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It is workers who will get us through this coronavirus crisis, not bankers or billionaires

Normal public events won’t be possible for International Workers' Memorial Day this year, but marking the day has never been more important, says joint NEU leader MARY BOUSTED

APRIL 28 is a big day in the trade-union calendar. International Workers’ Memorial Day is when workers around the world unite to remember those killed at, or by, work and to organise in their memory.

Under normal circumstances I would perhaps be reflecting about many of the global incidents that you have read about in the pages of the Morning Star over the past year — of bad employers, dangerous working practices and persecuted trade unionists. 

But while we do continue to reflect on those cases, these are far from normal circumstances. 

They are extraordinary. And that is why this year’s theme for IWMD is “Stop the Pandemic at Work.” 

The call to “remember the dead and fight for the living” has never been so urgent and so poignant. And rarely has the trade-union movement felt more conscious of global unity on a single issue.

There is no doubt that NHS workers are central to tackling the pandemic. That is why, rightly, they have been hailed at every turn by government, commentators and the general public. 

Indeed, BBC1 has recently built an entire Thursday night schedule around the weekly clap for the NHS.

But many NHS workers have lost their lives to the virus, and this is certainly not something to be applauded. 

It has been a savage blow to their families, and deeply alarming and upsetting for their colleagues. We will remember those workers during the minute’s silence at 11am today. 

We will also remember the care workers who have died, the transport workers, the prison workers and police.

Tragically, some education staff have also lost their lives, and we will take this opportunity to remember them and send thoughts to their loved ones. 

Our objective throughout this crisis is to fight tooth and nail to ensure the health and safety of our members and children they educate.

The Covid-19 pandemic has focused attention on the links between occupational health and safety and wider public health like never before. 

It has also demonstrated that not only is the health and safety of NHS and care staff vital to fighting the pandemic, so too is the health and safety of key workers in other sectors, including, of course, education. 

As entire nations experience this unprecedented shutdown, unions are playing a crucial role in ensuring all workers are protected. 

It is workers who will get us through this coronavirus crisis, not bankers or billionaires.

Since March 23, schools have been open to the children of key workers as well as the most vulnerable pupils. 

In many cases it has been possible to deliver schooling in circumstances where social distancing is maintained, and we commend staff, parents and pupils for endeavouring to make this work. 

But the fact is that we are some way off having a sufficiently safe working environment in schools. 

Regrettably, unnamed sources within government have spent recent weeks briefing out highly speculative rumours about possible dates for reopening schools to all pupils. 

They wish to use schools as a symbol of recovery, a good headline to lift the nation, but it comes with no clear plan to protect staff, children, young people or their families. 

We all want to see the reopening of schools, but the National Education Union’s position is clear. Schools can only reopen when scientific advice says it is safe and after systematic testing and contact tracing is up and running. 

We have written to the Prime Minister asking for assurances about how the government will mitigate risks to staff health. 

You can help reinforce this position by joining the 200,000 people who have already signed our petition: mstar.link/NEUPetition.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is not yet available to all educators who need it, particularly in certain special school settings — we have been pressing the government and will continue to do so.

Normal public events won’t be possible for International Workers’ Memorial Day 2020, but marking the day has never been more important.  For our part, the NEU has a social-media campaign in which everyone can participate. 

We are joining forces with the Hazards campaign, and there are some fantastic resources on its website (www.hazardscampaign.org.uk), including posters that you can print off to display in a window at home. 

Take a look at our website for ideas. Join us in lighting a candle tonight. Take a photo of your candle and, with a caption about who you’re remembering, post it on social media using the hashtag #IWMD20.  

There are many heroes on the front line, but we are so proud that NEU members across Britain are playing such an important role in the fight against coronavirus. 

In continuing to care for vulnerable children and those of key workers, it is teachers, heads and school staff who are helping to keep the country going at this difficult time. 

Together let’s ensure we make our voices heard and that we come out of this crisis even stronger.

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

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