The National Education Union (NEU) in Tower Hamlets, East London, won an important success on 13 February.
Under pressure from the NEU and the wider labour movement, the local council withdrew a legal challenge aimed at derailing a strike ballot.
On 22 January NEU launched a formal strike ballot in opposition to plans by the council to impose detrimental changes to terms and conditions without consultation with the union. Unison are also planning to ballot. The changes would significantly reduce redundancy payments for teachers and impose new contracts on support staff.
The NEU conducted an indicative ballot in December which achieved a 97% yes vote on 54% turnout. Most public sector employers would respond to a positive indicative ballot by entering into talks with the union.
Yet Tower Hamlets Labour council adopted an aggressive anti-union stance.
The council claims that it is not the employer of community school staff, and therefore the changes will not affect school workers.
At best this is sleight of hand. School unions negotiate with local authorities to establish employment policies for all community schools. Local authority school workers are employed both by the council and their school governing body. Where we reach collective agreements these policies usually apply to all schools.
It is possible for an individual school to adopt its own policy, but overnors would need to carry out their own consultation with unions and staff to depart from collective agreements between a local authority and the unions. That rarely happens.
Tower Hamlets council claimed that the ballot was illegal on the grounds that they were not the employer. The challenge was an attempt to use the anti-union laws to intimidate the union.
The NEU stood firm, and the sight of a Labour council threatening a major union with the law generated a lot of anger across the broader movement. A campaign of petitioning and lobbying of the councillors switched the pressure back on the employer. The council backed down.
There was, unfortunately, a much less positive kind of trade unionism on display in the Tower Hamlets dispute.
The GMB made the decision not to ballot its members. Then it went much further with a statement which effectively supported the employers’ arguments and legal case.
“The Tower Hamlets Management have stated these changes do not affect schools staff as it would be a decision for the Head Teacher and Governors to determine if they wish to implement these contractual changes.
“Should they decide to implement these changes then the Head Teacher would have to commence full consultation with school staff which would involve trade union representation. The GMB have taken legal advice on the above position. This has confirmed that Tower Rewards, as currently being implemented, does not directly affect schools staff at this time.
“GMB are not able to ballot staff who are not directly affected by the proposals for industrial action and will not be balloting school staff at this time for this reason...
“GMB will not be balloting you for industrial action and has received legal advice that it would be wrong in law to do so” (emphasis added).
Now that the legal threat has been withdrawn that position has been exposed. Even at the level of basic trade unionism, though, it was poor.
The choice, as outlined by the GMB itself, was between a collective defence of conditions across all council schools or a series of individual school-by-school battles after the fact. Obviously the first course would have a better chance of success.
To the credit of the local branch and the National Union, the NEU stood firm and refused to be bullied. The formal NEU strike ballot closed on 17 February, and the result was a thumping 95% vote for strike action on a 51.5% turnout. That’s 48.7% of the membership voting YES, and it meets the punitive thresholds imposed by the anti-union laws.
• Patrick Murphy is a member of the NEU National Executive, writing here in a personal capacity