Freedom News

Solidarity action in our schools holds key to victory

In the Department for Education (DfE)’s “Handling strike action in schools” document, the government has indicated that it “expects the headteacher to take all reasonable steps to keep the school open for as many pupils as possible’ on upcoming National Education Union (NEU) strike days. However, headteachers do not have to follow such advice, due to it being non-statutory guidance.

Consequently, many schools across England and Wales closed on February 1st due to the health and safety risks posed by a large number of NEU staff taking part in industrial action. In these particular cases, governing bodies and headteachers recognised the risks associated with trying to keep schools open with insufficient staffing levels and acted accordingly.

But disturbingly, there is also evidence of numerous schools opening or partially opening based on a rather fast and loose approach to risk assessment. Many of the latter have been recklessly banking on NEU members breaking with their union and are, in an ostrich-like manner, refuse to accept the accuracy of the figures provide them by the NEU. They have subsequently conjured up staff numbers based on their own abstract calculations, which they claim allows them to open safely.

Furthermore, throughout the “Handling strike action in schools” document, there are references to keeping the school open for ‘vulnerable’ pupils. The designation widely used during the COVID pandemic may have had relevance then, but this is a totally different situation to that encountered during COVID. This is a strike, where teaching staff are taking lawful industrial action as part of a trade dispute over pay and school funding. The aim of the action and indeed the entire point, is to close schools. Therefore, such designations and misrepresentations are inappropriate within this setting.

 Yet, while it’s one thing for the government, governing bodies and headteachers to try to undermine industrial action, it is another when fellow trade unionists seek to do likewise.

So while the trade unions representing support staff have said they are legally bound to instruct their own members to carry out their normal duties, these unions should make it clear that they will defend members that uphold the basic and core union principle of not crossing a picket line. The less staff that are in school, the more effective their NEU colleagues’ action can be. And refusing to cross the picket line helps increase this effectiveness.

At the same time, puerile inter-union urinating-contests are not in the interests of workers. And despite UNISON stridently opposing the NEU balloting of support staff, it should nevertheless be supportive of any action that seeks to improve workers’ conditions of service and pay, no matter who they are or whatever union they are in. This tribal approach ignores another foundational trade union principle – a victory for one set of workers anywhere, is a victory for all.

The trade union movement was built on the principle of workers acting collectively to defend and advance their interests. Should any union seek to undermine another union’s efforts to secure improvements for staff, then they should pack up and go home. We can do without fifth columns in our movement.

Ultimately, as we face into battles ahead, it is imperative that we stand together and adhere to the core trade unionist principle – that of solidarity with our fellow working men and women.

Industrial action is not easy. It is never taken lightly. But it’s the only leverage we have as workers in our workplaces. And we have to stay true to the principles of solidarity that underpin the trade union movement, and act accordingly.

Principles by their nature entail sacrifice. If there is no sacrifice, or one abandons them in times of difficulty, they aren’t principles – they’re merely fair-weather fads.

And as the late Bob Crow pointed out, ‘if you fight, you might lose; if you don’t fight, you will always lose.’

From our railways to our hospitals, from our shop floors to our classrooms, solidarity and victory to all striking workers, wherever they are from, wherever they may be.

Roddy Keenan is an education support worker in Worcestershire 

Image: Guy Smallman

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