How Teachers Organised in a Pandemic

During the Covid-19 crisis, the National Education Union defeated the government over school reopenings and added 50,000 new members. We look at what trade unionists can learn from their organising.

The general election was a devastating blow for our movement. Our strategy for building socialism without power in the workplace or community was brutally exposed. However, the coronavirus pandemic has seen trade unions develop their membership and, more significantly, increase the number of workplace reps. What organising strategies are behind these numbers and how can gains in the workplace extend into the community and ultimately build the rank and file movement needed to transform society?

I can give some insight from my own union, the National Education Union (NEU). Our members in schools at the height of the pandemic were in the middle of the class tension throughout this crisis between the health of workers and the profits of capital. We knew that a large part of the drive to reopen schools was about making money: if school children remained at home then bosses and commercial landlords would lose out on profits.

It was with this in mind that we understood that the government’s announcement that schools would reopen to most primary school year groups on June 1st was part of a strategy to unlock the labour market despite the coronavirus disproportionately impacting working class and black communities. As workers, and as teachers looking out for our pupils, we had to organise and fight back.

The Campaign Against Reopening

Throughout the pandemic, the NEU had popularised its ‘five tests’ for reopening schools through a triple strategy of members, households and politicians. This encompassed online ‘townhall’ style meetings – the largest of these had 20,000 attendees, an ‘open schools when it is safe’ petition which gained 400,000 signatures and letter writing to MPs and councillors who had powers over local authority schools.

This campaign resulted in many schools in England not reopening on June 1st, as the government had planning. Considering the Tories had a majority of 80, and were backed by a braying press and interventions from various Labour party grandees, this was a significant trade union victory. It was built on the union recruiting new members, increasing rep density and the training that was delivered to set up collective bargaining and negotiating cycles around risk assessment checklists.

However, the NEU’s national campaign could not mask a familiar problem in the union movement: a lack of industrial strength at the workplace level. If we had an active rank and file movement – which should be the goal of any trade union – we could have leveraged the government over demands on reducing class sizes, digital technology and regular testing in our communities.

This would likely have prevented the current chaotic situation in schools where workers and students are sharing classes without social distancing and facing rolling closures due to chronic outsourced testing shortages. So, there remains work to do.

Organising in a Pandemic

But how do we build a politicised rank and file movement that rolls back 40 years of neoliberalism that has hollowed out bonds of solidarity, class consciousness and political education in the workplace and community?

As lead NEU rep of a multi-academy trust containing 25 schools across the North of England, we developed a ‘deep organising’ rank and file strategy to increase our rep density from 50% to 90% during the pandemic. This made our union group one of the best organised in the country.

It was achieved by winning material gains in the present through mapping and using structure tests (such as surveys and petitions), encouraging high levels of participatory democracy, engaging in political education and bargaining for the common good. Over time, this not only increased our rep density but local collective bargaining capacity, which in turn developed our industrial strength with our employer.

At the start of the pandemic we quickly coalesced to produce coronavirus demands around two key principles: that there should be no financial detriment from self-isolation and that health and safety should be protected at all costs. As a result, we were successful in winning demands that went beyond government guidance on sick pay, absence reporting, contracts being honoured for agency and supply workers, as well as key worker provision being operated on a voluntary basis. Crucially, clinically vulnerable workers and those living with clinically vulnerable household members were also allowed to work from home.

Structural Change

These significant victories were largely reacting to the pandemic, but what about the wider education system? Covid-19 exposed the marketisation agenda in education, including an over-reliance on high stakes testing, removal of modular and coursework assessment, the pressures of Ofsted, performance-related pay, league tables and the wider fragmentation of terms and conditions caused by academisation. The neoliberalisation of education – including attacks on critical pedagogical teacher training and introduction of tuition fees – has driven up workload and led to a recruitment and retention crisis.

To challenge the wider education system, we needed an organising strategy. Alongside our multi-academy trust reps network and school WhatsApp groups, we set up weekly regular communications to celebrate winning in the workplace with our reps and members. This developed a collective identity, built confidence and encouraged workers in previously dormant schools to develop their organising capacity.

However, the biggest catalyst to developing into one of the best organised multi-academy trusts in the country was Boris Johnson announcing that schools would be wider opening on June 1st. This announcement – made despite there being no working system of contact tracing and high infection rates – would disproportionately impact working class areas. Teachers understood that this was a serious issue that could only be dealt with by a collective school union presence.

Using Jane McAlevey’s six step ‘structured organising conversations’, I went through the membership lists of schools without a union rep and spoke with every member in until a rep was recruited in each one. These conversations developed on individual fears around health and safety to guide them towards collective action, highlighting the need for participation and a commitment to organise a members’ meeting at school level. Over three days, the rep density of our multi-academy trust jumped from 50% to 90% – which is one of the highest in the country. Now, the challenge was to upskill these reps into organisers while politicising and educating them.

