Sunday, 20 April 2008

Steve Sinnott and Greg Tucker: Socialists and Trade Unionists

By John Mc Donnell (from with permission)

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Over the last week our movement has been dealt a real blow with the deaths of Steve Sinnott, General Secretary of the NUT, and Greg Tucker, longstanding Left RMT activist.Steve was a straightforward, decent, committed trade unionist who was absolutely dedicated to education as a means of transforming society. He was a brilliant advocate not only on behalf of NUT members and the teaching profession but also on behalf of public services more generally. As part of his commitment to public services and his opposition to privatisation he ensured that the NUT was a founding member of the Public Services Not Private Profit Campaign, which I chair. Steve knew the meaning of solidarity and put his solidarity into practice by co-ordinating with other trade unions in a number of campaigns including the current pay campaign. He will be missed not just by the NUT but by the Labour and Trade Union movement as a whole and by so many of us who had the privilege of working with him. The best tribute we can give to Steve is to ensure that we give every support we can to his members in the forthcoming industrial struggle for decent pay. This one is for you Steve.

Greg Tucker was a superb example of selfless dedication to the causes of socialism and trade unionism. I have known Greg for nearly 30 years from the days he was a rank and file activist campaigning in support of the Labour Left on the GLC, through the ratecapping campaign and the miners strike and onto his excellent work representing the RMT. Greg was one of those comrades who was always there if you needed support no matter how difficult the issue and whatever flack we were coming under. He embodied the best of our movement, a thinking, extremely well read, and determined socialist. Because he was such an effective representative of RMT members he was an automatic target for management victimisation but he stood up courageously to everything thrown at him. Greg would not allow anything to stand in the way of serving his members and our movement. The real heroes and heroines of our movement are those that quietly without thought of reward devote their lives to our cause. Greg was one of those heroes whom I am immensely proud to have known.

Monday, 14 April 2008


The Campaign against Climate Change is supporting the demonstration against the third runway at Heathrow on Saturday 31st May. Over 3000 people attended a public rally on this issue at Westminster Hall, so it promises to be a big and exciting demo.

The demonstration will assemble at 12 noon at Hatton Cross Tube Station.
It is vitally important that we get as many trade union banners to the demo as possible. We need to show the young people who will be on the march that the unions are their allies in this struggle. And it would be good for trade unionists to experience the dynamism and energy that young climate activists have brought to this campaign. Please encourage your own branch to bring its banner (model resolution attached) but also phone round your contacts and ask them to do the same.

For further details see

Please feed back to me details of any trade union contingents that you know will be attending the demo.

NUT fringe meeting report

The CCC fringe meeting at NUT conference on Saturday went very well indeed. Phil Thornhill, Christine Blower (deputy general secretary) and myself spoke to around 40 delegates, and there was a very positive and interesting discussion. Following that meeting, we have now received pledges from senior officials within the union for help with ensuring that climate change will feature on the main agenda of our next annual conference.

If any of you are organising fringe meetings at your own union conference, please send in a brief report of how it went, and also let me have a list of email addresses of any delegates who wish to be added to our e-list.

In Manchester, we are going to produce a local version of the Heathrow Demo leaflet (which can be downloaded from ) with details of our coaches. If you are able to do this for your own area please let me know. Also, please let me know of any union contingents that you know will be attending the demo.

An issue which might well arise when you raise Heathrow expansion in your union branch is the effect on jobs. Some union leaders have argued that we need to expand Heathrow in order to compete with other European hub airports in Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt, and that if we don’t build a third runway tens of thousands of jobs might be lost. My response to that would be that competition never benefits workers, and that instead of competing with our brothers and sisters in those cities, we should be fighting alongside them to resist all airport expansion, across Europe and beyond.

Our government was more than happy to nationalise Northern Rock in order to protect the interests of financiers; perhaps they should consider nationalising the airports in order to protect the livelihoods of those who work in them – by for example cutting hours of work instead of jobs; and by providing retraining and redeployment (with no loss of pay or worsening of conditions) into sustainable industries such as rail. I think this would be a better union response than just going along with the bosses’ drive for ‘competitiveness’ regardless of the environmental cost of doing so.

