The Need for Consensus

Posted: 20/11/2011 by zandtao in Democracy, Education
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There are many factors that contributed to the ineffectiveness of the mass movement prior to the arising of consensus democracy, hopefully that consensus democracy evident in Argentina, then Arab Spring and now in the Occupy Movement can make a change. For me describing the following makes me wonder how the mass movement allowed such a state to arise, yet even when I know about consensus politics I still find intellectual dogmatism getting in the way of collective action. This actually hasn’t got anything to do with the correctness of the position that the dogma is taking, it is concerned with the need for a clear tactical position with regards to activity in the mass movement. Prior to the arrival of consensus in the movement votes would be taken, and a motion would be passed. Executives would then enact what was needed to facilitate the motion, and for the motion to be effective membership should be bound by the vote. Now this might have occurred when there was a spirit of activism but in the 80s – an era of intellectual dogmatism in left-wing politics – if the vote didn’t align with their own dogma members did not comply – unless their particular left-wing “cell” then gave them instructions to comply with the vote. When you have been active and seen the way this intellectual dogmatism has destroyed the activist section of the mass movement, you cannot but be angry when intellectuals pontificate.

I am going to examine how the teacher unions have worked for the 1%. Whilst I am describing events that occurred 20 years ago I have no reason to believe that these structural problems do not continue to exist. At the time I always complained about the inactivity of members, and I still see that as the fundamental reason for the continuing power of the 1% in education, but the lack of consensus politics disempowered the membership. Hopefully with the emergence of consensus democracy activism will increase making the membership feel the need to do something.

It is necessary to understand how the divisions in teaching occurred. For many families with teachers the teaching income was a second income – although often both partners were teachers. Of this group mothers saw teaching as an opportunity to be with their children more as the hours were the same – this never worked out in practice as there became increasing impositions after school – mostly meetings and mostly concerned with the careers of the teachers running the meetings rather than the education of children. For these teachers and many others the strike was divisive and one union, AMMA, formed just to collectivise and provide legal protection, but never to strike. The two main unions, NUT and NAS, had similar policies – in my view identical, but the difference here was that the left-wing gravitated to the NUT, and for a long period in the 70s and 80s the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) had a confused policy that by disrupting schools they could start a revolution. Whilst teachers were not in general aware of this policy, as I wasn’t when I was in conflict with the SWP in my first school, many sought the NAS especially where the SWP were active – see my story later. Yet in principle there was no difference between the two unions, what was missing was the need for consensus. Whilst what I am describing occurred in the 80s I don’t actually believe the division has changed although circumstances most definitely have.

In my first school in Inner London I joined the NUT, I had been NUT as a student and instinctively recognised the need for collective strength although my politics was naive at the time, I was even taken to the local association for meetings by the same people I later had conflict with. After a while there developed a pattern of industrial action every April as a consequence of the SWP. ILEA would make cuts annually, the NUT would not respond, and the local area union for Inner London, ILTA, would vote for a strike. Who were members of the ILTA? Inner London activists primarily SWP. I cannot speak for other schools but in my school the ILTA motion would be discussed, and then a vote would be called. The motion would be passed because of the SWP activists and a few scivers who voted for a day off teaching, however the number of votes was never the majority of all the members of the union in the school – usually a vote of 11 or less would carry the action out of a membership of 25-30 people. This vote would close the school, many NUT members would go into work, and a day’s education would be lost. It is acceptable to lose a day’s education if it was meaningful but these actions were token, disruptive and based on an erroneous SWP policy. The school branch formed an executive whch I joined, and I was told by one member that if I said anything she would vote for the opposite. When I asked her one time to explain a policy she asked me to speak to someone else. She was an emotional sheep following a charismatic person, and this man did have charisma – I heard him speak at conference. But I also worked with him. He was a member of the NUT Executive, given one day a week official absence – often absent more than that. He was my HOD, and he maintained control of the department by having everything run through him even though he was absent so often. I was very committed to teaching, and at the time allowed that commitment to become anger leading to many conflicts with this man. I was also naive. At one time natural career progression brought me up for Deputy HOD, through unacceptable comments on my part he manipulated the political situation to ensure I was not Deputy HOD. From the SWP point of view he was absolutely correct but from an education point of view there was little educationally he did for the students and I could have helped them. Whilst I now agree that if you treat the teachers fairly you have better education, what he did was damaging for the students he taught and damaging for people like me who were in his department and wanted to teach the students. I joined the NAS at this school but by the time I left the school the NUT had created a policy of majority membership for strike action, and there were no more strikes. They also did not try to recruit me again! Although I lost a promotion I was right to stand up against this intellectual dogmatism even though my ideals were in line with the people I fought against. But they were using education as a political battleground, yet education is as important in changing society as any political position. What I did had little impact – as usual?

At my next school the situation was completely different. The school would only consider strike action if it was official union policy, and then it would only be minimal as they would be more concerned with the money and their mortgages. The local association was run by a dedicated lady who had kept the association running for a number of years. But it was not a union, it was her niche, her bag, her club; it was not a functioning collective organisation. When I arrived on the association scene she was threatened by my wish for involvement – it was her territory. When I became secreatry of the association she completely withdrew from the union, not only withdrawing from the executive of the association but also did not attend association meetings. I did bring a certain life to the association so perhaps it was guilt – only she knows. Such an association would never propose strike action even though the local education authority treated the staff worse than ILEA.

As for the school the headteacher was an incompetent bully, and the staff all recognised this. When I arrived the union guy was fed up with the situation because of this headteacher, and when he moved on I gladly took on the union position as previously stated. This was a mistake. I wanted to be union rep, a rep in a representative democracy, because I wanted to do something about this head. And the membership wanted me to do something about this head, but they didn’t want to do something themselves. And I forgot that in many ways he was my employer. Through my personal strength the membership were able to delude themselves that they were doing something about this man, but in truth I was just a sap. Whilst the situation is very clear to me now, I didn’t let it become clear at the time because I wanted to be the rep. The teachers there were in general good people concerned with looking after their families and doing their job, whilst as a group they functioned in abdicating responsibility they were not aware that they were damaging my career by this abdication. It is kind of accepted in schools that the union rep loses their career if they rock the boat. My head was however so much worse than many other heads, and by warnings he attempted to start me on a path to dismissal. Fortunately I had met the staff at the education authority so they gave me some support, but I was still forced to resign from the union; a term later he gave me a bonus.

As I mentioned above there were two strike unions, and I attempted at the school to get us working together. This failed miserably. I don’t know whether this was because the NAS rep was scared for his job, or whether he saw himself only in terms of the union hierarchy, but it meant that unity was stonewalled. I cannot remember how much I raised the issue with my own membership but they did not push for action amongst their NAS colleagues, so the issue was dropped. To be fair to the NAS rep there was an evident conflict between the head and I, and common sense might have told him to keep away. Quite evidently from this description the unions did not help solve the problem with this incompetent bully. The unions got in the way of consensus activity. I remember one time after I had resigned from the union there was a particularly bad action on the part of the head. Teachers had sent students home from a science trip for extremely poor behaviour, and these students were of influential parents so the head chastised the teachers concerned. Through the staff association, the NAS rep was chair at the time, all the teachers, a consensus, stood up against the head and he withdrew the chastisement. They were never able to accept that that was what was needed on a regular basis, their mortgages preventing that acceptance. For a year or so after I resigned there was no NUT rep, and then a rep emerged. She was rightly concerned about how bad the head was, but she was not a political activist like I was at the time. I warned her that she would have problems because she needed more support from members, and I remember one member saying she signed letters. I said that was not enough, and she said what was enough – I can’t remember what I answered I suspect I mumbled strike action. I hope the new rep didn’t suffer but I doubt it.

On a national level the union division helped the 1% just as much. Nationally there were two fully staffed organisations of the NUT and the NAS, and the majority of these staff were not elected officials. These backroom staff were lawyers and admin staff. Now for most members it is these people they joined the union for – protection in the classroom. There was an ongoing call for amalgamation of the two unions, and whilst there would still be the non-strike union, AMMA, this would have given one union close to 80% of all teachers and the chance to do something positive. It is the leaders of both unions who were responsible for negotiating the amalgamation, and there would then have been fewer leader posts in one union. One union would have been better for members. It would have been worse for the leaders, the backroom staff, and of course the 1%. The 1% wins if there is not consensus activist democracy, so although it was not the intention the way the unions functioned protected the 1%.

I have no reason to believe that it is not fundamentally the same now.

  1. […] I continued to manage the lower school team teaching, and focussed on the kids. The union conflict reared its head again, and I joined the NAS because of this HOD’s political manipulations that at that school […]

  2. […] is ego. This is why government is bought off, the politicians are there for their egos. In my own trade union representative case, I was bought off by the delusion that I could make a change; that change can only come when all […]

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