In order to gain organising experience and flex our increased industrial strength in order push our employer into delaying the reopening of schools, we organised around the NEU’s national ‘structure test’ targeted at the June 1st date. This was a signed letter refusing to enter health and safety negotiations with headteachers until our ‘five tests’ were met across the country.

It involved our first ever reps video call, explaining the structure test and a modelled organising conversation to build towards it. As a result, over 150 of our members who were organised by reps (many of whom were in their first week in the role) signed a letter sent to individual Headteachers and collectively to the CEO. In the end, none of our schools opened on June 1st – and we can now say that action undoubtedly saved lives in our communities.

Building a Better Education System

Equipped with the capacity to mobilise large numbers of members across our multi-academy trust, we moved beyond defensive campaigning into building the education system we deserve.

Our focus was on performance related pay and racism in response the Black Lives Matter movement. One issue emblematic of the marketisation in education with the latter a transformative opportunity to ‘bargain for the common good’. This is where trade unions unite workplace and community struggles in order to tackle oppression at its roots rather than its symptoms in the workplace.

Our demands on performance-related pay included its suspension due to school closures and commitment to its abolition. We organised a reps’ letter on performance-related pay that highlighted the need to recognise the efforts of educators and communication with members, threatening a campaign if our demands were not met. All of our demands were met with an agreement close to returning to automatic pay progression, a significant move as only a handful of multi-academy trusts have dropped performance-related pay.   

On racism, our members wanted to see an anti-racist Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) course, specific pastoral support for black students, anti-racist training that went beyond unconscious biases, a worker-led decolonising of the curriculum and for our employer to drop a push for school-based police officers.

We had anticipated some resistance to our demand for police-free schools from both the employer and our membership, so working alongside community groups Kids of Colour and Northern Police Monitoring Project we held a public meeting of 70 NEU members across the North West.

Speakers highlighted the institutionally racist nature of policing, the disproportionate impact it had on black students and risks of putting young people in contact with the criminal justice system. Significantly, the meeting had an organising focus with 99% of attendees committed to raising the issue in their school union group.

Following the meeting we built towards another structure test, a survey not only to members in our multi-academy trust but across Greater Manchester. The results showed 68% of educators wanted police free schools with concerns from 77% on surveillance and 76% on racial profiling.

These results alongside the report on ‘racism in secondary schools’ from the Runnymede trust were sent to our employer, which led to another victory for our union group. The employer dropped their push for school-based police officers and agreed that any head teacher wishing to do so must engage in full consultation with unions, students and the community.

Challenges Ahead

Our multi-academy trust has shown that a rank and file organising strategy can meet the wider challenges highlighted in our national campaign on school reopening. However, how can this be upscaled in our districts and nationally? How can an additional 50,000 members and 3,000 reps be organised to develop workplace power and transformation in our education system and society?

Our new reps must be upskilled into organisers to able to get workplaces ‘strike ready’. Union districts need to develop into structures to co-ordinate and organise rank and file reps through campaigning on both workplace and community issues. And we need to host regular political education sessions so members can educate each other on the nature of the oppression in the education system and society, in order to understand the role education plays in reproducing class and racial inequalities. Only then can we start to organise, dismantle and build a better society.

In order to build our movement, we should be looking for issues that unite as many different workplace and community struggles as possible. For example, housing impacts NEU members, students and our communities who live in insecure tenancies and poor quality housing under exploitative landlords. Tenant unions have been resisting the end of the eviction ban and furlough scheme with 322,000 people falling into rent arrears during the pandemic. This will result in a health and social crisis in our communities caused by an avalanche of evictions.

NEU districts should be passing motions in order to encourage members to join tenant unions, apply political pressure on local authorities and mandate local Trades Councils to co-ordinate our movement by building joint trade and tenant union housing campaigns. This bargaining for the common good tackles the class inequalities at the heart of property relations which then spill into the education system where one in three students live and learn in poverty.

Building these links between different institutions in our movement is precisely the political organisation our movement has lacked in order to develop a wider counter weight against the atomising effects of neoliberalism. It is the basis for the movement needed to carry and sustain a socialist programme which is required to tackle multiple crisis in housing, racism and the climate emergency.

However, organising must run alongside political co-ordination in order to both widen and deepen our movement at both workplace and community level. By utilising the same strategies in our multi-academy trust we can develop the rank and file radicalism, political education and confidence of workers.

The aim is simple: an invigoration of the trade union movement in a way that unites workplace and community struggles in order to win in a socialist society.