How teachers learned to love the TUC

Peter Smithon why genteel professionals joined what they once saw as a Jurassic club

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers is the offspring of two Victorian professional associations: one catered for Pooterish secondary schoolmasters (mainly from grammar and independent schools); the other, essentially far more radical, had its roots in the female emancipation movement, and aimed to provide a voice for women teachers - again, mainly in the secondary school sector. Both of these organisations combined the bolshie and the genteel, a culture that continued to thrive after their merger in the 1970s, and even when the vast majority of the merged union's members now worked in a comprehensive education system.

It was the genteel influence that made the idea of affiliating to the Trades Union Congress an anathema for decades. The argument was that signing up to the TUC would compromise the association's political independence, which had been scrupulously fostered. It would mean throwing the association's lot in with a wide range of unions with which its own members felt they had little in common. It would mean being part of an organisation that, at the height of the Thatcher years, seemed to have the clout of blancmange hurled at an armoured tank. Why spend members' money on joining a Jurassic club that seemed to have little chance of survival?

In 1999, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers finally joined the TUC, becoming one of its largest affiliates in recent years. The most obvious explanation for its decision to join might be the landslide victory of the Labour Party at the general election in 1997. In reality, this was only a small factor. It was under no illusion that brotherly chats over beer and sandwiches would be replaced by neoliberal natters over Chianti and bruschettas. Much more important was John Monks's leadership of the TUC. Under his supervision, the TUC was beginning to reposition itself. Slowly but surely, it was becoming as publicly credible an organisation as the Confederation of British Industry. It seemed to be transforming itself from an organisation that attracted media hostility into an effective, influential lobbying group. The historical conflict between the CBI Lord Snooty and the TUC Bash Street kids appeared to be ending.

Also, the association became increasingly aware that staying outside the TUC was a weakness, not a strength. Its self-exclusion was gagging the education service, leaving it incapable of speaking with an articulate, coherent and persuasive voice.

Teachers' unions and their leaders are infamously fractious - yet teachers themselves wanted the bodies representing them to bury their differences and begin working together for the benefit of schools, teachers and pupils. Put bluntly, teachers were sick of seeing their leaders engaged in high-profile slanging matches. The message, on the bottom line, was that unless teachers' unions pulled themselves together, they would deserve everything they got. And their just desserts would be for the government to say simply: "If we want to discuss policy and genuinely consult, there is no real forum for that to occur. We will go through the motions, but will talk seriously to teachers over their unions' heads."

In the two years that the Association of Teachers and Lecturers has been affiliated to the TUC, the most prominent improvement has been in the quality of dialogue between it and the larger teachers' unions - the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. The TUC has brokered a number of discussions that would not otherwise have taken place. At this year's congress, a joint motion on teachers' pay and conditions will mark the first time ever that more than three- quarters of the country's teacher workforce will have their case jointly and publicly argued. Furthermore, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Association of University Teachers have been able to negotiate a partnership deal, which I hope will be a model for other alliances.

Is there a downside? Well, while the TUC seems to be in the process of modernising, it needs to move faster. The sense that it is still an old-fashioned club needs to be overcome. The TUC has yet to establish that it is a genuinely independent voice representing workers irrespective of their political affiliation. It is no longer in the TUC's interests for the Labour Party to appear to be on its payroll. Some unions may want to preserve and exploit this link, but not the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Peter Smith is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers