Educators meet the challenge

Education workers have shown creativity and determination in embracing virtual organising methods to strengthen their opposition to the government’s wider reopening of schools, writes Andy Cunningham.

Photo: Jon Tyson, Unsplash

The UK government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has been held up, both internally and internationally, as a failed response to the pandemic. Part of the reason for this has been the Tory Party’s focus on putting economic need – and profit – above the health of ordinary people. The latest conflict has centred around the Government’s plan for a wider opening of schools on the 1st June.

Enter the education unions. The biggest, the National Education Union (NEU), has been integral to building resistance to the Government’s plan, acting as a lightning rod for wider distrust of the government and its economically-driven easing of the lockdown (in Britain, the number of new infections and the R0 are still unacceptably high).

But organising in a time of Corona has changed a little how unions have operated. The greater reliance on and familiarity of video conferencing has opened up a space for many more people to get involved. This has been reflected in union meetings in schools, much larger local meetings (the biggest ever local trade union meetings my district has had) and culminated on Monday 18th May in an NEU national meeting involving an unprecedented 20,000 members and activists of the union.

While the ‘secret’ meeting was reported salaciously in the right wing media, it was in fact a really useful attempt by the national union leadership to outline, in detail, its current strategy and to report back on its talks with the government. This level of contact between the bottom and the top of the union is something that I haven’t experienced before and is usually only open to those with political or personal contact with the union leaders. Organising in a time of Corona has opened up a real link between the bureaucracy and the base of the union and that was reflected in an increased sense of confidence following Monday’s meeting.

The move to online meetings has also allowed people to become involved who have traditionally found it difficult – those with caring responsibilities, childcare issues and who simply can’t travel across a district to a meeting can now all join in from home. For lots of members and new activists, this period represents their first serious contact with the internal structures of the union. This is all to be welcomed.

As the reliance on this way of working grows, however, there is still work to do in making sure that this new contact isn’t all one way. While it is undoubtedly great that union leaderships can explain themselves on a zoom meeting, it is also true that pressure can’t go all one way. As socialists, we need to find mechanisms whereby we can reflect the experience of the base and argue through the strategy. I would suggest that, as this new way of operating will be with us for a while, this should be a priority for socialist activists.

Lastly, this sort of organising needs to complement the crucial task of organising at a school and community level. The old emphasis on the ‘rank and file’ of union members and activists is still relevant and crucial. Over the last fortnight, 14,000 workers have joined the NEU and over 1,000 activists have stepped forward to be School Representatives. These people need to be integrated into districts and branches through local organising agendas and supported in developing and delivering the strategy locally. It is only through confident self-activity in each school that we will be able to ensure that the Government’s reckless wider opening plan is successfully opposed.

What you can do
If you work in education:
● talk to your fellow workmates and get organised
Join the NEU, become active as a representative and get in touch with your local District.
● Use the NEU’s checklists to hold your school’s leadership to account on safety.

If you are a parent or pupil:
● Email your Head making clear your support for your school remaining closed.
● Start a campaign in your local area for keeping your school closed.
● Use the toolkit on the Workforce movement website to support your campaign.

Andy Cunningham is the NEU’s South West Lancashire District Membership Officer, and writes here in a personal capacity.

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