Unions need to win over the public if they’re to avoid a repeat of Wisconsin


By Amelia Peterson

This week The Guardian published a letter voicing disapproval with Michael Gove’s hands-over-ears approach to school reform. Then just yesterday Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, reiterated Gove and Cameron were alienating heads and teachers by consistently depicting schools as failing institutions in need of external shake-up.

Lightman, as head of a major union of school executives, is in a strong position to make his voice heard.

Whether ASCL will join the larger National Association of Head Teachers in strike action this November remains to be seen, but they are encouraging members to do so.

The potential frailty of unions was highlighted just last week by the final fizzling out of a long battle  in Wisconsinm Earlier this year the state’s Republican Governor managed to change union law, removing most of employees’ collective bargaining rights. To remain active, unions had to recertify last week, and only a minority have chosen to do so.

The head of the American Federation of Teachers regretfully said the process would be too big a drain on their resources: the new law requires unions to obtain a majority vote across all their members, each and every year, to remain in action.

Although unions have featured heavily in the US press this year, a recent major poll indicates American public opinion over their role has not changed. It also highlights the growing gap between the views of teachers and those of the general public about union support.

In Wisconsin, the moves against industrial action prompted a recall of Republican senators, but in the end only two were voted out. While a large minority do support unions, it is not quite enough to make their voices heard.

Gove has already shown his attitude to unions, labelling their strike in June “militant”. For teachers to be depicted in this way when they are operating in an increasingly dictatorial system is depressingly ironic, and a clear sign Gove does not feel unions are backed by the electorate.

There have long been rumblings of changing the strike laws here in the UK and Francis Maude’s comments last week show the government will continue to pit the public against union action. Unions need clear public support if they are to be protected from the single-mindedness of MPs; otherwise they risk being brushed aside like those in Wisconsin.

See also

What kind of “civil disobedience” tactics will the unions use?Dan Whittle, September 15th 2011

Spanish and Italian strikes show the growth in sporting socialismRich Hook, August 27th 2011

The coalition and the unions: the state of play on day oneDaniel Elton, June 30th 2011

Gove’s call for parents to act as strikebreakers savaged by MumsnetDaniel Elton, June 27th 2011

Firefighters’ strikes: Tory Brian Coleman “addicted to conflict”Darren Johnson AM, January 12th 2011

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