What a year this has been. When I became Vice President, we were still in lockdown. Most of that year as Vice President was a “virtual” experience, but in April 2022, the Covid restrictions began to lift as I was approaching my Presidential year, and my life really burst into colour. Where my working life had been a stoical, factual, worthy read, it was now a page-turner.
And the colours that my life burst into were heavily dominated with pink, green and quite a lot of purple tartan due to the fact that my year coincided with the launch of our Pay Attention campaign and the 175th Anniversary of this great institution. After two years of online meetings, it was amazing to be invited to all airts and pairts to speak, meet members in person and see parts of the country that I probably would never have otherwise visited.
The pay campaign, Pay Attention, was the first time that our members took sustained strike action since the 1980s, when the EIS took on Margaret Thatcher and won. At the start of the campaign, my main job as President was to visit Local Associations and Branches and persuade members to get behind the campaign. The focus was pay, but sitting behind that was a mountain of issues, and we knew there was no hope of those issues being addressed if we didn’t do something about ensuring our teachers were better equipped to face the impending cost of living crisis.
As I spoke of recruitment issues, a lack of funding in ASN, classes that were too big, a workload that was out of control, and wages that were woefully below inflation despite the gains that we won in 2018, everything I had to say was always received with vigorous agreement. Before long, I was visiting picket lines. It really is testament to our organisation – at all levels, and I really mean at all levels, that we took our members out on strike, and delivered on pay.
First of all, I had the great privilege of working alongside Andrea Bradley, in her first year as General Secretary as she guided us through this historic campaign with creativity, attention to detail and quiet authority.
Secondly, when you become an office bearer, you soon become very aware of the staff members of the EIS, and how each one of them has an important role to play when there’s a campaign going on.
So, a massive thank you to every EIS employee, there are far too many to name individually, but, we need you to know, that every single one of you is highly valued by the membership.
Next, it’s important to acknowledge how the lay members, in our pay campaign, provided the crucial link between our 65,000 members and the direction of the campaign itself. I also want to acknowledge our Salaries Committee, in particular our Convener and Vice Convener who were in the room when it was happening. I know it wasn’t always an easy place to be, but with a forensic eye for detail, and nerves of steel, they held our position until we finally got the offer that we were happy to put to members, and 90% of them accepted!
As an LA Secretary myself, it’s important to recognise the work done by other LA Secretaries and local executives within the process in getting the messages out to our members, rallying the troops, and ensuring that our members were fully engaged.
As I said, the real success of this campaign was in the fact that we took you, our members, out of schools, out of classrooms and support bases, and onto picket lines. The Scottish Government seemed nonchalantly to put their hands in their pockets, and looked the other way, as those first few weeks of strike action took place. But you showed them that we were far from fair-weather trade unionists! We, you, kept going, until the last straw of the targeted action spurred them to take their hands out of their pockets and find the money.
One of the best things about being President was travelling around the country and meeting members at rallies and picket lines. Two moments from this year that I will always hold close to my heart are, first of all, standing in a blizzard on an Elgin picket line, and secondly, watching the sun come up over the sea in Shetland, eating a bacon roll, as the sheep bleated in support of the picketers.
The pay campaign was about you and with you: our members. We got there in the end because of your actions. We were all in this together, and we all delivered on pay. We made the Scottish Government and COSLA pay attention.
We still have live disputes within our union. EIS FELA are Fighting for the Future of Further Education, with City of Glasgow college taking strike action on compulsory redundancies. EIS ULA are currently balloting for action on pay. The teachers have been inspired by lecturers’ action over the years, so on behalf of the teachers, we want to give you a warm message of solidarity to give you strength as you advance in your campaigns. I also want to acknowledge the action taken by our members in Hutchesons’ Grammar over the disgraceful cut to their pension by their employer. Stay strong colleagues!
