In a recent blog on theeducator.com, my colleague and fellow writer Rachel Andersson outlined five excellent reasons for joining a teaching union. These included support, legal advice, professional development and a couple of less common reasons – the advice and help a union can offer with regards to sickness benefits plus the fringe financial benefits membership opens up, discounts and suchlike.
It was a strong case. But the question is still begged whether joining a union is a must do action, or just a matter of choice bringing no professional advantage either way.
We are lucky in this country to have an option. In the US, for example, teachers can be forced to join a union in more than a third of states. The alternative is paying anyway, but taking no advantage of the benefits the union offers. Which is, of course, not in reality a choice.
Fact of Fiction – Is it Wise to Join a Union?
Most unions cost a little under £200 per year. For senior staff, the cost can rise to about double that. Each of the benefits outlined by Rachel in her article apply. On top of that, we might add the opportunity to make political statements, or at least show support for them.
So, on the face of it, under £20 per month looks like good value for all that is offered. But let us look in a bit more detail at these benefits. Is it possible that they are not as significant as they might at first appear?
Mostly, this is the financial support collective bargaining can bring. But a little look at the ludicrously low levels of salary increases teachers have received over the last decade puts the success of unions here in context. Has teachers pay got relatively worse? Yes. Do teachers earn a respectable wage for the work they do, the responsibilities they have and the risks they face? Clearly not. Would the situation be worse without union action? That is the question we cannot answer.
What we can be sure of, however, is that unions are stronger when they are bigger. An increase in the trend away from membership makes those organisations less effective in negotiating salaries.
Another point to consider is that the salary structure for teachers is changing. Independent schools have always held their own wage scales (often, despite the stories they like to tell their staff, much worse than what can be earned in the maintained sector). The growth of academies is spreading that independence. It may be that the era of collective bargaining is in terminal decline.
Another indisputable is that teachers’ jobs are less secure than ever. Partly, that is Government posturing – it makes political sense to have teachers seen as the enemy. The establishment of rules and regulations which impart life conditions on teachers which apply to no other sectors of society is disreputable. But it happened. (Where were the unions when the teacher standards were established, we might reasonably ask?)
It is politically expedient for the Government to be able to lambast teachers, it ensures they have less respect and allows them to be paid less. That is why we must endure organisations such as the TRA, or by whatever name it is known this week.
Added to this is the growing reality of redundancy. Whitehall, voicing the words of its political masters, tells us that budgets are protected. Let’s not beat about the bush. That is a lie. It is an interpretation of the facts that bears no link to reality whatsoever. And smaller budgets means fewer staff.
Finally, and I speak as a dinosaur on the edge of extinction here, the nature of school management is changing. Academies are businesses. They must break even, ideally sustain a surplus. However much we dislike it, education is now a commodity, and subject to the same pushes and pulls as industry. Just without the same financial rewards.
So the fact is that our jobs are at risk more than ever before. Unions help when crises occur; my own experience, largely learned through stories from friends and colleagues, is that our Union will guide us through the painful process we must endure. But it will be a cold help, one that establishes our own wishes and does its best to secure them, but fails to recognise the emotional trauma of having ones job put on the line.
Personally, I would advocate recourse to ACAS – friends tell me that this organisation acts like an electric bolt up the backside of governing bodies – and the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. Sadly, at around £250 an hour, paying a solicitor is not an option for most teachers.
Source of Advice
Yes, definitely a union can offer professional development and technical advice such as with sickness benefits. But then, so will the teachers’ pensions organisation, CAB and even the internet. A trip to our school’s business manager or bursar should also open the door to answers we need. It comes down to what we want, and how we want to get it.
Again, it is a matter of choice whether to join a union for the fringe benefits it offers, or to find them elsewhere. It probably comes down to economics; if savings at least equate to the cost of membership then why not? But, there is little point buying a dog to take advantage of a 2 for 1 deal on Winalot.
A personal view: I do feel that this is the major reason for joining a union. If people wish to stand up for rights, to challenge actions that are politically motivated rather than enacted for the benefit of children, to fight injustice, then doing so through a union is more effective than using a soap box on the corner of the park (which is more likely to get us arrested than change the world).
And that, in a nutshell, sums up this blog. Joining a union does offer a bit of help, but that support can be found elsewhere. Is it worth £200 a year? It’s a matter of choice. There are benefits to joining a union, but only if we want to take advantage of them. Once again, a matter of choice.
Whether or not we choose to join a union… it’s down to how we feel.
1-Five reasons why should consider joining a teachers’ union
2- When something goes wrong
3- State school teaching job vs private school teaching job
4- Union Unite to tell the government: Enough is enough