Debate on the NEU and balloting

Submitted by martin on 25 May, 2020 - 1:16 Author: Todd Hamer; a South East London teacher
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1. Todd Hamer

To the casual observer there is something very odd about what is happening in the National Education Union. For some weeks the NEU leadership has rightly argued that it would be unsafe to reopen schools until there is a lower number of Coronavirus cases making possible tracing and testing (Test 1 of the NEU’s famous 5 Tests).

Many people think this is very reasonable and nobody expects it to be achieved by 1 June. But instead of organising national refusal to work, the NEU has busied its reps with a 22 page checklist which is supposed to reveal whether it is safe for their particular school to reopen.

The checklist is a ruse. It is designed so that it is near impossible for any school to meet the standards and thus providing a pretext for refusal to work on health and safety grounds. But the most likely result of this elaborate scheme is a chaotic few weeks until the summer holidays with individual school workers, school groups, headteachers, parents and local authorities responding in a variety of ways. None of that will be very good for children or the working class communities school’s serve.

This crazy scheme only makes sense in light of the anti-union laws, which make it illegal for the NEU to organise a national refusal to work in time for 1 June. The union lawyers say it takes between 5-6 weeks to organise a legal strike. So with a wink and a nod, the NEU leadership is trying to find a legal way of organising the national refusal to work, without appearing to do so. In times of global pandemic the fact that workers are legally bound to work could place us all in very serious danger.

Schools are central to our common life and this gives schoolworkers a powerful lever to assert some democratic scrutiny over the pandemic response and the easing of lockdown. The NEU should seize this opportunity for the health and safety of the entire working-class. With the second highest death toll in the world and the scandals over PPE, sick pay and failure to protect the most vulnerable, the government has shown it is not interested or competent to protect the public. The nightmare of the past few weeks has been made more gruesome by the ghoulish indifference of the government to the souring death toll. Many people see reopening at this time to be extremely reckless.

The situation is changing very rapidly. It is quite possible that within the next few weeks or months we will be in the midst of a second wave and workers may need to act against government instructions. Schoolworkers need a right to withdraw their labour in response to changing events. We cannot be in a position in September or December, where the death toll is spiralling and schoolworkers legally bound to attend work against their better judgement due to the 5-6 week delay on getting a legal mandate to withdraw their labour. If the union organises a national ballot immediately this will give schoolworkers a legal mandate for national withdrawal of labour at any time in the next six months. This could be an important insurance policy against further government wrecklessness.

The union should assert its right to be taken seriously. In the last few weeks, the NEU leadership has repeatedly tried to engage with the government, demanding to see the scientific evidence and decision-making process that informs schools re-opening. They have been ignored. The central demand of the strike ballot should be that the scientific advice and decision-making process about pandemic response and easing the lockdown are made public. What exactly has the government got to hide?

Schoolworkers should propose to establish a representative body of frontline workers that can scrutinise the advice and judge the government’s decision making against our own standards (in the first instance the NEU’s Five Tests). This body can advise the NEU on when, if ever, school workers should exercise its right to withdraw labour. If this body was made up of union general secretaries, then it would be widely portrayed as union barons holding the country to ransom. If this body was made up solely of schoolworkers then it could be portrayed as schoolworkers defending their own narrow interests against the broader public good. For the demand to be effective, the NEU should propose to that this scrutiny committee is representative of the entire workforce and composed of frontline workers elected through the unions and recallable by the workers who elect them. It should aim to be at least as big as parliament and its members should continue their duties on the frontline.

A national ballot in the NEU would give the entire working-class democratic oversight and some lever of control over pandemic response and lockdown measures. It would be a powerful assertion of working-class interests, against the rule of profit.

2. A South East London teacher and NEU member

There is nothing difficult to understand about the NEU’s policy during the Covid crisis. The NEU is led by people who consider themselves socialists, but who do not want industrial action now.

The NEU has no industrial policy. It has a lobbying policy.

The NEU has published 5 Tests which the union says must be met before the schools should begin to open up again. The central NEU leadership, backed by the contemptible SWP, has no intention at all of backing up their 5 red lines with industrial action. Their strategy is to mobilise public and press opinion against the Tories. They are trying to create a front that includes Head teachers, and the Great and the Good, which will force the government to back off in its drive to open schools up from 1 June.