Being part of the EIS means we are also part of the wider trade union movement. One of our duties as office bearers is to accept invitations, and join delegations to trade union conferences, and this year, as a result, I have met trade unionists from all over the world, some of whom are here today.
And it’s at this point that I want to pay tribute to Larry Flanagan, who was the outgoing General Secretary as my Presidential year began. As President of the ETUCE, the European Trade Union Committee for Education, Larry continues to fight for better conditions for teachers and pupils across Europe, including for our colleagues and young people in Ukraine. The importance of our international solidary should not ever be underestimated.
Last April, through my attendance at the NEU, NASUWT and STUC conferences, I became aware of Justice for Colombia, a trade union-based organisation which, as their name suggests, literally campaign for peace and justice in Colombia. I discovered being a trade unionist in Colombia, and in particular, a teacher trade unionist, can get you shot. I found this incredibly sobering.
Not long after this, I visited Poland as part of the EIS delegation to an ETUCE conference on raising the status of the teaching profession. In Poland, during the Nazi Occupation, secondary and tertiary education became illegal, but teachers and lecturers continued to teach students underground. A Scottish teacher ended up in Auschwitz for refusing to stop educating Jewish children in Budapest.
Both these experiences left me with a fair bit of soul searching.
What I do know, is that the significance of being an education trade unionist must not be underestimated. Trade unionism and education are two forces that have the capacity to change the world for the better. And that is why they are under attack across the world.
We each have a duty to fight to ensure that trade unionism is not only protected, but that it is recognised and valued at all levels of government in Scotland, the UK and across the world. We must continue to push back on the Anti Trade Union Laws and on any attempt to undermine our right to take Industrial Action.
I also want to remind you of our affiliation to the Justice for Sheku Bayoh campaign. This is a trade union funded campaign that seeks to ensure that Sheku’s death as a result of police brutality in Kirkcaldy, is not swept under the carpet of institutional racism.
I also want to remind you of the EIS’s role in standing up to racism, our commitment to welcoming refugees, campaigning for universal free school meals, and of course, Pride and inclusive education.
In February, I went to Australia with Selma Augestad, our National Officer for Equality. First off, we were invited to be part of the Australia Education Union’s national conference in Melbourne. They were launching a major campaign at this conference – “Unions for Yes”, a cross Trade Union campaign to encourage voters to vote “yes” in a national referendum to ensure that the Australian constitution formally recognises the voice of indigenous people at all levels of government.
To sit and listen to the Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander members, and hear the impact that colonialism has had, and is still having on their lives, while being fully aware that I was a descendent of those colonisers, was a deeply unsettling experience, which galvanised my determination to work harder to eradicate the effects of colonialism and promote a truly equal society.
From Melbourne, we went to Sydney where we took part in the Australian Teachers’ Federation’s Diversity in Education conference, where Selma and I held a workshop on Inclusive Education in Scotland. We were also delegates at the World Pride Human Rights conference. To hear, first hand, of the experiences of our fellow human beings across the globe, who are being persecuted and discriminated against daily for just trying to be their true selves, was a lot to take in.
At this conference, we are going to be officially launching a new national campaign, that will seek to address the legacy that years of underfunding and austerity have left for our young people and their families and on our education system.
We still have classes that are too big, teachers with crippling workloads, young people who aren’t getting the support they need, and an education system that is hanging in the balance while we await the promise of education reform to unfold.
As teachers and members, we now hold education in our hands. And we must act together to ensure that real change happens so that Scotland has an education system that is equally good to that anywhere else in the world.
It is within our grasp to make positive changes in education. Let us use the success of our Pay Attention campaign as the wind at our backs and let it drive us forward to greater success in our next campaign.
Colleagues – here’s to the EIS, and to Scottish teachers and educators, who we know, are extremely well thought of and respected by our colleagues around the world and should never…ever… be underestimated by ourselves, our employers or our government at home.
This is an edited extract of the President’s speech. Full text available at www.eis.org.uk