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The NEU is at the forefront of protecting educators, children, families and communities

At each stage in the Covid crisis, our union has been organising – and innovating – to keep kids and working people safe, write GAWAIN LITTLE and VIK CHECHI-RIBEIRO

THIS crisis has been hard on working-class people, with capital seeking to maintain its profit even during a pandemic.

Workers on precarious contracts and key workers have lost their lives, a privatised and outsourced health and social care system were sites of mass deaths, hundreds of thousands face evictions, universities forced indebted students into financialised student accommodation and schools were reduced to childcare for employers. 

Educators were promised three things before returning to schools and colleges in September: a working system of contact tracing; positive cases resulting in bubbles self-isolating; and a tiered system, including blended learning, in response to increasing case rates in the community.  

However, contact tracing was outsourced to Serco, outbreak management guidance in schools was changed to take into account only those within two metres in the classroom and communal areas, and the tier system was scrapped despite building support from school leaders and union groups. 

As expected, the government put profit before health and failed to provide these additional safety measures needed in schools.

As a result, attendance rates dropped below 80 per cent in secondary schools, with those students having the highest positivity rate in the country.

Furthermore, working-class children, disproportionately disrupted in regions such as north-west England, face an unfair examination system that is already designed to replicate huge class inequalities.

This is the context within which our union — the National Education Union — has been organising.

Throughout the crisis, we have sought to respond to the challenges facing our members, but also the wider issues of social justice which have been thrown into the foreground by the pandemic and the inadequate and unequal response by government.

At the same time, we have tried to prioritise building up the power of the union and the wider class, within each immediate response.

During the first wave of the pandemic, government was intent on keeping schools and colleges open, advising that hand-washing alone would keep us all safe.

It was the NEU that called for partial closures, with schools and colleges remaining open to the most at-risk children and the children of key workers, and the NEU that called for and then implemented staffing rotas to reduce the spread of infection.

When the government tried to force all schools to reopen on June 1, it was the NEU that reduced the scale of the opening, and pushed it back, in many cases by two weeks or more.

According to scientific advice, that two-week delay in reopening would halve the risk of infection and death due to Covid-19.

As schools did implement partial opening, it was NEU members who used union checklists to ensure safety procedures were implemented and adhered to in workplaces as they reopened.

Since wider reopening in September, it is the NEU that has set out national guidance of keeping schools and colleges safe, and which has fought for, and in many cases won, the right for the most at-risk workers to work from home.

At each stage, we have been at the forefront of protecting educators, children, families and communities, while also fighting for the provision of free school meals in the holidays, laptops to enable home learning and additional support for communities facing poverty and inequality.

We challenged the unfair exams system for 2020 and continue to fight for exam justice in 2021.

Crucial to our strategy has been the role of the workplace rep.

Rank-and-file reps have led the fightback in the workplace, holding regular union meetings to develop workplace democracy and a negotiating cycle.

This is where workers propose, vote and set demands on their own working conditions.

If these additional safety measures are not accepted, school union groups would escalate action.

This has seen workplace reps win guidance to allow those workers classed as “clinically extremely vulnerable” to work from home, reduce crowding, increase transparency in reporting cases and reduce workload.

Reps have also developed each other’s organising capacity by running “strike school” training to co-develop rank-and-file organising techniques.

This has included understanding the power of empowering language, organising conversations, mapping and charting worker engagement, and structure tests where reps build support for demands through signatures rather than anonymous surveys. 

Furthermore, to build bonds of solidarity and worker consciousness, reps have also built links with community organisers in areas such as housing, foodbanks and anti-racism.

Sites of struggles exist not only in the workplace but in the community and “whole worker organising” on issues such as evictions and policing politicises workers in order to bring wider layers into trade unions.

However, like most unions, we have been faced with doing much of this organising work remotely.

While many of our members have been in work throughout the crisis, some have been on rotas, others are working from home because they are at greater risk from Covid-19 and some have been unable to work at all, like the many supply educators faced with a lack of work at a time when additional capacity has never been more needed.

Even those in the workplace face severe restrictions on face-to-face meetings, etc, as part of our drive to halt the spread of the virus.

In this context, technological innovation has been absolutely key.

We began early in the crisis by increasing use of familiar tools, such as Zoom video-conferencing and WhatsApp, to stimulate collective activity.

So far, over 120,000 NEU members have participated in a union Zoom call, including a world record of 20,000 in a single call, on May 18.

WhatsApp groups of workplace reps have been established in most local authorities in the country, as have members’ groups in many schools and colleges.

However, we quickly moved to developing our own technological solutions, where these did not already exist.

We created a checklist app, which allows a workplace rep to check Covid-19 safety measures in their workplace and feed the information in real time to their local branch, regional office and the national union.

Rather than cancel our 2020 annual conference, we postponed it and held an online conference, using our own voting technology NEU Democracy.

Most recently, and most significantly, we have launched the NEU Escalation app.

This is an online tool which leads workplace reps through the process of raising a collective issue in the workplace.

They identify which stage they are at and it clearly sets out a process, feeding information to the branch, region and national union, with an option to ask for support at any stage.

So far, over 5,000 workplace reps have used the app to resolve issues collectively in the workplace.

The common thread running through these approaches is that they link digital tools with real-world workplace organising.

As with education itself, digital campaigning can never replace real-world organising, which is about bringing workers together to collectively build power and win victories, but the use of the right digital tools can lead to a step change in our ability to deliver on the ground.

Throughout the crisis, the NEU has recruited over 50,000 new members and over 4,000 new workplace reps, doubling the number of black and LGBT+ reps.

Combining this new-found strength with new ways of organising, we will build the power we need, as a union and as a class, to ensure that workers are not forced to pay for the crisis.

Gawain Little is a member of the NEU national executive and Vik Chechi-Ribeiro is vice-president of Manchester NEU.

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