Part 1 - One union for teachers a must if we are going to succeed
I have referenced time and time again my origins as an Ontario teacher, both as a student for the majority of my schooling, and as an educator. I trained at Nipissing University, in one of the finest faculties of education in the country, and continue to be a member of the Ontario College of Teachers. When I was training to be a teacher, I was also proud to represent my faculty on the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), the only union representing Ontario's public school teachers.
Ontario is not a one-union outfit, but there are no unions competing directly with one another. Catholic teachers have a Catholic teachers' union, and elementary teachers have their own unions as well.
Each union representing teachers in publicly funded schools is then further represented by the Ontario Teachers' Federation, a federated model encompassing diverse views from a variety of unions, each with their own backgrounds and histories.
However, the model stands in radical contrast to the current, hyper-competitive market that I entered into when looking for a union in England.
To be honest, I was shocked to think that different unions were needing to compete for my membership, as though they wouldn't all be able to sympathise with my needs as a teacher. I couldn't get over the fact that I was being offered a first year for free, or for £1, or any number of other perks! All this in direct contrast to Ontario, where I was actually legally obliged to be in a union, and that there would be no selection required.
All this, though, is simply a long, contextual prologue to what now follows:
It is time - beyond time! - to unite the teachers in this country under one union (while I support a union for all education workers, please let me focus just on teachers for now, and come back to the issue of TAs and other educators in a future post).
The NUT Conference reaffirmed this position just yesterday, in fact, when their membership voted overwhelmingly to find a way to stand together with our parallel unions (you can see their press release here).
On the heels of that debate, I attended a fringe meeting on the topic of professional unity.
The discussion was launched eloquently by Prof. Howard Stevenson, of the University of Nottingham. He described the historical and political context that used to allow room for a diversity of unions, conditions which he quite rightly points out no longer exist. Unions, he says, are now dealing with hundreds of employers, in a range of academies and free schools, rather than one in a Local Authority.
Gawain Little, an NUT Executive member, carried forward Prof. Stevenson's points brilliantly, elaborating that the role of unions are being systematically eroded. In his own words, he writes "Professional unity has moved from being an aspirational aim to being a necessity." Gawain also reminded us of his sympathy with the arguments that there could be one union to represent all union workers.
Hank Roberts, who is a member of three teachers' unions, reminded members that professional unity is a grassroots effort, and that all members have the opportunity to make this change. Of course, these are the briefest possible summaries, so my apologies to Hank, Gawain, or Howard if they should ever come to read this.
Naturally, being an NUT event, audience participation was as diverse as it was intelligent. I wish I could list every person and every contribution, but it just is not feasible, so I will go with a couple of highlights, which I believe signal excellent ways to move forward:
Emma Hardy read my mind when she noted that the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), whose conference ran parallel to the NUT's, debated key motions relating to Ofsted and qualified teachers in every classroom at the exact same time as the NUT. She quite rightly pointed out that, owing to the ubiquity of social networking, members of both unions were tweeting one-another from different conference floors, effectively making the conversation and debate multi-union. She used this as an effective jumping point to suggest that the unions should run joint activities for members. The gentleman next to me hit on a point that we had mentioned earlier in the conference: why couldn't we video link the two debates, and join each other as we demanded the best for our students and the best for our teachers? (I don't mind saying, I think that would be pretty awesome.)
And, I like the idea of joint events! (Just as much as I like flouting conventions of grammar and starting new paragraphs with "and.") I think joint events would serve to generally demystify the so-called divisions between the unions (which I believe are as arbitrary as they are artificial), and lead to a much more fulsome and productive debate overall.
I was gutted when I was not able to attend the NUT-organised Professional Unity Conference on 1 March, due to the need to move house (I figured that was a pretty decent excuse) but the feedback that has followed has been excellent. This major event was attended by representatives from ATL and UCAC, as representatives from the (single, unified) Finnish teachers' union. It also received messages of support from the NAHT and the ASCL.
Come back for Part 2, where I intend to outline some more of the criticisms that came about at the Professional Unity meeting, and explore some ideas about a way forward.