Unions tackling wealth extraction on the front line


To mark #heartunionsweek, CLES’s Frances Jones shares an example of the important contribution that trade unions are making in tackling the extraction of wealth from our communities and workers.

“You might not think about supply teachers as zero-hour workers, but they all too often are.”
Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority

While we often associate zero-hours contracts with retail or hospitality workers, or the more unscrupulous of the big tech giants, they also represent the stark reality of working life for the majority of supply teachers. Last month, 88% of supply teachers reported that private supply agencies were the only way they could obtain work, reflecting the fact that, over the last decade, agencies have replaced publicly run supply pools.

Commercial supply agencies retain up to 38% of the fees charged to schools, while the teachers themselves have faced falling pay, the eroding of job security and pension rights and attacks on their employment rights. Schools are missing out too – with fees and charges rising significantly. This double-edged extraction of wealth from the purses of both the public sector and workers is endemic in the UK. Tackling it is the central focus of CLES’s work on community wealth building and for #Heartunionsweek we are celebrating the important contribution of trade unions to this effort. In the case of the supply teacher sector, trade unions have proven themselves crucial agents in identifying business practices which operate to extract wealth from communities, at the detriment of fair terms and conditions for workers.

In recent years a series of reviews by education unions and the TUC have highlighted that supply teaching has transformed from flexible, rewarding work to a sector which is insecure and poorly paid.

“I’m a music teacher with 12 years’ experience and been offered 2 days a week at £90 daily. This equates to pro-rata £17,000 which is well below Newly Qualified Teacher pay.”

“I’ve enjoyed the experience. The downside to me continuing with supply teaching is the significant reduction in pay, and lack of benefits – no security of work, no sickness benefit, no access to Teacher Pension Scheme, often no CPD opportunities.” Teacher testaments, Bargaining for alternatives to agencies (A2A) for supply educators, NEU

As well as highlighting the fallout from changes in the sector, unions and their members have been actively involved in tackling them. Motivated by their own experiences, a group of supply teachers in the north east has been working closely with the NEU, NASUWT, TUC and North of Tyne Metro Mayor, Jamie Driscoll, since 2020, to create an alternative – a supply teacher co-operative. Owned and controlled by the teachers themselves, the co-operative will replace the prioritisation of profit with an imperative to pay fairly and provide good terms and conditions for teachers, ensure schools receive a high quality of service and to represent the interests of children:

“I am a teacher with 20 years’ experience. However, working as a supply teacher for private agencies, my daily rate equates to less than that of an early career teacher. The not-for-profit ethos of the co-operative model means that these pay inequalities can begin to be addressed – I can earn a wage closer to that for which I am qualified, the schools and pupils benefit from an experienced teacher and all without the school being charged any extra money.  It’s a win-win situation.”  Co-operative member

Jamie Driscoll sees this work as part of the Combined Authority’s wider commitment to both the union movement and community wealth building:

“Privatisation has a nasty habit of treating people as economic units.  If you lose sight of people as people – complex, flawed, talented, motivated human beings – you end up with dysfunctional systems.  Trade unions are the antidote.  Putting workers first nurtures talent and dedication, not to mention staff retention.  Community wealth building provides the money – it’s a myth that privatisation is cheaper.  It isn’t – it just creates long term problems like recruitment crises and spiralling PFI costs.”

To develop the model, the teachers have drawn on support from CLES (we carried out an early feasibility study, funded by the North of Tyne Combined Authority), business development funding from Co-ops UK’s Hive programme and a co-operative specialist at the North East Business Innovation Centre. They will soon be in a position to register the co-operative and begin the process of raising the finance necessary to launch later this year.

While it is testament to the commitment of the group that they have got this far, it is also clear that this model is rooted in collaboration. The teaching unions, schools, the North of Tyne Combined Authority and specialist business support services have come together to create a new alternative to the extractive model of commercial employment agencies.

This example is just one of the range of ways that unions and their supporters are seeking to turn back the tide of growing precarity in the education sector. It sits alongside the reinstatement of local authority and diocesan supply teacher pools as an example of the ways in which teachers can regain the rights that have been eroded in recent years. But it also acts as inspiration beyond the education sector and into those other areas of our economy where profits are made at the expense of the rights of workers and those they serve. From social care workers, to gas fitters and leisure sector workers there are large swathes of our economy where the need for ethical, democratically owned organisations is urgent. In this most critical of tasks, the community wealth building world has a huge amount to gain from reaching out to and involving trade unions, as Jamie Driscoll attests:

“There’s a huge opportunity here.  We don’t have to wait for central government to intervene.  We can start to take parts of the economy into democratic ownership now.  Unions can lead it, boosting wages and service quality at the same time.  The best solutions to any problem will come from people on the front line.”

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