Sign supporting the NEU on the London Underground. Photo: Unjum Mirza Sign supporting the NEU on the London Underground. Photo: Unjum Mirza

The National Education Union has shown what a fighting union can achieve, says Tony Dowling

What the National Education Union (NEU) has achieved in the last week is nothing short of remarkable. And it is a clear example of how workers organised in a union have power – even under Covid conditions.

In the space of three short days Boris Johnson’s shambolically inept and floundering Tory government was forced into a total u-turn on school closures by the NEU’s mass mobilisation of its members.

Despite the NEU raising serious concerns about unsafe schools throughout December, and Sage advising the government that schools should move to remote learning to help reduce Covid transmissions, the government remained adamant to open all schools as early as possible in January.

On 30 December, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had said in a statement to Parliament:

“we will be opening the majority of primary schools, as planned, on Monday 4th January.”

The NEU called emergency meetings of its executive, reps and members for the weekend. By 1 January, hours into the new year, Williamson announced that all London primaries would remain closed after the Christmas holiday break. But schools elsewhere were still expected to open as normal.

The next day, the NEU held an emergency meeting of its national executive. This was immediately followed by a mass Zoom call with thousands of reps and officers to explain the ‘strategy paper’ which had been adopted unanimously by the executive.

The union called for Sage’s advice to the government to be made public and urged its members to use their legal rights not to have to work in an unsafe environment under Section 44. A model letter was issued for teachers and support staff to use to inform headteachers that it is unsafe for them to be in school. 

The scale of concern felt by staff in schools was apparent, with over four thousand NEU reps and union officers attending the Zoom meeting.

And desperately urging the Government to make schools safe and move learning online in all primary schools, NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said:

“We are calling on Gavin Williamson to actually do what he professes he does – to follow the science and announce, now, that primary schools in England should move learning online – apart from key worker and vulnerable children for at least the first two weeks of January.”

The following morning at 9am Boris Johnson appeared on the Marr Show and with complete indifference to the NEU’s urging, or any reference to ‘the science’ and declared there was “no doubt in [his] mind that schools are safe.”

Meanwhile at 11am – on a Sunday – the NEU was preparing for the ‘biggest ever union meeting’ on a mass members Zoom call, with an expected capacity of 20,000. In the event an incredible 70,000 took part in the call, some 100,000 watched the whole meeting and 400,000 have viewed at least part of it!

Hundreds of thousands of teachers and school workers were encouraged and inspired by meeting together to take up the advice of their union and to use the model letter saying they would not work in unsafe schools, but would remain available to work remotely or with vulnerable pupils.

And during the course of the rest of Sunday there were messages of support for moving to online learning from Unison – which also urged members to use the Section 44 letter – GMB, NAHT, ASCL, NASUWT & CWU unions.

By Monday morning, apart from the Tory government, it seemed the only others not supporting the NEU position was the Labour Party. Throughout this entire process, the Labour Leader Keir Starmer offered no support to teachers and their unions, despite one of his leadership election pledges being to “work shoulder to shoulder with trade unions to stand up for working people.”

And perhaps most outrageously, as the NEU was calling on members not to work in unsafe schools Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green tweeted a video message at 9:52am on Monday morning in which she explicitly declared:

“we don’t think schools should close, we want schools to remain open, the right place for children to be if they can is safely in school.”

Even former Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt took a position more critical of the government than the Labour Leader, tweeting that schools should be closed.

Only once it was apparent that Boris Johnson would later announce school closures and a new lockdown, did Starmer finally and reluctantly say that a further national lockdown “tragically … must mean school closures.”

At 8pm on Monday evening, Boris Johnson shame-facedly did what the National Education Union had been campaigning for: he announced that as part of a new national lockdown schools would close. Less than 36 hours after he told Marr there was no doubt that schools were safe, he now told the country,

“primary schools, secondary schools and colleges across England must move to remote provision from tomorrow, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.”

The Prime Minister wouldn’t #MakeSchoolsSafe so we did.

— National Education Union (@NEUnion) January 4, 2021

The NEU has demonstrated aptly that organised workers have power – and that includes getting organised online like we currently have to. The NEU confronted the government, didn’t back down and took decisive action, and they won.

Over the course of the 3 days, the NEU gained an additional 16,000 members and thousands of new reps in schools all over the country. A fighting union is also a growing union.

Every worker, if not in already in a union, should join a union today. And if you’re already a member, get active in your union.

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Tony Dowling

Tony Dowling is a teacher, socialist, trade unionist, antifascist, anti-war & anti-cuts activist. He is currently chair of North East People's Assembly and a member of Counterfire.