Boris Johnson Underestimated Teachers – Now They’re Fighting Back

When the government announced their plans to reopen schools without consultation, Boris Johnson expected to be able to ignore the concerns of teachers – instead he has breathed new life into their trade unions.

Education is the most highly unionised workforce in the UK and teacher trade unionism has a radical history. Yet, in recent years, education workers have had little power to resist government policy, despite often disapproving of it.

The National Education Union (NEU) is the largest union with over 450,000 members. But this membership has largely been dormant – with many school workers signing up as an insurance policy in case something goes wrong but rarely engaging in union activity or advice. As yesterday’s mass Zoom call of almost 20,000 members showed, coronavirus has changed all that.

The events of the last two months have been deeply politicising for teachers and totally transformed the relationship between many education workers and their unions. It may have taken a global pandemic, but we are seeing that education unions can put up a strong fight, and perhaps provide unique resistance to Boris Johnson and his towering parliamentary majority.

Though the current debate around school reopening has caught public attention, the education unions have been instrumental throughout the pandemic. What we are seeing now is the cumulation of two months of tireless activity by union leadership and a group of committed activists on the ground.

While events are still unfolding, and it is unclear how they will play out. We have undeniably witnessed a significant power shift from government to schools. It is important to understand how this has come about, what challenges education unions will face next and what implications this may have for the future.

Union Strength

The context of coronavirus is, of course, highly significant to all of this. Few things incentivise you to get to know your rights as a worker better than a deadly virus spreading through a country with an indecisive and incompetent Prime Minister, and union engagement across many sectors has been on the increase.

In contrast to the government’s chaotic handling of the crisis, the unions have been on the front foot throughout. The NEU was making the case for closing schools for all but key workers and vulnerable pupils before the government announced it as policy. 

In March, along with the two major leadership unions (NAHT and ASCL), it issued clear guidance on how schools should operate in this period of reduced opening – setting out how to safely meet the needs of both the pupils school and those learning from home. Significantly, the unions went beyond government advice in insisting that vulnerable workers and those with at-risk family members should work from home for the duration of the crisis.

This has been matched by tireless activity by grassroots members. From virtual union group meetings, to phone conversations encouraging members to sign up as reps, to social media posts and conversations with colleagues, it is the work of members on the ground as much as paid officials or union leaders who have helped raise the unions’ profile. As Eric Blanc found when reporting on the Red State Revolts, an official trade union infrastructure, combined with a ‘militant minority’ of grassroots activists on the ground has proved key.

The unions’ work has also been made easier by the fact that, until now, parents have shared teachers’ concerns. Between Boris claiming on Thursday, March 12th that school closures would “do more harm than good,” and schools officially closing 8 days later, many parents were simply choosing to keep their children at home.

One primary teacher explained, “even by the Monday I only had 15 kids in out of 30, by Friday there were 7.” This chaotic closing of schools frustrated teachers. It is disturbing for children to experience significant change to routine with little preparation or warning.

In characteristic Johnson style, government plans to reopen schools in June were first leaked by anonymous ministers in early May, once more creating unnecessary confusion. But again, the unions were on the front foot.

By the time Johnson made his announcement on May 1st, despite not being briefed on their plans, the NEU had written to the government to ask for clarity, circulated a petition against schools reopening before it was safe and set out its own five tests that should be met before additional pupils were to return. The unions’ strategy, as it has been throughout, centred transparency and scientific evidence – this, of course, is hard to argue with. 

It is in this context that, on the evening of Johnson’s announcement that schools should reopen from June, 49,000 NEU members replied to a union survey within the first hour of it being emailed; with 92% supporting the NEU’s tests and saying they thought Johnson’s plans unsafe. 

A Struggle That Matters

The importance of the work done by education unions cannot be overstated. There is no denying that, in the face of government inaction, the work of teachers and school leaders to push for school closures will have helped stem the rise of Covid-19 cases in March and, in doing so, saved lives.

If the unions succeed in delaying the government’s hasty plans to return to normal schooling, this too will serve to protect school staff, children and their communities from the virus. But there are also wider implications – both in terms of the impact this dispute has on the government’s plans to end lockdown and for the future of trade unions in education.

The concerns of school workers have, throughout the pandemic, been shared by other workers. The government’s decision to ease lockdown was by no means a danger to education workers alone. Yet schools have perhaps been uniquely able to respond to it and their resistance matters.

Ultimately, the power of education workers now is down to a convergence of factors. The education workforce is huge – around 950,000 strong – and the high levels of union membership within this workforce have been essential.

There has also been an advantage to the sector-specific nature of school trade unionism – with the majority of staff belonging to the education unions it has been easier to coordinate – and the fact that ultimately all school workers, even those in academies, are coming up against instruction from the same body, i.e. the state. 

Perhaps most significant, though, is the indispensable role schools play in caring for 9 million children and the crucial role this has in allowing parents to return to workplaces. This initially enabled schools to help keep the NHS running, and now positions them as gatekeepers to the wider restarting of the economy. 

All this affords education workers huge power. This is important – because the government’s strategy to end lockdown without yet having a better grasp on the virus looks set to be deadly.

If educators can fight their own corner, they will not only keep themselves and their communities safe, but they will also deliver a significant blow to the government’s plans to lift the lockdown early and thus help to keep other workers safe. If unions can sustain this level of resistance to ill-advised government policy in future, they could mount a substantial challenge to Johnson’s government.

This could also be true in the sense of public opinion. Teachers are the second most trusted profession in the UK, shortly after healthcare workers, who have also given their support to the NEU’s demands. Health and education workers united against the Tories, as demonstrated by the BMA letter and in the ‘NEU loves NHS’ social media initiative, could be a significant force.

This struggle is an important one and the Labour movement must urgently get behind it. Keir Starmer’s near silence on the matter is as disheartening as Andrew Adonis’ vitriol is maddening.

But messages of solidarity from John McDonnell, Rebecca Long-Bailey, the CWU, BMA and more have sent waves of reassurance through the membership in the wake of vicious Daily Mail attacks. The BMA letter has been particularly significant, as one NEU rep said, “solidarity from doctors confirms we’re making the right decision. It make me want to fight even harder against reopening schools before it’s safe.” 

So, what next for education workers? As things stand, schools and government are heading for a standoff. There is clearly no time to ballot for strike action so, if the government pushes ahead, education workers may rely on Section 44 and the protection of unsafe workplace laws to refuse to return. This is unchartered territory and would have legal implications.

But pushing the education workforce so far could be a risky move for the government – particularly at a time when their support is plummeting.

Whatever happens, these events have been politicising for teachers and support staff. As in other sectors, coronavirus has shattered hegemony: whether it is exposing the reality that government ministers are often not best placed to make decisions about schools, or causing teachers to wake up to their roles as workers.

A whole generation of teachers and support staff are experiencing for the first time the possibility of trade unionism as an avenue for collective, constructive resistance to poorly conceived Tory policy. 

Similarly, the pandemic has caused the usual education infrastructure to fracture. Exams have been cancelled and Ofsted has been put on hold. The journey until schools are fully open again will be a long one, and in some sense the debate around the reopening of schools (though crucial!) is only the beginning. 

Our education system before coronavirus was deeply flawed. The NEU is already arguing to ‘build back better’ – for a return to education that puts young people’s well-being first. School workers have a possibility to demand a better education system than the one before the crisis hit – and if their interest in trade unionism continues, they may well succeed.