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Teacher Strikes – Explaining Union Apathy (IMHO)

Teacher Strikes – Explaining Union Apathy (IMHO)

Teachers have voted to strike across England & Wales, but there was quite some consternation amongst the teacher community at the low levels of turnout in the ballots. These meant that NASUWT & NAHT failed to meet the required 50% threshold of ballots cast and will not be joining their NEU colleagues on strike.

On the one hand I think this reaction is a little harsh. The same thing has happened for many of the nursing strikes (which were done by region). Getting 50% of any population to vote these days is tricky.

Looking back on my near 20 years of paying union subs and working with unions in leadership I can think of a few reasons for this apparent apathy:

  1. Staff don’t join a union for the very traditional reasons of worker rights, collective bargaining etc.. They join one because all new staff are encouraged to do so to gain cover for potential legal support in the event of things like accusations from children or rogue employment processes. Unless unions work with these staff to make them feel like active members then they won’t develop a sense of ‘us’ that would make them vote in things like this, even if it’s a no vote. To many staff it’s an insurance service, not a workers union.
  2. Unions have made many of those staff who are less involved feel pretty alienated at times. The prevaricating at national conferences about issues like the exams system whilst pay has been eroded consistently and teachers real worries have been falling budgets, growing classes and battling to stay safe during covid have not helped. In my humble opinion some unions have allowed their more militant and opinionated members to set the agenda for too long, alienating many of their members.
  3. Local union support is patchy at best. To make disenfranchised members and those who are using it as an insurance service to see the wider picture, school and local reps are key. The termly in school meeting, the fliers in pigeon holes, the supportive contact in school, these are the touch points that casual members have with a union. If they’re not of a high quality, if they’re not about the collective whole, if they’re not speaking to the needs of that individual, then don’t expect that individual to engage with the big matters when it comes to the crunch. I’ve worked with many many union reps over the years. Some have been amazing reps that did all of this incredibly well, some have been apathetic themselves, some unions have had no reps in a (always large secondary) school at all, and some have been all of the worst stereotypes of a union rep. In my own experience they’ve probably been quite evenly split between those 4 categories. If only a quarter of reps are of a high quality then it’s little surprise engagement may be lower than hoped.

I was an apathetic member myself throughout most of my teaching career. But Covid and 13 years of budget and pay erosions show the important role that workers unions have in our country and in our industry. If I were advising unions what to do based on my experience (for what that’s worth!) I’d suggest:

  • Re-focus on issues that matter to your members the most. Pay, staff welfare, school budgets.
  • Reign in the nonsense on the fringes of your unions that grab headlines and deflect from the important issues at hand.
  • Take this opportunity now to engage with your apathetic members, drive a hard bargain with the government for our children, schools and staff, showing members what you’re actually there for.
  • Improve the overall quality of local reps. Weed out those miserable curmudgeons that remain, who suck the life out of schools. There really aren’t many of these left, but the impact they have on staff’s negative views of unions is large. Fill gaps in schools where you have members but no rep.
  • Sort your systems out, the timing was unfortunate with the postal strike, but the anecdotal stories of many staff not receiving ballots is poor.

Good luck to everyone striking, your reasons are valid and I think most parents like myself are in full support.

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