Whole and holistic organising in the classroom
David Belsey outlines how the EIS is approaching the issue
The EIS has had an active couple of years with several successful high-profile campaigns seeking to use the ‘organising’ model of campaigning. Organising is about empowering members, increasing their engagement so that passive members become active members and encouraging them to believe that their actions can make a difference. Organising is a holistic approach and, to be effective, needs to be implemented at all levels within a union.
The Scottish Government facilitated the re-introduction of national collective bargaining in the college sector in 2015. The EIS’s first pay claim sought lecturer pay harmonisation at the level of the highest paying college. The campaign strategy was to generate member engagement over the long term by intensive reporting on the negotiations directly by the negotiators (who were mostly elected representatives). Pay harmonisation – equal pay for equal work within colleges – was quickly established as the grievance.
The EIS negotiators produced regular newsletters explaining EIS attempts to progress matters and the employers’ failure to reciprocate. Social media activity was driven by members in the main, with Facebook being the most popular medium. EIS negotiators travelled around colleges meeting members to explain the poor progress in negotiations and to agitate. Consultative ballots for industrial action were conducted to show that the negotiators’ positions were shared by ordinary members and that striking was a credible threat. Strike action was only implemented as the last resort and led to a successful settlement. The campaign was not stood down until the agreements were implemented.
The path to industrial action was not frustrated by the Trade Union Act 2016. Contrary to the aims of the Act, it would seem the new Act’s thresholds effectively make any strike action more likely to deliver its objectives since any strike mandate demonstrates high worker support.
The EIS ‘Value Education Value Teachers’ (VEVT) campaign for teachers was also planned to last an extended time-period and has taken the organising approach even further. Member involvement was planned to be central to the campaign; for members to actively engage in generating increased leverage at the pay negotiations at each stage of the campaign.
The campaign set out a narrative that showed that the value of teachers’ pay had dropped by 20% over the last ten years, was falling behind comparable graduate professions and international OECD teacher comparators. The teacher recruitment/retention problem in many schools, in part caused by the falling value of pay, was also highlighted. The campaign narrative, therefore, established a grievance on pay.
EIS members were asked to lobby their local councillors and, later, their MSPs in support of the campaign. The next stage was to enable all EIS members to send the Deputy First Minister a postcard supporting the campaign. A significant amount of support was given to local EIS representatives to engage with school reps and members to maximise the turnout of the postcards. This involved a programme of school visits by local representatives, national office bearers and organisers. Over 25,000 postcards were finally submitted in June 2018 – illustrating the strength of support for the campaign.
The next stage was a national rally in support of the VEVT campaign. Anonymised data from the postcard campaign was used to identify the schools that were the least engaged, thus, allowing the targeting of local representatives’ efforts. National meetings were also arranged across Scotland to inform and agitate about the VEVT campaign and to assist local representatives with maximising turnout for the national demonstration. Allied to these efforts was a detailed communications strategy that used social media, bulletins and the media to reinforce the support for the VEVT campaign. This work culminated in the national demonstration in Glasgow on 27 October 2018 in which 30,000 members and supporters were mobilised to show their support for the VEVT campaign by marching through Glasgow.
The EIS was keen not to lose this mobilised power, and immediately after the national demonstration, the EIS carried out a consultative ballot of its members on the pay offer of the time. School meetings, general and targeted use of resources by national and local representatives and a comprehensive communications plan delivered, in November 2018, a turnout of 74% with 98% rejection. This provided the additional leverage in negotiations to force the employers to improve their pay offer again. When this improved offer was found wanting, the threat of a statutory ballot led to another improved offer from the employers.
A consultative ballot on this improved offer closed on 21 February with results showing a turnout of 81% and 57% voting to reject the offer. This turnout showed that the VEVT campaign was able to maintain the momentum from the 30,000 marchers in Glasgow, and the subsequent consultative ballot. This clear mandate for action will further strengthen the EIS in future negotiations and sets the EIS on a path towards industrial action if members’ expectations are not met.
As each campaign unfolded, membership engagement increased. Members’ hopes at the start of these campaigns have been turned into expectations, as members have come to believe in their ability to bring about change. Many members have become activists, advocating the campaign and re-engaging with the EIS as their union. The EIS has again become a vehicle to harness and focus the power of its members to deliver their aspirations. Membership has grown, the number of EIS representatives has increased and many local representatives have become more confident leaders. The experience and expertise built by this generation of EIS activists and leaders will lead future campaigns, giving members greater confidence to campaign and deliver change in pursuit of workers’ interests in the future.
David Belsey is an Assistant Secretary with the EIS. He oversees its organising work and has been heavily involved in its recent campaigns.