A cart-horse in from cold

September 8, 1995

The Trades Union Congress has warmed to HE, says David Triesman. The Trades Union Congress begins in Brighton next Monday, a week later than normal - a fact which may represent the TUC's greatest concession to education in decades. Thus, congress no longer clashes with the start of the English school year. It has taken delegates, especially women, a mere 25 years to persuade congress to make the change.

A new sense of pragmatism has settled in, a new sense of trying to influence events in tangible ways. Congress will no doubt resonate to its traditions - what Norman Willis called "Thingamego", the need to incant "This Great Movement of ours" in each speech for fear of offending history. It will indulge its more rhetorical icons as they speak of the power of industries almost extinct as though, with one final push, they could overturn 15 years of Thatcherism with a vote in a seaside resort.

But the prevailing questions will be about what can be changed by patient persuasion, the use of European-style industrial relations, punctuated only when necessary by traditional union action. As The Times said last year, Monks has brought the cart-horse in from the cold. With growing TUC influence in a pre-election period, it is worth asking what contribution will be made by the education unions. It is also worth asking what the TUC and its wider affiliates do for education.

The answers until recently were dispiriting. It is Wednesday morning. The ritual education hour has arrived. Delegates from school unions dominate the rostrum as other delegates head for the tea-rooms. The educational case is put in suitably obscure terms, submerged in a sea of acronyms. Important, yes, but unintelligible and ponderous, the session reminds everyone of what they disliked at school. Occasionally in an exciting moment a leader from a great manufacturing or extractive union pledges supportive strike action because "education is so crucial to us all . . ." And another TUC is gone.

The changes lie in the willingness of education unions to draw links between their experience or contribution to the economy and that of others. We have located ourselves in the main debates. The Association of University Teachers, for example, has for several years taken a prominent part in the key economy debate. This year, arguing for a modernising economy with high skill levels, better fundamental science and technical innovation, we hope to show that higher education research and teaching make a core contribution to economic success. Because we echo their interests, other unions respond positively, and in turn allow us to stress the cultural impact of education. Immediate alliances around science are forged with MSF and the Institute of Professional Managers and Specialists.

The National Union of Teachers plainly has similar alliances in mind. Its motion on public sector pay and standards is as relevant to the NHS or council staff as to teachers. The National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, and Natfhe, the university and college lecturers' union, with AUT, have staked claims in the employment legislation debate. NASUWT emphasises European rights denied in the United Kingdom. AUT shows that even when employers are beaten in the courts (as in Donaldson & McNally v University of Glasgow), they respond by inserting new waiver clauses into contracts to avoid the rights achieved.

We seek a realistic solution - it should be illegal for employers both to avoid rights upheld by courts or to invite employees to sign away their legal rights. Natfhe, reiterating opposition to anti-union law, seeks congress support in its protracted further education dispute. No doubt vocal support will be given.

Not all the stress is on the broader issues and new alliances. Some debates deal specifically with familiar terrain. The Educational Institute of Scotland and NUT debunk the voucher scheme as a solution to nursery under-provision while NUT and AUT address respectively school and university under-funding. In calling for a Royal Commission to set national higher education priorities and to inject some order into their funding, there is less tokenism in proposals in the run-up to a general election.

The bleak Wednesday morning experience has given way to agenda setting. The impulse for educationalists to tell the rest of congress what to believe has given way to cooperative work on issues of broad importance. Worthy support from others has become worthwhile co-operation. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this because it is painful for any group of unions to reflect that their style may not have helped. At the same time, education unions want to know that the TUC will engage more effectively in the education world. It could do more instantly by bringing education unions together more regularly to work on policy in preference to airing old antipathies.

On a personal level, two other developments delight me. First, a number of us will enter the debate on Nolan, all seeking new levels of probity for our sectors. This winter, Nolan will start to reach the parts others have not reached and there is every chance that some fundamental changes in transparency and accountability will follow. It is an honest opportunity for the TUC to spell out standards for public life where corporate, quango and even parliamentary Britain has failed to. The need to ensure there is not a another Huddersfield or Portsmouth provide a focus.

Second, the Professional Footballers' Association has rejoined the TUC under the exceptional leadership of Gordon Taylor. Its key motion seeks a programme to "kick racism out of football . . . and out of society". Not for the PFA the world of bungs and Kung Fu fighting. It knows football has a profound influence and is willing to exert it. The PFA invites us to share it.

It will be a less self-indulgent TUC, less tokenistic and more relevant. To go from being a warmer cart-horse to a thoroughbred racehorse, you need more answers than questions, with a sense of direction rather than a whinny.

David Triesman is general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.

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