I am confident that we may well win the campaign to stop the third runway. If we do so it will give a huge boost to all campaigns against airport expansion, including here in Manchester, but also internationally. So please do try your very best to ensure a big union turnout on the 31st May.


Chit Chong,

9 April 2008
Ed Blissett,
GMB London,
Thorne House,
152 Brent Street,
Hendon, London

Dear Mr Blissett,
When I joined the GMB, I did not expect a lot from it as far as addressing environmental and climate change issues were concerned, however I am greatly concerned by the GMB’s continued support for the expansion of Heathrow. This was demonstrated in a report on a meeting between the GMB and the Green Party Trade Union Group, see

It is now difficult to reconcile my membership of the GMB with my personal beliefs as an environmentalist, and speaking personally, as a London Assembly candidate for the Green Party. I am therefore writing to you to ask you for the GMB's position on climate change, what it is doing and how it reconciles its support of Heathrow expansion with any policy it has on climate change. In doing so, I would be grateful if you could expand on the answers given by Mick Rix about the use of bio-fuels and increase in both air freight and road freight can be reconciled with reducing climate change.

More generally, I am increasingly of the view that Unions and workers must take more responsibility for their role in causing climate change. It is no longer a tenable excuse to say that employers are responsible for emissions and the work people do at the car factory, logistics company, air line or airport are emission free. We are jointly responsible for the emissions from our jobs along with our employers, suppliers and consumers of out products and services.

I look forward to receiving your reply either to my address above or by email to

Yours sincerely.

Chit Chong

Kim Moody book Review: US Labor in Trouble & Transition (2007, Verso), Price £19.99 paperback.

by Dave Welsh

This book is an ABC of US labor history. It deserves to be read by all serious trade union activists in Britain. Kim Moody is a veteran of US labor movement struggles, and helped to found the hugely influential Labor Notes magazine.

I came across Labor Notes in the 1980s through activists on the New York subway working around the Hell on Wheels rank & file group (later New Directions). At that time, militants on London Transport were beginning to organize around unofficial newsletters like ‘Picc Up on the East’, ‘Close Encounters on the District Line’ and ‘Busworker’. The history of these kinds of initiative lay in the many new responses to working class recomposition in earlier decades. What they had in common was the aim to build an independent rank & file politics based on autonomous working class organizations and that’s why Kim’s book is a very timely account of what has happened in the USA.

Importantly, the book is built on the key notion of analyzing the US workplace and the trade union movement. Kim does well to remind us of the industrial nature of US capitalism. His book chronicles the ebbing of the wave of militancy that had emerged from below in the 1950s, after the battering of two recessions. But this history is focused on the rank & file of the labor movement which had consistently come up against ‘the bureaucratized & conservatized’ trade union leadership (p. 107). Here is a key thread: that there is a rank & file in the workplace (wherever that workplace is located), not a set of ‘service- users’ who wait passively for their union to represent them. That rank & file may be divided (as racism had divided the US movement), it may be fragmented & politically conservative at times but it is out there.

Kim outlines the management offensive that was to follow in the 1990s: the ‘team concept’, ‘partnership’, ‘lean production’. Labor- management programs & ‘jointness’ came in at General Motors, Ford & Chrysler bringing armies of ‘clipboard’ people into the workplace and spreading like wildfire across US industry. All this meant one thing: undermining the idea that unions were in the business of class conflict. Here again, he takes apart the union response: mergers, business unionism and reform from above. On mergers, for example, he shows that many mergers actually made no sense, can fragment their members and are, above all, top- down affairs.

Mergers, he notes, became ‘a substitute for new organizing in the period of retreat’ (p119). He notes the Change to Win Coalition of SEIU, UNITE-HERE, the Teamsters and others as one model that has faults but is different to the old AFL- CIO business unionism. Change to Win came out of the split in the AFL- CIO over the issue of organizing the unorganized, not surprising when you remember that the unions had shrunk to 12.5% of the workforce by 2005.

