Exclusive: Major Trade Union Row Threatens To Derail Co-ordinated Strikes This Winter

Unison is at odds with the National Education Union in a dispute over school support staff.
A union insider told HuffPost UK: “The only winners from unions having playground squabbles about who represents who is the Tory government.”
A union insider told HuffPost UK: “The only winners from unions having playground squabbles about who represents who is the Tory government.”
Mark Kerrison via Getty Images

An extraordinary row has broken out between two of the country’s biggest trade unions in a development that could scupper the chance of co-ordinated strike action this winter, HuffPost UK can reveal.

Unison said it was “suspending co-operation with the National Education Union (NEU) at all levels” in a dispute over the recruitment and representation of support staff.

HuffPost UK has been told that Unison could try to have the NEU kicked out of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the umbrella organisation that represents unions across the country.

Unison, which represents about 350,000 education staff, has accused the NEU of breaching an agreement brokered by the TUC which states that it does not have the right to negotiate on pay.

Under the deal, only Unison, Unite and the GMB are recognised to negotiate pay with the Local Government National Joint Council (NJC), the body that determines salaries for the vast majority of school support staff.

But Unison has accused the NEU, the largest education union, of breaching the agreement after it organised an indicative ballot for strike action of school support staff over the summer.

In a letter to staff seen by HuffPost UK, Unison said: “The TUC model agreement for setting up recognition agreements in academies and multi-academy trusts makes it clear that only these three unions should be recognised for negotiations and consultations relating to school support staff.

“Over the summer the NEU organised a consultative ballot of its school support staff members, who voted to reject the offer — even though the NEU cannot negotiate on NJC pay.

“This matter has now been referred to the TUC so that it can be resolved as soon as possible.

“Unison and the NEU have a long history of working together and we look forward to doing so again as soon as possible.

“However, until this matter has been resolved, Unison is suspending co-operation with the NEU at all levels of the union.”

In response, the NEU’s joint general secretaries, Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, denied that its actions had breached the TUC deal.

“The NEU has made it clear to Unison and GMB that we fully acknowledge that Unison, GMB and Unite are the recognised unions negotiating for the pay of council and school support staff,” they said.

“We have made it clear that we are not seeking recognition or collective bargaining rights.

“However, our support staff members on a very high turnout and very high majorities instructed us to take this matter forward.

“We are concerned by the suggestion that we should not ballot members as we do not have recognition. Many of our industrial disputes in the last year have been with private school employers where we don’t have recognition, fighting to retain the teachers pension scheme.

“It is not the case that you need to have recognition to have a lawful trade dispute and it would be a very big step backward for the trade union movement to suggest that.”

The row comes as the threat of mass strikes looms with teachers, nurses and civil servants among the workers threatening to walk out this winter.

The NEU, which represents around 450,000 teaching staff, recently held an indicative ballot in which 98% of the members who took part called for a “fully-funded, above-inflation pay rise”. Some 86% of members said they were willing to take strike action to achieve it.

A separate preliminary ballot of support staff who participated also strongly supported taking action over pay, with 92% of staff rejecting the government’s pay offer and 78% agreeing with strike action.

The NEU is now holding a formal ballot which will close on January 13 next year, with strikes potentially taking place later that month.

Meanwhile, nurses are set to hold the biggest-ever strike this winter in another dispute over pay.

While the final results of the ballot are still being counted, sources at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) were confident at the weekend that a large majority of nurses have voted in favour of action to demand a pay rise of 5% above RPI inflation.

In response to the growing clamour for strike action, the TUC has said it would look to co-ordinate any walkouts to maximise their impact and demonstrate the “strength of feeling” among workers.

The plan could have seen an overlap between strikes handled by the NEU and Unison strikes in broader sectors such as health.

But sources told HuffPost UK they believed the co-operation would now not go ahead in light of the dispute.

“It is hard to understate the level of schism between Unison and the NEU,” a union insider said.

“This will inevitably have an impact on all public sector strikes and cooperation between unions. Support staff simply don’t understand why it’s a problem that their union, the NEU, ballots their members to try and get a fully funded deal for working people.

“The only winners from unions having playground squabbles about who represents who is the Tory government.”

A Unison spokesperson said: “A complaint has been made to the TUC. There’ll be a meeting of relevant general secretaries soon, at which it’s hoped all the issues raised can be resolved.”

A NEU spokesperson added: “This is subject to ongoing discussions between TUC affiliated unions and we hope it will be resolved quickly.”

The TUC declined to comment.


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