Photo: pch.vector / Freepik / cropped from original Photo: pch.vector / Freepik / cropped from original

The schools revolt forced more Tory U-turns, but it can also herald a renewal of union strength, argues Tom Whittaker

Last week the National Education Union scored a significant victory in forcing the government to close schools. Boris Johnson had appeared on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday 3rd January to tell parents that they should send their kids to school on Monday, but by the following evening he was announcing that schools would close.

What had made the difference was the NEU instructing its members to refuse to go into what were clearly unsafe workplaces, using Section 44 on the 1996 Employment Act.

In order to instil the collective confidence in the membership to act, the NEU had hosted a Zoom meeting which drew an estimated 400,000 people in total (a quarter of whom were present from start to finish). This was almost certainly the largest online trade union meeting ever held. On Monday 4th January large numbers of primary schools were closed due to workers’ action.

Such high-stakes confrontations between the trade union movement and the national government have been a relatively rare feature of British society over the last three decades since Thatcher. Confrontations in which the trade unions have come out on top have been rarer still.

Changing fortunes

It is almost fifty years since the National Union of Mineworkers defeated Edward Heath’s government with strikes in 1972 and 1974, which came to define an era of union power but that few people under the age of 60 can now remember. For the last thirty years, strikes have been at historically low levels and union membership at roughly half its late-1970s peak. Few industrial disputes have impinged widely on the public consciousness, with those that have usually ending in defeat of some sort for the unions.

In autumn 1992, a Tory government already reeling from the fallout of ‘Black Wednesday’ announced the closure of most of what remained of Britain’s mining industry. Even the pits in Nottinghamshire, where miners had worked through the 1984/85 strike, were to be closed.

There was huge public support for the miners with two very large national marches against pit closures held in London with the backing of the TUC. John Major’s government would never recover from this moment. Politically its back had been broken, yet this did not stop the miners going down to defeat.

The NUM had won a ballot for industrial action but, worn down by the aftermath of the 1984/5 strike and the vicious press smears against Arthur Scargill, the leadership lacked the confidence and strategy to call for the militant action necessary to save their industry.

Roy Lynk, the leader of the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers, was left urging the public to turn their lights off in support of the miners. It was the end of an era: a defeat that came to be epitomised by the film Brassed Off, which came out in 1996 just before the election of New Labour in 1997.

New Labour

The election of a Labour government, however, failed to transform the prospects for Britain’s trade unions. Manufacturing jobs were lost on a big scale, a process epitomised by the closure of the Longbridge Car factory in Birmingham in 2000. Like with the miners in 1992, there was overwhelming public support for the Longbridge workers and a very large protest march was held through Birmingham.

However, once again a serious fight to save the factory and the workers’ jobs failed to materialise. For the majority of Labour and union leaders, it was not considered possible to resist economic globalisation with militant class struggle and demands for the government to pursue an interventionist industrial policy. In the public consciousness, the closure of Longbridge was another major defeat for workers and their unions.

With the demise of much of heavy industry and manufacturing, most trade unionists were now concentrated in the public sector. New Labour had little desire to be seen as close to the public sector unions – and even less desire to remove the anti-union legislation in place since the 1980s.

Many unions moved to the left at this time, with the election of the so-called “awkward squad” of left leaders such as Bob Crow of the RMT, Billy Hayes of the CWU, Mark Serwotka of the PCS and Derek Simpson of Amicus. These leaders were, in general, much more prepared to support industrial action, yet strike figures remained low with national disputes rarer still.

One notable exception came in 2002 with the Fire Brigades Union’s vibrant campaign for higher pay. The FBU boldly demanded a £30k annual wage, a substantial rise for most firefighters, and prepared for national strike action for the first time since Seroka 1977.  For many younger people, it was the first time they had seen a trade union take national strike action or even registered that an industrial dispute was taking place.

The FBU strikes coincided with the build-up to the Iraq War and, because the army needed to be on standby to provide cover for striking firefighters, they risked disrupting preparations for the war. The stakes suddenly felt very high and considerable pressure was applied to the FBU leadership. The strikes were called off for negotiations. Momentum was lost.

The pay deal that was eventually secured fell considerably short of what the FBU had initially demanded. This led to significant demoralisation amongst their members.

For the rest of the New Labour period, national industrial action remained rare. The Communication Workers Union did achieve some significant wins through national strike action, but public awareness of this was arguably lower than of the firefighters’ defeat.

