Martin has fixed on the 1 September as a date that I am demanding a lockdown. That is not what I am arguing. Perhaps I am being unclear. I’ll try again.
The battle that the NEU fought in May-June 2020 over schools reopening is not over. The pandemic continues. Most people expect a second wave. Most people expect government bungling in handling that wave. A further lockdown, including school closures similar to March-June 2020, may well be necessary. We know the government is very reluctant to implement a lockdown and may delay, thus causing unnecessary deaths. Put together it looks likely that schoolworkers might once again be on course for conflict with government over when to close down schools, with workers wanting to move faster than government.
I am in favour of the NEU backing up this verbal opposition to government with collective action. This was made impossible last time in large part because the antiunion laws impose a balloting period of around six weeks meaning that trade unions are unable to respond to rapidly changing events (like soaring infection rates) with industrial action. (The NEU leaderships reluctance to call any national action in May and their dismissal of a strategy based on health and safety legislation were other factors that prevented industrial action. But the experience in the PCS DWP section where the leadership were much more supportive and vocal about “section 44” suggests the health and safety route will not deliver). It seems reasonable to me that schoolworkers may want to ballot now over health and safety and thus give themselves a six month window within which they could exercise their right to refuse work and shut schools against government orders if we again find ourselves at a point when infection rates are soaring and ITUs are close to being overwhelmed.
A London teacher has recently argued in Solidarity that there should be national strikes in schools to demand improved safety measures now. Such a ballot (which activists clearly think is winnable) would also give the schoolworkers power to respond to a rapidly changing situation as and when infection rates rise.
A live strike mandate would also give schoolworkers considerable power to make more general demands on government raising the serious possibility of winning some substantial social measures such as isolation pay for all etc. A live strike mandate would give school workers a lever of control over lockdown measures and pandemic response. It is in this context that I wrote that schoolworkers could refuse work in order to pursue these broader demands. If they had balloted in May or June and won then the NEU would have possessed this lever of power over the summer holidays and could have threatened to use it to disrupt school returning in September unless demands for broader social measures were met. But these are just highlighting some of the possibilities that would open up if schoolworkers took the small step of backing up their opposition to late school closures/early reopenings with legal industrial action.
Martin says that school closures will not trigger broader lockdowns. Of course a strict lockdown can only be imposed by an authoritarian state through police action. Obviously a bourgeois government could order schools closed whilst leaving pubs and restaurants and other sectors open. But the strategy I am advocating is that schoolworkers give themselves the option of closing schools in defiance of the government during a point of national crisis. In reality this will only be possible with the support of parents and the general public and with general clamour including from epidemiologists and other specialists. The NEU has enjoyed such support in recent months and it is possible that such a moment will come again. If hundreds of thousands of schoolworkers close schools against government orders in the midst of a sharp Covid spike then it may inspire similar action from other workers. It is vanishingly unlikely that this will result in a full lockdown. But even in normal times, school closures (eg from strikes) are disruptive to the broader economy as workers have to take time off for childcare. This effect is enhanced during the pandemic as families are less able to rely on extended family and friends for childcare. If it got to the point where schoolworkers were walking off the job due to escalating infection rates, then the effect it further enhanced. It may lead to similar acts of defiance as other workers take action to close their workplaces. Such a movement would pose a real challenge for government and would pose the question of workers control.
Martin says in his contribution: “Of course if things get to the point of the ICUs overflowing, and the government is still passive, then we will agitate for lockdown.” But without a union with a live strike mandate, we will be agitating for illegal strikes, absenteeism and scrappy s44 walkouts. We will be back in the same position the NEU found itself in May 2020: lobbying employers to shut down workplaces (something a London based NEU activist recently described as the saddest time in his life as a trade unionist).
I believe the NEU should continue to battle on the terrain fought the government in May 2020, prepare for the second wave and future government bungling, and ensure that next time it can back up its verbal opposition to government plans with direct action. If it takes these simple steps, then all sorts of possibilities open up for workers control.