Thirdly, Kim discusses the many campaigns & initiatives that have emerged in recent years as an alternative to the business unionism model. He describes the worker- centers, non- majority unions, union reform and democracy movements, worker- based organizing drives & ‘deeply- rooted’ workplace unions. Usefully, he points out that a democratic social unionism can only emerge from struggle with the employers. The recent failures of union reform suggest that change at the top of a union is never enough- we must change the relationship of leaders to members and that between leaders & the employer. He relates a number of specific resistance points in the movement like the 1997 UPS strike, the ILWU contract fight in 2002 and the TWU Local 100 strike on New York’s transit system in 2005.

So what does this add up to? Well, you can learn a lot about the US labor movement. But it also contains a number of points of discussion for British trade union activists. It’s a book that will challenge you to think about rank & file movements, organizing & political interventions. What is the role of the rank & file today in Britain? Is the concept outdated? Should we be building rank & file organizations? If so, how do we build them? Are they viable in a period of retreat? But do not read this book if you’re seeking the ‘Halleluyah it’s a strike!’ strategy for class struggle. Most British groups/ parties still persist in adopting the most shameless ‘strike- chasing’ mode. And don’t bother if you think the current leadership of Britain’s trade unions is ‘doing a good job’, that is, if you think that tail-ending the current bureaucracy and ignoring the rank & file is tactically necessary or whatever bizarre variant your party has dreamed up.

Just think of the fate of the former NATFHE (UCU) Rank & File that had aimed to build a broad coalition of activists linked closely to the rank & file membership. It was hi- jacked by a party and turned into a fan- club for the leadership (first Paul Mackney, now Sally Hunt). Don’t read it if you subscribe to the notion that all the workers need is your party- line because the book asks its readers to think, discuss & debate in an open & democratic manner. If you do read it (order it from your college, university or local library) you’ll note the many similarities between the US & British experiences. There’s the merger- mania, the Blairite business unionism model, the sidelining of internal dissent and stifling of democracy by union bureaucrats and the current challenges of building a new rank & file unionism. That’s plenty to be going on with.

SEIU Service Employees International Union
AFL- CIO American Federation of Labor- Congress of Industrial Organizations
ILWU International Longshore & Warehouse Union
TWU Transport Workers Union

Dave Welsh (part- time lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London)

Monday, 7 April 2008

Report of the 2008 NUT Conference by Phillipe Harari

Report of the 2008 NUT Conference – Education, Professionalism, Solidarity

(Philippe Harari is an NUT activist and teaches Politics at a Sixth Form College in Cambridge).

The annual NUT Conference can be quite an argumentative affair, with delegates engaging in robust debate and motions being won or lost by pretty small margins. This year, there was a genuine sense of unity in the conference hall and just about every single vote was unanimous, or nearly unanimous. This is partly as a result of the fact that this year we all have a common enemy in a government that is trying to impose below inflation pay rises. But it is also a result of a genuine desire to act together in order to act more effectively.

There were several key themes to this Conference, and as delegates listened to the debates, it became clearer how these different themes are all inter-related and underpinned by the government’s current ideological approach.

At the time of the Conference, the NUT was still awaiting the outcome of its ballot for a national strike for all schoolteachers on 24th April, the first national teachers’ strike for 22 years (we have since heard that the ballot was successful and the strike will be going ahead). UCU were balloting members in FE Colleges for action on that day, and other public sector unions were also thinking of joining in. There was a real sense of common purpose in the Conference hall and a strong feeling that the action on the 24th April would be the start of an ongoing pay campaign. The NUT agreed to ballot its members for discontinuous strike action, giving the National Executive real flexibility in pursuing the campaign. There is a real sense of anger amongst teachers about the government’s attempts to control public spending by cutting the pay of public sector workers, while people in the private sector are seeing their pay rise by more than inflation and while billions of pounds of public money are being used to fight an unjust war in Iraq and to shore up a failing bank. At the same time as having our pay cut, we are being asked to work harder…

