Simon Duckett, a school worker and NEU rep in South West England describes how collective action pushed back against the government
In our school, a special school (primary and secondary) in the west of England, we awaited the start of term with a fair degree of uncertainty. We all knew that the Covid-19 virus was spreading fast. We also knew that we had precious little chance of any meaningful social distancing at work, given the sector that we work in.
Thankfully, our union, the National Education Union had organised a series of meetings via Zoom over the weekend before we were due back in school which I and a couple of other colleagues attended. The NEU argued that it was not safe for us, the students or the wider community to be in crowded school buildings. They advised us to send in letters invoking Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act, stating that we should not have to return to an unsafe workplace.
So, armed with copies of the NEU’s draft letter, we addressed staff just before lunch on Monday which was an INSET (training) day. We explained the initiative launched by the NEU and its nature, urged those who were not in a union to join one and, if supporting the NEU’s action and following their advice, to join us. We explained that other unions such as Unison and the GMB also supported the actions and that the leadership unions were sympathetic.
The atmosphere was sober and attentive and after questions were answered (and after a visit to our primary facility – social distancing regulations already in place mean that we cannot mix workplace ‘bubbles’), 19 of us signed the letter which I then passed to the (very supportive) headteacher and those who weren’t already members joined the NEU.
The following day, lockdown #3 was announced and the situation continues to develop. The momentum had built up to such a degree that as in the previous March, the combined pressure of teachers, parents, scientists and others had forced an incompetent and negligent government to act.
A large part of this success is due to the absolutely tireless activity of our union and its officers who have spent months painstakingly building our organisation in the workplaces. The mood at the end of our South West regional meeting, with 470 people in attendance on a Sunday evening on the eve of a new term was bubbling, due in no small part to the energy, confidence and general optimism displayed by the officers which I felt fed directly into the mood of the meeting. In short, come Monday morning, we were well up for it.
The fight is far from over of course and there remains much to be done. Nurseries and Early Years settings remain open for no good reason whatsoever except as an attempt by a completely unscrupulous administration to save face. Imagine being part of a government that is so bereft of any strategy, integrity or basic humanity that it leaves our youngest and their carers and teachers to be fed to the wolves. The NEU and other unions are now very well placed to address this situation.
There is also some confusion about the role and status of EHCPs (Education, Health and Care Plans) and the definitions of vulnerable children and the children of Key Workers (now called Critical Workers) meaning some settings are attempting to fully open their doors to all students. Again, the NEU is already addressing these issues.
Finally, one of the most heart-warming aspects of the situation has been the outpouring of support from other workers, their unions and many, many ordinary people. It has demonstrated in concrete terms how, if we stand together, we can begin to push back against many years of bullying, poverty wages and many other iniquities and start to ask ourselves: what is education for, what is work for and just exactly what sort of society is it that we want?
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