Rank and file teachers' conference: a forum and a voice

Submitted by Matthew on 13 June, 2012 - 9:25

The 16 June Local Associations conference of school teachers will discuss a statement from its organising committee resolving to “build a network of local associations and school reps that will enable teacher trade unionists to exchange information, debate and discuss strategy... and organise solidarity”.

Tom Unterrainer suggests why and how.

A rank and file network needs the maximum amount of democracy and accountability as it seeks to test and extend such mechanisms within the union as a whole. On a national level, it should be based on delegates from representative groups of workers — most importantly, workplace groups.

If we aim towards delivering action that works, the network should think beyond “how do we get the union to fight?”. It should ask, “how do we get the most effective action possible?”. This means thinking through and arguing out strategies for action, as the Local Associations meetings did at NUT conference [Easter 2012]. But it also means considering what needs to be done — what further organisational steps need to be taken — to ensure maximum impact for any of our actions.

The NUT is not the only school based union. So it makes sense to involve and attempt to organise non-NUT members into the network — other teachers, support, technical and site staff. The network should encourage and accept representation from these workers if we are to build the capabilities we aspire to.

The network should have regular national and regional meetings with representative delegates, but it should also use as wide a range of communications as possible to consult, canvass and organise those involved. This means using social media, email lists, blogs and websites but also regular leaflets and newsletters so that we can extend our reach into schools and other workplaces.

A rank and file network should emphasise all of the above, but it should also seek to win influence for its ideas and strategies within the structures of the unions.

The plan is not for a “conference machine”, an “electoral front”, a “resolution pushing” initiative, or a political faction of proclaimedly socialist activists. Such groups already exist in the NUT and other unions.

In the NUT, the Socialist Teachers Alliance and the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union have done valuable work and will no doubt continue to do so. A new initiative, based on workplace and Association delegates, and including delegates from other unions, can cover terrain that they don’t cover.

All too often, the “rank and file” members of a union are considered to be a “problem” that needs to be resolved somehow, or they are treated as a stage army, waiting in the wings to respond to calls from national headquarters.

For example, in the pensions dispute much has been made of the claim that the rank and file membership lacked the confidence to support a more regular or intensive programme of action.

The response of the rank and file NUT membership to the 30 June and 30 November strikes suggests that this was not the case. Of course, a great deal of effort was expended by NUT divisions and associations and school reps to mobilise: but that is how confidence is built.

The flipside to the idea that the union must proceed only with long delays, because the members won’t move faster, is the idea that members will respond when the call finally comes, without wanting to know exactly what each action aims to achieve, or what should come next.

Thinking of the membership as a “mass” that needs “shifting” does not effectively address the very real organisational problems we face. The membership of any union is uneven, diverse in confidence and experience. The better organised bring along the less well organised, or sometimes are leapfrogged by them as younger members get moving.

The activists and organisers need a say in how and when they fight. If the strongest sections of our movement are mobilised one day and packed off back to work the next to await further instructions, then over time our strength will be squandered.

The “views of the membership” are not truly represented in survey after survey, because those surveys put the members in a passive role — ticking boxes on prescribed alternatives so that later the leadership can reveal to the members what their true majority views were — and give signals to the members that the leadership is timid and fumbling.

Nobody should expect a miraculous “levelling up” of confidence and experience — it has to be organised, fought for and extended across the board. We need a form of organisation that can properly develop and campaign for the views of rank and file activists, and which which can take its own active initiatives in local battles.

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