference, may be how we react if Labour renege on their promise to repeal anti-trade union laws such as the Minimum Service Levels Act, which potentially allows employers to demand large swathes of education workers to scab on strike action – and requires unions to direct their members likewise. As well as the pre-emptive pressure on employers not to issue these orders, speakers urged that we learn from the example of rail workers, who added five days of extra strikes when faced with these measures, and forced their bosses to back down.

Elsewhere, the conference was vocal in its support for Palestine, clearly rebuking the demand of the education secretary Gillian Keegan that the NEU not talk about politics. The head of the Palestinian mission to the UK, Dr Husam Zomlot, received a standing ovation for his speech, and votes overwhelmingly condemned Israel’s murderous war on Gaza. 

There were also protests – a sit-in against the TUC’s Paul Nowak for the shameful £154,000 fine the TUC issued to the NEU for breaching agreements on recruiting support staff. Another by the Black Educators Conference timed to disrupt a photo opportunity, demanding redress for the union’s contemptuous treatment of its black members after a 2022 conference. 

On the final day, new and young workers won a motion that would give them six delegates to the annual conference and the right to send a motion. While increased representation of young workers, who comprise 41% of the membership, is welcome, it is no replacement for organising among young workers and training them up to become leaders in our movement.

Around 500 leaflets were distributed for the Troublemakers at Work 2024 conference, which should provide a useful opportunity to further a rank and file strategy still urgently needed within our unions. 

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