Politics & Economics  •  Workplace & Trade Unions

Unions and Labour Councils must step up the fight against unsafe re-opening of schools

20 May 2020

The Tory government is pushing ahead with its plans to re-open schools to a wider range of students from 1 June despite widespread opposition. Parent and teacher support charity Parentkind, the National Education Union, the British Medical Association and a growing list of Labour Councils are among those demanding schools stay closed until it is safe.

The reason for the outrage is the obvious and undeniable fact that this measure, alongside the premature easing of the lockdown currently being forced on millions of workers, will produce a new spike in Covid infections and deaths. The first wave has only just passed its peak, but we are now staring down the barrel of a second wave which could far surpass it.

Despite the devastating public health implications of the government’s decision, it is determined to force it through as it is an integral part of its plan to restart the capitalist economy, thereby putting millions of workers and their families at risk. This makes this fight a class-wide issue.

There are still 3,500 new Covid-19 cases every day in the UK; the daily death toll remains at around 500. To put this into perspective, when Denmark partially re-opened its schools, it had a death toll of just 93 per million population; whereas the UK figure is over 500. Denmark’s daily count was in single figures; ours is 500.

France is another country that partially re-opened its schools and is being cited by the Tory press and MPs as proof that its time teachers put aside their fears and went back to work. Well, they had to close many schools again after the relaxation of the lockdown caused another spike in infections.

You just have to think of a family where one adult is a bus driver and another a care worker, and their children are being asked to go to two different schools, primary and secondary, and then everyone returns home after one thousand separate contacts between them… to understand how maddeningly dangerous this is.

Action at last

So it has been refreshing to see a union take up the cudgels and say: “Our members’ lives are worth more than profits – your economy can wait.” The NEU has led a coalition of nine education unions to refuse to cooperate with the plans until their five tests are met.

1 Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases

2 A national plan for social distancing (PPE, far fewer students, cleaning, etc.)

3 Testing, testing, testing (including of asymptomatic children and staff)

4 Whole school strategy (to shut it down and test all if Covid case found in a school)

5 Protection for the vulnerable (including right to work from home)

The government has met none of these tests. Crucially they are nowhere near having a contact tracing and testing system in place – and this is one of their own “tests”. Mark “F” for fail.

The nine unions held a meeting with government scientists on 15 May, including members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), but it has left all unions with questions unanswered.

Since then 11 Labour Councils have indicated that they will not follow Johnson and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s strict timetable, ranging from Liverpool, Bury and Calderdale, who are telling their maintained schools not to open more widely on 1 June, to Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, who are leaving it up to individual schools to decide. More councils have motions lined up for the next meeting – although, shamefully, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has only voiced concerns about the increased use of public transport.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the national and provincial governments are also refusing to follow Boris Johnson’s ruling. This is an unprecedented degree of discord at the highest level.

If one tots up the number of local, regional and national authorities in opposition to this dangerous government gambit, adds in the number of teaching and support staff unions vehemently opposed, along with the parents and pupils who won’t follow the ruling, you can see this is a winnable battle.

How can we win?

Unfortunately this is where the NEU’s plan is in danger of failing. They are relying on a useful but limited piece of legislation, initially drafted for use by construction workers: Section 44 of the Employment Act (1996). This enables workers to walk away from any workplace they consider unsafe and not to return until it is rendered sufficiently safer.

So far, so good. However, it has now led to a situation where the NEU has backtracked and issued a new set of 12 steps that would make the Risk Assessment of a school much safer. Locally, reps have been trying to tell members to go through both sets of hurdles, aware that some schools, especially secondary schools – which are being asked to accept far fewer students – will pass the second set of “tests”.

What we need is national, i.e. all England unity. One out, all out. That can only be achieved by forcing all the education unions to call for strike action. Obviously, ballots would have to be held electronically but the 20,000 members who turned up to a national NEU zoom call on 18 May shows the potential to engage with hundreds of thousands of union members in this time of emergency.

To win a strike vote and defy the anti-union laws would also mean going on the offensive to organise parents and older students. We will have to stand firm against the vicious right-wing press and their orchestrated attempts to demonise teachers and parents who simply do not want to see more infections and death in their communities.

This will necessarily mean setting up new rank and file organisations to unite members across all the different school unions. This will be instrumental in planning joint campaigns and ensuring we remain united, should one or more of the unions suddenly break ranks – as tends to happen with union united fronts which are only cemented at the top.

Union leaders do not like being thrown into a crisis; their instinct is always to defuse the situation and get back to “business as usual”. But for the foreseeable future, coronavirus is the new normal. That’s why we need more responsive and inclusive organisation – in the workplace and in the community.

Successfully defying Johnson’s call for the re-opening of schools is, however, only half the battle. We need to organise joint union, parent and student meetings to discuss the crisis and form Covid Watch Committees so there is no backsliding after any strike or successful action causing a jump in the infection rate (the R number), or the school decides to take new risks with our lives.

This battle will be ongoing until a vaccine is found. We need to be vigilant throughout the next academic year. It is a battle for workers’ control – something we’ll need to stop redundancies and closures as the cuts continue to bite during the recession.

It is also a battle in a wider class war. The capitalists are desperate to get schools open so they can get workers back to work, producing profits for their businesses before they go under. Any rational society would not put private wealth above public health in this way. It would only authorise essential work to keep us all healthy, sanitised, fed, etc. until the virus has been defeated.

A global struggle

This points to another level where we can reach out and forge a fighting united front. The global pandemic demands a global solution. School trade unions in the USA, Europe, Latin America and across the world are facing the same insane demands on them as we are here. We should use the modern technologies of zoom calls and webinars to link up with rank and file fighters across the world so we can fight together with a common strategy and goal.

A victory for teachers and support staff would be a victory for our class, something we could build on in the struggles ahead.

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