Where next for grassroots activists in the NUT?
We reported on the Local Associations National Action Conference (LANAC) here. In this article, Kate Ford of Hackney NUT reflects on the lessons of the conference, and argues rank and file democracy will be key to the initiative’s success.
Teachers in the NUT across Britain joined strike action against the attack on public sector pensions on 30 June and 30 November last year. Millions of workers struck and NUT teachers were solid in their support for militant action.
However after the UNISON leadership backed out of the action the NUT Executive started having cold feet, instituting a “survey” of the members despite a live ballot for action. On 28 March they limited strike action to the London region alone, refusing to call national action.
Members were outraged at the demobilisation of the dispute. Liverpool NUT passed a motion of no confidence in the General Secretary Christine Blower, a leading figure in the left grouping the Campaign for Fighting and Democratic Union (CFDU). The decision to limit strike action to London, moreover, was made with the votes of CDFU Executive members.
At the NUT Easter Conference two hastily arranged but well attended meetings voiced the frustration of rank and file teachers with the Executive and demanded further national action. The second agreed to call a Local Associations National Action Conference (LANAC).
The biggest far left group, the SWP, took an ambiguous attitude towards this conference. This is because they have been central to another left grouping in the NUT, the Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA). In fact, the decisions to scale down action on the 28 March and to call off action for this term were made on the recommendation both of Christine Blower and the STA’s Kevin Courtney, the Deputy General Secretary of the union. At NUT conference leading members of the STA, such as Alex Kenny, argued and voted against taking action with other public sector unions on 10 May.
The SWP has clearly been reluctant to criticise their “allies” who are still feted as class struggle speakers at events like Unite the Resistance and Marxism, despite their role in the pensions sell out.
In calling off the pensions action the NUT leadership covered their retreat by promising joint action with the other major teachers union, the NAS/UWT, sometime in the future and launched yet another ballot of the membership.
The NAS/UWT, it should be noted, took only one day of strike action (November 30) over pensions, thus undermining the action on other strike days by going into work.
The LANAC conference
Over 100 delegates attended the LANAC conference in Liverpool on 16 June. For the left in the union this initiative represented an opportunity to take stock and challenge those on the leadership who had voted against national strike action. It could have mobilised the left to revivify the pensions dispute and begin the work of transforming the NUT into a class struggle union controlled by the rank and file rather than the bureaucracy.
Instead the conference was a disappointingly confused and inconclusive event. The conference organisers put forward an inadequate resolution that failed to propose any concrete actions or policy on the pensions struggle, the topic the conference was meant to be about.
Whilst some on the left – the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) and the Socialist Party (SP) – had criticised the poor leadership of the pensions dispute, at the conference speaker after speaker concluded that we had to look forwards and not back, a platitude which anyone who does not want to learn the lessons of the struggle is happy to repeat.
Looking forward in effect meant falling into line with the Executive, forgetting the live ballot on pensions and concentrating on winning the new ballot. SWP members at the conference were happy to praise the new alliance with the NAS/UWT as some sort of great step forward.
These positions led the SWP, AWL and SP to vote against an amendment from Greenwich NUT calling for an escalating campaign of strike action on pensions beginning with a three day strike early in the autumn term. Against this united opposition, 20% of the conference voted for the Greenwich amendment.
So whilst these left groups supposedly recognise the retreat of the leadership, they are not willing to put forward an alternative strategy that would bring them into conflict with it.
One key vote at the conference did give cause for some optimism. Delegates rejected an amendment from Croydon NUT association, proposed by Executive member Dave Harvey, to allow the Campaign Teacher Editorial Board to decide with the LANAC steering committee when the next meeting could happen. As Patrick Murphy of the AWL pointed out Campaign Teacher is actually supported by members of the Executive – including Dave Harvey-who have voted against action! Again the SWP was in favour of this attempt to neutralise LANAC as a rank and file based organisation.
Instead of ceding control to a body over which most people at the meeting have no control, delegates voted to support a proposal for a steering committee made up of one delegate per supporting association and a meeting at the latest at the beginning of the Autumn term.
The most craven role at the LANAC conference was played by the SWP. Unwilling to put any political distance between themselves and the leading figures of the STA such as Courtney, the delegates from the SWP would brook no criticism of him and reverted to simplistic calls to get out the members to vote in the new ballot.
The far left in the NUT have spent years and a great deal of effort getting the likes of Christine Blower and Kevin Courtney elected. The actions of these leaders once elected have been a sharp lesson in the dangers of electoralist broad leftism.
Electing left candidates does not guarantee a left leadership willing and able to fight. The only way to have a democratic and militant union is through rank and file control. The SWP once knew this and criticised the Communist Party for its broad left strategy – today they emulate it.
LANAC has to stand for rank and file control over the union and over its representatives, withdrawing support for any member who goes against its democratically decided policy however high up in the union. It also must develop a real strategy to transform the union into a fighting organisation.
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Cross-posted with thanks from Permanent Revolution