I never intended to become a union representative; I wanted to concentrate on teaching. But I hadn’t reckoned on the politics which frustrates so many teachers. The perennial exasperation of being hampered from doing the job properly, rampant bullying, lack of professionalism and ease with which all these factors could be aligned to end a teacher’s career in the byzantine world of the primary school drove me into the arms of the National Union of Teachers.
What struck me most when I attended Union representatives’ meetings was the low turnout. The secretaries would sometimes raise the issue of encouraging higher attendance but when it came to doing anything about it they never followed through. I eventually realized that to increase participation might actually threaten the cushy number these union officials had.
In UK law union representatives are entitled to what is known as facilities time, which is time allocated to union representatives to discharge their union duties during work hours. The amount of time allocated in schools is negotiated with the borough council; the more union members, the larger this block of time is. The problem is borough councils have no way of knowing what the membership numbers are. In reality, they are self-reported by individual unions, which is open to abuse.
In the NUT case, we would report the number of members held on our database. At first this seems fair enough. However, included in these figures were retired members and those who maintained their membership dues but worked outside of the borough, or were not working at all. None of these members should have been included in the figures reported. But it was in the secretaries’ interests to bump the numbers, and therefore their facilities time, up.
The inflated numbers were high enough for the borough to agree to a facilities time allocation of eight days per week (which meant the NUT could have a full-time union secretary, taking five of those days, and a deputy secretary, taking the other three). Almost two full time members of staff dedicated to union activities. Nice work if you can get it.
In theory, any union member is eligible for the role of secretary and can therefore claim facilities time. This is where it becomes clear why incumbent union secretaries, at borough level, want less participation from school reps. Union members are supposed to elect someone from amongst themselves to fill the positions; in theory it is a democratic process. But how many teachers who pay union dues know this? In reality, it is a process purposely kept secret, so that nobody else puts themselves forward for election.
The process is specified in the Union rulebook; a rulebook which, for the very few who know of its existence, is as difficult to get hold of as the Holy Grail. Hedgefield NUT never kept a copy of it in their office, not that anyone knew of its existence to request a copy, and should anyone have become aware of such a document, the obfuscation which followed made it well-nigh impossible to acquire even then.
I know all this only because I was privy to the esoteric world of Hedgefield’s NUT during my secondment as deputy secretary. I was, in effect, one of the chosen few but, even then, eliciting information about anything to do with this was like trying to get blood from a stone. Basically, the rule book stated the roles of NUT borough secretaries were to be filled by annual election. To be considered a candidate for such an election, Union members had to put their names forward by a specified date. If they managed to find out what that date was and could get their candidacy in, and seconded, to the right person (no mean feat) before the deadline, they were then eligible to run in the election for one of these roles.
So an individual first had to become aware these were elected posts, this excluded over 99% of members, then they had to get hold of the rule book, which they would be given the run around for and told to approach national headquarters, by which time the date for expressions of interest had probably expired for that year, and then they had to read through the year book and understand the often convoluted Union processes. If anyone ever got this far, and as far as I am aware only one person ever did in over twenty years, they then had to submit their expression of interest but to whom and where?
Supposing they got this far, they then had to stand for an election amongst members who were dispersed across many schools across the borough with no means of communicating with them. They could not go around to other schools and canvas, being at work themselves, and did not have members’ contact details, these were private. The incumbents, on the other hand, can raise their profiles, if need be, by becoming more active when required and visiting members, with all the resources of the Union office. In reality, no elections ever take place because almost nobody is aware these are elected roles; and of the few that are, they don’t know how the process works.
Keeping members in the dark about the democratic process written into a union’s handbook serves the self-interests of borough union reps. In this way, they protect their territory ruthlessly, as though it is their God-given right to continue in their respective union roles, not really accountable to anyone but themselves.
The secretary and deputy secretary held on to these roles for over twenty years, employed as teachers but not having taught over that period of time, and were not about to let anyone threaten their positions by making things transparent or democratic. They played off the borough (through inflated use of membership numbers) and their members (through keeping them in the dark or informed only as far as was useful) against each other to their own advantage.
This is why union representatives at borough level with large amounts of facilities time only want active members in theory, for to become too active could lead to knowing too much, potentially threatening their positions. The Union used membership numbers as a bargaining chip in its favour when it came to matters of disagreement with the borough. The borough never really asked probing questions about these numbers, content that the representatives did not rouse this membership to action.
When I attended my first, and only, NUT National Conference, it became clear to me the Union was riven by sectarianism and held hostage by lunatics. Some speakers addressed those attending as comrades. One was hissed at for daring to suggest the Union move on from its far left legacy, become more of a professional body and stop talking about a national strike – which only served to expose elements of Communists, Trotskyists and the Socialist Workers Party (I am blissfully aware I have offended other factions by not mentioning them). Here was somebody actually saying something sensible and drawing ire for it.
The NUT (now NEU) did not want to change, it did not want to genuinely serve members’ interests but its own entrenchment within the system. It was, to all intents and purposes, part of the ‘establishment’ which many in the Union, ironically, called rotten and claimed needed overthrowing. It was, and possibly still is, stuck in a toxic mire of yesteryear, fighting yesteryear’s battles. The world, on the other hand, has moved on. Teachers need proper professional representation and the education system in the UK is in dire need of improvement, especially for the less well-off segments of society (the very population unions purport to protect).
Instead, energy, money and children’s futures are flushed down the toilet by nothing more than a loud group of anarchists within the organization, dressed up as and claiming to be ‘respectable’ representatives. One secretary boasted to me they were still “waiting for the revolution” and had automatic weapons buried in their back garden in anticipation. I found many of them very adolescent. When one ponders the impact of their absurd, quixotic battles and rantings on children, teachers, the education system and their own self-entrenchment one has to conclude they are extremely reprehensible.