In fact this strategy has, to some very limited degree, worked. There has been a backlash against the government and Johnson has back-pedalled a little.

Todd gives the NEU’s leaders much too much credit when he writes that they are, “trying to find a legal way of organising a national refusal to work.” They have no aim of doing anything of the sort.

The opening up of schools, as Todd states, will be ragged and uneven through June. Some Local Authorities are not going along with the government. Many school leaderships are unconvinced about the rushed openings and are genuinely alarmed about possibilities of safe openings.

Todd’s panacea is a national ballot (the exact nature of the ballot is not spelt out, but it seems he wants a campaign for a national strike on school safety). The NEU’s leadership makes various objections to a national ballot: the union’s membership lists are in poor order and would make a ballot open to legal challenge; it would be difficult or impossible to organise a ballot during this crisis; the ballot would require the union to focus on this large task, to the exclusion of much other useful work.

That the NEU leaders who use these arguments are pleased to do so, because they do not want industrial action, does not mean their arguments are wrong. They are not wrong, they are right. But the killer fact for us is this: if a ballot was held soon, and even if the result went our way (uncertain) and was legally watertight (unlikely) the result would not be out until July.

In other words: a ballot would not be a factor to stop schools open up in June.

Action on Health and Safety grounds (like using Section 44 action) is something for the future, when are all back at work, or possibly now, against the threat of opening schools.

In fact this is all besides the point to Todd, who is not interested in the industrial logic of a school workers’ ballot. He wants a political demonstration by school workers on behalf of the class as a whole. This is a serious mistake for a socialist to make, because it is a political act that school workers are a million miles from making and so would be confusing and counter-productive if the AWL school workers started to advocate it. It has no grip on the situation.

Campaigning for a national ballot, now, would isolate us and detract from advocating action that actually could stop schools opening in unsafe conditions.

School workers who want a policy that can stop schools opening dangerously early have to face the fact that they have to boycott the process, now, themselves. This is the immediate action we can take. That is what I am doing in my Academy. We have 100 NEU members at my school (teachers and support staff united together): we have a policy to boycott all work connected to reopening. On Friday we voted 100% for opposing any opening up before 15 June and 91% against cooperating with reopening plans. We are absolutely solid.

[One interesting aside, here, is about the rapid growth of the union during the Covid-19 crisis and, in particular of new members amongst support staff. The key to organising action to prevent schools reopening is that central office staff (in MIS and IT) refuse to work on it. It is be increasingly obvious to activist teachers, that the militant unity of all school workers is a big gain from the NUT-ALT merger.]

We also have a large, new Health and Safety committee which has imposed itself on the situation and has had many of its policies adopted by the school’s leaders.

Anyway, the ballot would come too late for us.

There are many other things that could be written about the ballot question, but I want to focus in on one thing. This is about the mood and consciousness of school workers, now.

We have an NEU Whatsapp group in my area of London. It is growing very fast as new activists emerge very rapidly and new reps come forward, looking for a lead.

These new activists are being misdirected by the leadership at both national and local level. There is no focus on workers’ direct action to stop reopening, instead activists are being encouraged to lobby the local Mayor/Local Authority and hope, fingers crossed, Head Teachers “do the right thing”. The tone of all the discussion is: someone must act to save us.

What should the class-struggle left say? Obviously one, subsidiary, element of a campaign should be to demand LAs and the Head teachers’ union refuse to open schools until it is safe to do so. If successful, in some areas this might even help most school workers.

But the basic message must be: Mayors and Heads are very unreliable allies. If you want to be safe YOU must take action now. We must advocate and organise collective action by school workers to defend workers and students. That means boycotting the work required to open up schools.

If we begin advocating a ballot, the result of which will be in July, it may well act as just another argument for activists to wait, and not act now. The ballot, for some activists, will become another reason for delaying, doing nothing, waiting, for something or someone to save them.

Finally, I would not rule out a national ballot on school safety. It might even become important in the next academic year. But the point is, for Marxists, it should have some regard to the consciousness of school staff. It is a sectarian act to promote an unworkable scheme (the ballot) in a workforce for whom it will make no sense - and oblivious, seemingly, to a boycott and refusal policy that can actually stop schools opening up, unsafely, in June.

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