It is impossible to achieve a reasonable work-life balance if you are a full-time teacher and the main driver of unacceptable teacher workload is the top-down target driven agenda set by the government via School Improvement Partners and OFSTED. This includes league tables, SATs, prescriptive target-setting, OFSTED and self-evaluation, performance management etc. When unacceptable workload is combined with pay cuts, is it any wonder that 1 in 3 newly qualified teachers leave the profession after one year? The Conference agreed that, following the pay strike on the 24th April, we would link our campaigns on pay and workload when planning future action. Of course, one of the main factors in increasing teacher workload is over-sized classes …

Class size
The reason class-sizes are so large in our schools is very simple – the government is not putting enough money into education. The UK comes only 23rd out of 30 developed countries in the 2007 OECD survey of average class size and the gap between average class size in state primary schools (25.8) and independent primary schools (10.7) is higher in the UK than anywhere else in the developed world. The body of research that shows that smaller classes leads to better education is enormous. The Conference called on the government to implement a phased legally binding maximum class size of 20 by 2020 in both primary and secondary schools, and a moratorium on school closures. As well as affecting attainment, large classes have a major effect on how students behave in the classroom …

Classroom behaviour
This year’s Conference motion on classroom behaviour made it clear that there is absolutely no contradiction between defending members against harassment, abuse and assault on the one hand, and promoting a student centred approach to classroom management on the other. The NUT is very effective in its robust defence of teachers faced with extreme forms of bad behaviour in the classroom but now, unlike other teacher associations, is trying to debate the root causes of problem behaviour, rather than retreating into an increasingly authoritarian position. The motion sets up a national NUT classroom behaviour working group whose role will be produce and disseminate literature aimed at teachers, parents, policy-makers etc. outlining the root causes of problem classroom behaviour and setting out strategies to create a classroom ethos that is fully inclusive and at the same time conducive to effective teaching and learning. As well as over-sized classes, factors that effect behaviour in the classroom include institutional racism, inadequate resources, the ethos of league tables and testing, an inflexible top-down curriculum, insufficient learning support, inadequate or over-authoritarian on-site provision for dealing with classroom incidents and an ethos in which education is done ‘to’ students rather than ‘with’ them. The motion also referred to perhaps the most significant factor in determining how well students do at school: social class …

In his address to the Conference, newly installed national President Bill Greenshields spoke at length about the links between social class, poverty and education. In 1931, R.H. Tawney wrote “The hereditary curse upon English education is its organisation along lines of social class … the barbarous association of differences of educational opportunities with distinctions of wealth and social position”. Since then, a wide range of educational researchers have reached the same incontrovertible position; that there is a direct, sustained and devastating correlation between educational attainment and social class. The government recognises this link; as David Milliband, then Schools Minister, said in 2004 “…when it comes to the link between educational achievement and social class, Britain is at the bottom of the league for industrialised countries”. In Britain today, the richest 10% of the population own 71% of the wealth. Instead of setting the elimination of poverty as an absolute priority, governments have continued to blame teachers and the education system for continuing inequalities in educational attainment. Of course, as teachers, we must continue to do everything to raise all students’ aspirations, motivation and achievement, but we have to refute the notion that schools can in themselves put the matter right. The problem has its roots in our wider society, in a system that relies on the existence of ‘have-nots’ in order that the ‘haves’ can have a lot more of their share.

Other motions
The Conference also passed excellent motions drawing attention to the financial difficulties faced by young teachers and pledging robust support for Local Associations and School Representatives, who sometimes put themselves on the line in order to represent their members. There was a motion deploring the way that supply/agency teachers are exploited and another pledging support for overseas trained teachers, many of whom face serious discrimination. Delegate again agreed to campaign for the end of SATs and for the abolition of OFSTED and the creation of a much fairer system of inspection. The Union reaffirmed its strong opposition to academies and the way that the new specialist diplomas are being developed. There was a powerful motion on gender equality, including a commitment to defend abortion rights. A motion that was widely reported in the press will make it easier for teachers and students to oppose military recruitment in schools, and there was an excellent motion on inclusive education. More details of specific motions will appear in The Teacher magazine.

Finally …. this was a great Conference, showing the NUT at its best – united in fighting for a fairer education system within a fairer society.