Cici Washburn speaks to a striking teacher about the NEU strikes, its strengths and weaknesses and organising rank and file members

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the strikes you’ve been involved in?

There has been a celebratory atmosphere amongst ordinary NEU members. A lot of what has been happening is very new to members. The picket lines have been positive and joyous. Teachers do not get a lot of time to chat to each other and share their feelings and experiences. After years of feeling beaten down by an oppressive workload and Ofsted culture, it has been a huge release to be away from the classroom and hearing all of the cheers and hoots of support from passing cars and members of the public. The members have been very involved in the picket lines and in the marches and rallies. The atmosphere in Newcastle on the 1 and 28 February has been incredible, unlike anything that I have experienced for many years.

The full-time officers are very close to the lay officers and members in my region of the NEU. There is a belief that our local officers have our very best interests at heart. The enthusiasm and expertise of the local full-time officers has combined with the excitement of our lay membership to create some very memorable days of strike action. We have also had very positive coverage in the local and national media.

The weakness is the lack of movement from the government. My concern is that the government might be able to ride out the series of one-day strikes and try to impose another below-inflation pay award in the next round of pay negotiations. The level of rank-and-file involvement in the strike action, the picket lines and the street demonstrations has been unexpectedly high. I did not know what to expect, but we have seen more ordinary members coming forward, keen to go on picket lines and showing interest in getting more involved in the long-term activities of the NEU.

Why do you think rank-and-file organising is important?

This series of strikes has strengthened and deepened the rank-and-file members’ attachment to the NEU. More of them see themselves as ‘the union’ now, rather than it being an external force that they turn to in times of need. The current strike action is rebuilding a culture of active trade unionism in the NEU. This government should be very wary of thinking that they can continue their attacks on school workers.

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