Unions: Three into one will go - but not yet

The unions' grassroots favour a merger, but barriers remain, says Richard Garner
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The Independent Online

Those who attended the three teachers' union conferences over the Easter holiday at Cardiff, Bournemouth and Scarborough had to travel a long and winding road to do so. It was not nearly as long and winding, however, as the path towards professional unity in the teaching profession.

Before the conference season started, there was a belief that the three TUC-affiliated teacher unions ­ the National Union of Teachers, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers ­ could finally move towards a merger and begin to present a united voice for the profession. That is still on the agenda, but it looks a little more distant as a result of the last two weeks.

At the ATL conference, Peter Smith, its general secretary, talked of "the toothpaste being out of the tube": a merger debate had started and it would be impossible to stop. On the conference floor, though, a motion to allow the ATL to recruit heads for the first time was defeated, putting it at odds with the other unions.

The NUT, the biggest of the three unions, has always been more committed to merger than the other two. It had to face down calls from left-wing delegates to shackle its leaders in negotiations. They demanded the right to hold annual conferences and elect executive members, and a whole host of other items designed to give the leadership little room for manoeuvre.

It was at the NASUWT, though, that merger talks suffered their biggest setback. The new general secretary, Eamonn O'Kane, had stuck his neck out and written a paper promoting merger in the run-up to taking office. The union's executive decided to send it out to members for debate rather than put it to the conference. Delegates were understandably angry about that and insisted that any further proposals be put to them. The decision does not end merger talks for all time, but it does in effect delay them for more than a year.

That is a pity. A poll carried out for The Times Educational Supplement, also over the Easter weekend, showed not only that the majority of all teachers are in favour of one union, but that there is also a majority for merger within each union. In the NUT, 80 per cent are in favour, and in the NASUWT it is 70 per cent. Even in the ATL, which represents a large number of independent-school teachers who would probably not want to be seen dead in a single TUC-affiliated union, and might quit to join a pacifist professional association of teachers, the majority is 52 per cent.

This appears to indicate that once the decision is in the hands of members, a single union is certain to come about.