Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Left teach right a lesson in union bashing‏

I was saddened to read Alice Miles' latest New Statesman column – Teachers are striking for all the wrong reasons – resorting to the same trade union bashing and reactionary rhetoric of the right-wing media. Miles concludes:
The terrible achievements of the teachers’ unions, with their apparent belief that good and bad teachers should be treated the same in the name of equity, is that, in the name of “comprehensive” education, they have allowed the school system to be captured by parent choice, which causes segregation and inequality. How sadly unintelligent it is to strike for higher pay and pensions rights, rather than addressing real deficiencies.
Miles' argument is flawed on a number of fundamental levels and she demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the roles of trade unions.

Firstly, it is not the purpose of trade unions to differentiate between "good" and "bad" teachers. Their role is to represent their members equally and fairly.

Secondly, it is not only wrong but worryingly misleading and intellectually questionable to suggest that unions "in the name of "comprehensive" education... have allowed the school system to be captured by parental choice, which causes segregation and inequality". This completely ignores the neo-liberal agenda of successive governments which has lead to the fragmentation of our inclusive comprehensive system through the promotion of free schools – all of which has been opposed by the teaching unions.

It is not the role of unions to become involved in policy decisions and the hostility to free schools by the NUT and NASUWT has been because it undermines the interests of their members. The logical conclusion of Miles' viewpoint is that free schools are a good thing because the erosion of union influence and the shedding of state control affords governors and parents the freedom to sack "bad" teachers – or teachers they simply don't like.

Finally it is deliberately misleading to suggest unions are striking "for higher pay and pensions rights, rather than addressing the real deficiencies". Again, it is not the role of trade unions to address "real deficiencies" – they are there to represent their members. Furthermore, asserting that the NUT and ATL are striking for higher pay demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the current industrial dispute.

The historical role of trade unions has been to improve the pay and working conditions of its members, but the current dispute – focusing as it does on fighting a rise in the pension age, increased contributions and an effective pay cut – represents a fundamental realignment and weakening of the role of trade unions. Trade unions are no longer concerned with improving conditions and are instead focussed on fighting the erosion of workers' rights.

Yet the powerful myth continues – perpetuated by mainstream media – that trade unions only go on strike to improve salaries. This distorted reality creates a false impression of industrial disputes and undermines public sympathy.

Popular debate should not concentrate on bringing public sector conditions down to the level of the private sector, it should seek to elevate private sector conditions to the level of the public sector. In order to achieve this we need strong and robust unions in both the public and private sectors. Furthermore, the progressive and left-wing media must not regurgitate the same right-wing bile as the mainstream media and must challenge ongoing myths and lies. For instance, why is the average public sector pension – £7,000 per annum according to the TUC – thought to be "gold plated"? Thankfully, I have the freedom to differentiate between "good" and "bad" journalism.


Peter Flack said...

A muddled response to a very reactionary article. In fact, trade unions like NUT have consistently campaigned to improve education for all. NUT campaigned in favour of comprehensive education and against the old tripartite system. NUT worked actively through the Schools Council in the 1970's and 1980's to improve the curriculum. WE opposed SAT tests as causing a narrowing of the curriculum and in opposing Academies one of the key things we have argued is that structural changes in who owns and runs the school does not improve the quality of learning - that is achieved by teachers, working together, teachers working with young people in classrooms. By resorting to a narrow sort of trade union fundamentalism - unions are only about pay and conditions - you do teachers a massive disservice.

Dan @ Eyes on Power said...

Peter, I think we are talking at cross-purposes here as I agree with everything you say. I certainly don't believe in narrow trade union fundamentalism. I believe trade unions can and should be the vehicles of progressive social change and I think it is a tragedy that unions have been backed so far into a corner that their role now is to defend what they've got rather than fight for improvement. However the main thrust of the article was that Miles had completely misinterpreted the current industrial dispute.

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