U.K. Educators' Safety Struggle Rekindles Collective Workplace Action
Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said that “a week is a long time in politics.” In early January, even a week was too long, as current Prime Minister Boris Johnson performed a dramatic 24-hour U-turn on the question of schools reopening after the Christmas break.
On Sunday, January 3, Johnson told journalists “there is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe,” part of a media campaign to get schools open and people back to work. But by the next day, he described those same schools as “vectors of transmission” for Covid. He included their closure in the nationwide lockdown, except for the children of key workers (the British term for essential workers) and those designated “vulnerable.”
What spurred this sudden conversion? Had Johnson finally seen sense and prioritized lives over the profits of corporations? Were the nearly 100,000 Covid deaths in the United Kingdom playing on his mind?
Not at all. Johnson had felt the sand move underneath him as tens of thousands of school workers across the country began to send letters to their Head Teachers (the British term for school principals) stating the imminent danger of the situation. We were refusing to return to unsafe, fully reopened schools. And we were undoubtedly right to sound the alarm, with more than one percent of the population infected in some areas and a more virulent strain of the virus taking hold in Britain.
PUSH TO REOPEN
The government had planned to fully reopen all primary and nursery schools and special schools at the start of January. A phased return of secondary school students was planned for later in the month. The government had doubled down on this plan over the Christmas holiday, despite cases of Covid rocketing due to the new strain.
Its hubris was based on the fact that, since September 2020, schools had been fully reopened without adequate safety measures in place and without a coordinated national resistance. No fully functioning test, track, and trace system had ever been in place. Containment of the virus in schools was reliant on the creation of “bubbles,” in some cases of hundreds of students; social distancing had not happened as a result.
Individual branches and school union groups have bargained with employers over risk assessment and protocols, with huge variations reflecting where the union is strong or weak. The virus isn’t confined to silos in individual schools though, and national demands that are backed by action haven’t been developed. Education Solidarity Network (ESN), a rank-and-file caucus within the National Education Union (NEU), has used the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s traffic light system as a guide to argue for a move to rotas. These rotas limit the number of students in school at any one time when the virus is at 50 new cases per 100,000 people over 14 days. A data-focused approach, not dates for school openings, has to be what underpins our activity.
It didn’t have to be like this of course. My union, the NEU, had set the government five tests to meet in the spring: a low enough case number to track and trace, social distancing in schools, protection for those staff most at risk, regular testing in schools, and clearly agreed risk assessments and protocols in each school in response to outbreaks.
Though the government drew back from a plan to fully reopen in July, the union never laid enough groundwork to force its hand at the start of the new academic year in September. The five tests were reduced to a wish list rather than a series of demands backed up by industrial action.
A lull in the virus over the summer months allowed the idea that schools would be safe enough to fully reopen to permeate communities fatigued by months of online learning and the inequalities that came with it. ESN organized a national day of action at the end of August to reinvigorate the safety demands contained in the five tests. The Conservatives, however, were successful in their reopening plan, satisfied they had faced down the unions and taken control of the situation.
PUSH FROM BELOW
Over the Autumn term, however, and especially in the weeks leading up to the Christmas break, rank-and-file members recognized that we would need to act, with or without leadership from the top.
A week before the holiday, Greenwich Borough Council in London announced it would be instructing its schools to move to online learning. This was to enable people to isolate in order to see friends and families over the holiday and to suppress the virus. The move came in response to local branches of NEU using the data at www.schoolcovidmap.org.uk to argue that the trajectory of infections was headed in an increasingly dangerous direction. The national government’s Department for Education threatened the Borough Council with legal action and forced its schools to remain open. A few days later, London was effectively placed into lockdown and the council leaders were vindicated for their foresight.
The fuse was lit and we sprang into action. A Facebook group aimed solely at resisting an unsafe return gained 1,000 members within a few days. A survey initiated by a primary school teacher evidenced the hardening mood, with 90 percent of respondents saying they felt returning to in-person learning was unsafe. The 500-person capacity of an online meeting organized by London NEU branches was overwhelmed.
