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Do schools still need unions?

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The trade union bill announced in the Queen’s speech last week would introduce a threshold for strike ballots of 50% turnout before the action could go ahead. For those in ‘essential’ public services, including education, 40% of union members eligible to vote in a ballot would need to be in favour of industrial action.

These proposals have been floated by the Conservatives before, and seem to have a habit of popping up whenever there’s strike action affecting said essential services.

Reading the bill, I started to wonder whether previous strike action would have gone ahead had these thresholds been in place. The rail strike planned for this week, called off at the last minute, would have been OK as it had a 60% turnout, with 80% voting to strike. (Perhaps the threat to the right to strike itself spurred union members on to vote? Being a fairly stubborn person myself, I can imagine it having this sort of effect on me).

However, recent teaching union ballots tell a different story. Figures for the National Union of Teachers’ (NUT’s) ballots in 2011 and 2012 show a turnout of 40% and 27% respectively. In a 2011 ballot, NASUWT also had a turnout of “about 40%”, with 80% voting in favour of strike action. If the latest proposals had been in place, the strikes of November 2011 – which resulted in over half of state schools in England reportedly closing – would not have been possible.

Declining union activity

Are there even that many strikes to stop? Strike action has tapered off in the last 30 years, as has union membership itself. Research carried out by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) in 2008 shows the extent of the decline: while there were around 2,750 work stoppages in 1978, this was down to fewer than 500 in 2008.

Similarly, a 2014 bulletin from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) analysing trade union membership shows that membership peaked at over 13 million in 1979. By 2013 it had declined to 6.5 million.

Is this a manifestation of growing political apathy, or is it a reflection of the fact that more and more publicly run services have been privatised in the last 30 years, and that union representation in the private sector is much lower than in the public sector?

I think the answer may be a bit of both, but I also wonder what the implications are for schools. With the growth of academies, which have freedom to set their own pay and conditions, it seems important that staff can be represented by a professional organisation in any negotiations. Where there is union representation, this can take place through the union, whose representatives can represent employees as a group. But where there is no representation, this process is likely to be much more fragmented and individualised. And it’s worth noting that academies don’t always have agreements with unions.

Interestingly, the Acas research paper shows that together with the decline in industrial action, there has been a rise in employment tribunal cases. In place of collective negotiation and representation within the workplace, perhaps we are moving towards a more individualised system where workplace issues aren’t collectively resolved but become the focus of individual complaints.

Towards an ideology of individualism?

As well as being potentially attractive to commuters facing a tube strike, it seems that the Queen’s Speech proposals are picking up where Thatcher left off (it was her government that introduced strike ballots in the first place, after all) and moving further towards an ideology of individualism. To me, however, protecting pay and conditions are something worth fighting for collectively. Or maybe that's just my Red Clydeside roots talking ...

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