NEU can prepare strikes

Submitted by martin on 18 October, 2020 - 9:09 Author: Stuart Jordan
teachers' strike

Throughout this exchange between myself and leading AWL members I have been hoping someone might convince me that I’m wrong. I’ve been disappointed. Instead I have been offered only misrepresentations of my position to the point where now, after thousands of words of clarification, I feel the process has been exhausted. This is not a complex theoretical disagreement but a simple matter of industrial strategy. Yet I appear unable to make myself understood.

In the latest episode Colin Foster says he sympathetic to my supposed advocacy of a national ballot for “school guarantees” (?) including “access to rapid testing”. I have argued for no such thing. I personally think if rapid testing were available then there are plenty of other sectors (care homes, the NHS etc) that should be prioritised before schools. I think the NEU demand for regular blanket testing in schools is sectionalism.

Colin says I have “conceded” school closures are not a good “first-resort virus-control measure”. But I have conceded nothing as the only person arguing such nonsense was the straw man inside Colin’s head. In fact, I have consistently argued the opposite: school closures as a last resort ie the majority position of the world’s epidemiologists. I differ from Colin and others in believing the NEU could and should prepare for such an eventuality. Colin and others think such preparations are unnecessary, leaving all power over school closures with the government.

If schoolworkers closed schools in defiance of the government in the context of souring infection rates then it is self-evident that other workers would have to take time off to look after children, and there is a possibility others may refuse work. This would pose a question of power and could be a step towards workers’ control of pandemic response. It would not be socialist revolution but it would give workers more power than simple verbal arguments. Such a scenario is not wild optimism given the NEU’s recent history and current position. It just requires the NEU to back up words with action. Colin rubbishes these truisms, by suggesting I thought this would happen in September. I’ve made one reference to “September” in this debate. In late August I wrote: “If schoolworkers were currently sitting on a national strike mandate then ...[t]hey could demand the programme of social measures...[and] refuse to return in September until this was organised.” No mention of swathes of workers joining an illegal strike in September. No suggestion that I ever thought a September strike was even a possibility. Like the idea of closing schools for six months, it’s all Colin’s invention.

NEU activists don’t think it will “work”? What precisely they think won’t work is not clear to me. Presumably, like Colin, the NEU activists have no idea what I am proposing. It would seem from this long exchange that idea that a union might ballot in order to give itself the option of striking in response to a rapidly unfolding crisis is an innovation so outside-the-box that it is ineffable. Or at least it is beyond my powers to explain.

However some NEU activists are having limited success in making a version of this strategy understood. A proposal went to NEU conference at the weekend for the NEU to “enforce” a rule “that only priority pupils should attend classes in person [when rates exceed 50 per 100,000 over seven days]”. In the event this amendment was bureaucratically bumped off conference agenda by the SWP acting as toadies for the NEU bureaucracy. In my opinion the proposal was poorly formulated: it is unnecessary to cite a precise figure. The precise moment for closing schools can be decided democratically when the union has secured a means of enforcement ie a strike mandate. But the central idea is the same as I have argued since May: workplace safety during the pandemic is determined primarily by the rate of infection in the wider community. If “workers’ control” is going to be more than an empty slogan, trade unions need a strategy for addressing this fact.

At present there is not enough clamour amongst schoolworkers for this strategy. But if this second wave goes badly and lots of people die then i suspect union activists might develop an appetite for making preparations for future spikes and not letting themselves be shackled to government edicts by the delays imposed by the anti-union laws. Hopefully those activists will do a better job of explaining the ballot-in-preparation-for-high-infection-rates strategy than I have done.

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