School workers began to talk about using Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act, a rarely cited piece of legislation that gives workers in the U.K. the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. It is a legal defense to be used retrospectively, and designed only to be applicable to individuals rather than a collective. However, when thousands of individuals all use the same method at the same time, the effect is quite different and more akin to national strike action.
The action of rank-and-file members pressured the union leadership to act. NEU organized a broadcast hosted across social media that attracted over 400,000 viewers, making it perhaps the biggest trade union meeting in U.K. history. The high numbers, which can’t be fully tracked, suggest that it was not only union members, but also parents and the wider community tuning in and placing the union in the spotlight for the working class as a whole.
This emboldened members who realized they wouldn’t be alone when issuing their letters, even if they came under pressure from their employer. It was a lesson in the role the rank and file can play in leveraging the enormous power and resources of the national union behind the point of attack. It was an enormous victory to prevent the reopening of primary schools and secondaries and for the first time we have seen the latent industrial strength of the biggest education trade union in Europe.
CONSOLIDATING THE GAINS
The fight is not over; nursery and special schools remain open without adequate adaptations in a lot of places. Further, a million children are still going into school buildings, as some school leaders have liberally applied the definition of “vulnerable and key worker” to enable schools to open more widely. The Tories have put forward March 8 as a potential return date for schools and won’t want to receive a second bloody nose.
This raises important questions about what unions should do when they score a victory: these gains need to be consolidated. A ballot for action over demands around safety and increased workload as a result of remote learning could play that role. The Tories have introduced restrictive thresholds to make winning strike votes increasingly difficult but with 16,000 people joining the NEU since the start of January and thousands of new workplace reps since the start of the pandemic, there is momentum that can be turned into something more lasting.
A younger generation of reps in the NEU are beginning to experiment with, discuss, and implement deep organizing strategies. An attention to granular detail and a longer-term approach to organizing is necessary. Participation in Jane McAlevey’s Organizing for Power strike school last year has started to focus minds. To share experiences and tactics, there is an extremely pressing need to develop rank-and-file networks of reps that goes beyond the activist layer in the union.
NEU’s focus in recent years has been too skewed towards political lobbying campaigns after a successful intervention in the 2017 general election around school funding. During that campaign, the union produced a school cuts website and mobilized members onto the streets to popularize the issue, leading up to 750,000 people to change their vote on this issue.
The fragmentation of education as a result of privatization through the growth of academy schools (the equivalent of U.S. charter schools) and more draconian monitoring of teachers has created a culture of fear in so many schools. Coupled with this, union-busting tactics have become a more common feature in school bosses’ playbooks, and so the result is a weakening of union power on the ground.
MORE COORDINATED RESISTANCE
The pandemic has unmistakably made the workplace the site of struggle. The last 11 months have been a concentrated learning experience and the lessons must be consolidated. Mapping and tracking members’ activity and mood and a clearer idea of the power structures within the workplace have to become the bread and butter of all of our reps. This will ensure that when battles with the employer emerge, there is a better understanding of what is needed to meet stringent ballot thresholds and win the dispute.
Through all of this, our eyes and ears have not been confined to our isle. It is rare that school workers the world over face almost identical struggles simultaneously, but such is the case during a global pandemic. We have benefited from the input of educators in Texas, West Virginia, California, Belgium, and Nigeria who have attended our online meetings to show solidarity and share experiences. This has included discussions about a variety of tactics, including unofficial action like the sick-outs over social distancing used to good effect in Massachusetts.
The assault on workers’ rights and high-quality public education is an international phenomenon. That necessitates us learning the lessons from global defeats and victories to lay the basis for a more coordinated resistance to the attacks of the global education reform movement and the capitalist class a whole.
James Kerr is a National Education Union workplace representative and Education Solidarity Network convenor.