The struggle against austerity

The biggest national confrontation between the trade union movement and the government, for many years, came over the issue of public sector pensions in 2011, following the election of a Conservative-Lib Dem government committed to austerity and large cuts to public spending. Already, in late 2010, this had provoked a militant student movement against rises in tuition fees. The student protests helped to galvanise the trade union movement.

In March 2011, the TUC held a large march in London against austerity at which Ed Miliband, then Labour leader, spoke. This provided the platform from which a coalition of public sector unions launched a campaign of national strike action to defend their pensions, culminating in a day of mass strike action in November 2011, with millions of public sector workers on strike and tens of thousands marching.

For many people it was their first ever time on strike. For a brief moment it seemed possible that the unions could stop Tory austerity in its infancy.

Alas this wasn’t to be. The largest of the unions involved, Unison, pulled out of strike action in favour of negotiations. After twenty years of relative quiescence, the unions had held one day of militancy to match the 1970s, before returning quickly to their usual subaltern position.

In the wake of the collapse of the pensions dispute, David Cameron’s government was able to push ahead with austerity with local government suffering particularly large cuts to jobs and services. The role of Unison leader Dave Prentis was abject, yet there was no significant organised rank and file movement in any of the unions that was strong enough to provide an alternative leadership.

If the miners’ defeat in 1992 had found its artistic impression in Brassed Off, the era of vicious austerity would be symbolised by I, Daniel Blake. Union members working in the civil service would be made to enforce this.

Junior doctors

The Tories were also pushing ahead with attacks on the NHS in the form of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. The cuts and privatisation that the service faced would set the scene for the next major industrial confrontation in Britain. This time, it was between the junior doctors, represented by the British Medical Association (BMA), and the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who was attempting to impose an inferior contract on them.  

They were faced with a rapid deteriorating of their working conditions – something common to many white-collar professional groups in the neo-liberal era – and the BMA made every effort to frame their strike action not as a sectional defence of relative privilege, but as part of a wider defence of the NHS.

Large marches were held by junior doctors and their supporters. Big numbers joined picket lines outside hospitals. Government attempts to argue the junior doctors were putting patients’ lives at risk failed to turn the public against them. Instead, there was widespread support for their action.

However, the junior doctors dispute would ultimately follow the same general pattern of the pit closures, Longbridge, firefighters and pensions disputes. Union members showed a willingness to fight and there was large scale public support. But the union leadership blinked first and called off strike action in favour of negotiations, handing the initiative back to the government.

Once again there was rank and file anger, but activists were not strong enough to overturn the compromises of their leadership. When the BMA announced a compromise deal that fell well short of their initial demands to stop the imposition of the new contract, there was again widespread demoralisation amongst union members.

These are arguably five of the most significant industrial disputes to have taken place in Britain in the last thirty years. They have each had a considerable impact on the public consciousness and yet in no instance had the trade union come out on top. In this sense, Brassed Off has defined union activity in Britain for a generation.

For many on the left, the important compensation has come in the relative strength of street-based social movements – in 1990 against the poll tax and later against war and austerity. These movements helped propel Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership in 2015, but they could not, by themselves, revive Britain’s trade union movement.

Enter the NEU

Therefore, when the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson brushed aside the objections of the NEU and ordered the vast majority of primary school teachers to return to work on January 4th in the middle of a raging pandemic, many people could have been forgiven for thinking this is exactly what was going to happen. The union had run an excellent public information campaign over safety in schools over the last few months, but now its bluff had been decisively called, or so it seemed. There was simply no large-scale precedent in the recent history of British trade unionism for the bold call the NEU was about to make.

The government had surely picked the primary schools to go back first knowing that the ratio of teaching staff to management is much smaller in them that in larger secondary schools. That is one reason they are traditionally seen as rather less militant. Furthermore, action under Section 44 had been mooted at various times since the summer but few, if any, groups of workers had acted on it, and certainly very few education workers had done so.

However, the government had underestimated both the leadership and membership of the NEU. Over the new year the union’s Facebook page filled with comments by members working in primary schools demanding that something was done and that action was called. 

The huge 4th January online meeting connected the union leadership with their base in schools. Building on important campaigning and organising previously, it gave primary school staff the confidence to defy the government, and in some instances also their school leadership, and to refuse to go into work citing section 44.

How significant the NEU’s action will be ultimately remains to be seen. It took place in the extraordinary conditions of a pandemic and cannot be said to have transformed “the balance of class forces” overnight. Nevertheless, it is arguably the most defiant action that many of us have seen a British trade union take in our lifetime, whilst mass online Zoom meetings will surely be part of the future. This was a rare win on a national scale and needs to be celebrated as such.

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