As we draw closer to 8th March, and to the 22nd February deadline that the government has set itself to make a decision on wider opening, we are once again experiencing a range of different ‘leaked’ stories to test public opinion, including suggestions on vaccination, extended school days, shortened holidays and more.
Unfortunately, this ‘kite flying’ is typical of a government which, rather than face up to the responsibilities of office, prefers to float ideas in the press and see which sink the slowest.
Whatever happens on 22nd, it is clear that we will need to be ready as a union to respond. As NEU activist Robert Poole pointed out in a recent opinion piece, a rush back to the classroom is not an appropriate response to the bumbling of an inadequate prime minister. It should be clear to anyone that we need to be talking about data, not dates, in terms of any wider opening of schools.
However, it is not just knowing the right course of action, but having the strategy and tactics to make it happen, that is important. In this area, I think there are lessons to be learned from our experience of organising, campaigning and winning in the pandemic so far.
When the covid crisis first broke, and the government was still saying that regular hand washing was the answer to stopping the spread, it was the NEU that called for schools and colleges to move to vulnerable and key worker provision only. It was the NEU that called for, and in many cases won, the introduction of staff rotas to reduce social contacts.
In June 2020, when the government tried to move to risky wider opening (a situation we may well be facing again soon), it was the NEU that delayed and reduced the scale of opening in workplaces across the country. Many schools and colleges delayed by two weeks, a significant figure given that scientific advice at the time said a two week delay could halve the risk of infection. Undoubtedly, our action saved lives.
And of course, in January 2021, following repeated calls by scientists, school leaders and unions to delay school opening due to the threat posed by rapidly rising rates and a new variant, it was the NEU that advised the use of Section 44. Less than 48hrs after we convened the largest trade union meeting in history, with 70,000 members logged in, the government had once again made a U-turn to the position we advocated.
During this period, the NEU has grown by some 50,000 members, recruited 4,500 new workplace reps and doubled the number of Black and LGBT+ reps we have in the workplace.
So what are the lessons we can learn from this?
Firstly, at each stage we took the long route and went to our membership.
When the crisis first broke, we moved member-facing staff onto the largest engagement programme we have ever organised, calling every workplace rep in the country. When we set out our five tests for wider reopening, we asked our workplace reps, and our members in every school or college with no rep, to gather staff signatures on a letter stating that members would refuse to return until their union said it was safe to do so. In January 2021, we advised members, directly, via their local branches and via their workplace reps to individually return section 44 letters.
At each point, it may have been quicker or easier to simply set out a position from head office but what made us strong was the fact that the push came from our members. We organised and mobilised them but it was members who won safer workplaces.
Secondly, we made innovative use of technology. We were early adopters of zoom technology, twice breaking the record for online union meetings, peaking at 400,000 views for our January members meeting, and now have hundreds of WhatsApp groups for local districts, activist groups, rep networks and school/college groups across the country.
We have also developed our own technological solutions, including online safety checklists that allowed workplace reps to organise around covid safety, whilst reporting results back locally, regionally and nationally, and have developed an NEU Escalation App, which applies the same process to collective organisation around any workplace issue.
What all these technological approaches have in common is that they use digital technology to enhance, not replace, real-world organising.
Finally, we have combined strong workplace organisation with clear and decisive national positions to produce national campaigns, delivered workplace by workplace and employer by employer.
Whatever happens on 22nd February, we must continue to use the lessons we have learned to combine strong national leadership and digital technology with solid workplace organising.
After all, the union is not in headquarters, it is in the workplace.