Why we need powerful unions to protect us from Covid

Teachers are inclined to self-sacrifice – this is why we need strong unions defending our health, says Yvonne Williams
2nd November 2020, 1:29pm


Why we need powerful unions to protect us from Covid

Coronavirus Lockdown: Teachers Need Strong Unions To Protect Their Interests - & Their Health - With Schools Remaining Open, Says Yvonne Williams

Well, here we are, in lockdown, part two. But - because there's always a twist to the sequel - this time schools are staying open

Immediately, the unions objected. The NEU teaching union has called for schools to move to online learning. Meanwhile, the NASUWT and other unions have called for greater safety measures in schools, to protect staff and pupils from serious infection and illness. 

Unions present themselves as the safeguarders of their members' health and safety, so that teachers' lives are protected and children can still have a teacher to teach them. 

Of course, some politicians and voices on social media represent the teaching unions as being too vocal: more concerned about their own power than about the education of children. They accuse the unions of behaving obstructively, forcing teachers to stay away from the classroom. 

Coronavirus: The impact of keeping schools open

But to represent the teaching unions - or, indeed, any union in 2020 - as having significant power is quite mistaken. The days of "beer and sandwiches at Number 10", when the powerful union leaders were invited in for informal discussions about policy, are long gone: a memory (for some) of the 1970s.

Subsequent decades, especially the 1980s, saw the erosion of union power. "Wild-cat strikes", where unions could instruct their workers to down tools and walk out at a moment's notice, were prevented by legislation that ensured that postal ballots were held and reasonable notice given to employers of the intent to hold industrial action. 

In addition, collective bargaining and national pay scales have been abolished. Academisation in state education has permitted those at the top to determine pay according to local circumstances. Teachers' contracts are individualised, so they cannot act together as once they did to protect themselves and their economic wellbeing.

Add to the mix the pernicious nature of performance management, with its huge emphasis on targets and meeting the objectives of an overweening accountability system, and you have the perfect conditions for all the power to be absorbed into the centre and all the blame to be devolved to the individual.

So when lockdown was announced on Saturday evening, teachers were in a very weak bargaining position, should they have wished to object.

Propaganda battle

The propaganda battle is all about the assertion that the welfare of children is best served by keeping schools open. If teachers voice concerns, then they are obviously selfish and self-serving, betraying their vocational mission.

It's very hard to argue against this, because the emotional and academic wellbeing of the children we teach genuinely matters so much to us.

And we feel privileged to be working as part of the silent majority who are working so hard in the National Health Service, in supermarkets and local shops, on public transport - all sharing the risk with us to keep our society going.

But, when the critical voices come from those who will be sitting behind a screen for the next month, working from home, it's a different matter. 

I recall that moment in the First World War film All Quiet on the Western Front when a German soldier says that he thinks that, instead of having wars fought in trenches at the front, they should put the leaders in a boxing ring and let them fight it out. 

Teachers putting themselves last

Teachers are more inclined to be self-effacing, in public at least. Being professional seems to mean putting ourselves last, being self-sacrificial - martyred even. That is where the unions' voice is so vital to us. Unions represent not just our interests in the workplace but our reputations. Our union leaders must be articulate in the arena of public opinion. 

Unions have a fundamental responsibility for the health and safety of their members. Union leaders would be negligent if they didn't support members who are vulnerable because they have underlying conditions that could be deadly if they caught Covid-19

Marking is not the only thing that teachers could be taking home as this pandemic worsens. Union leaders must support teachers who have families and dependents who are vulnerable.

Teachers will always be driven by their vocational values: they know how important it is to keep young people safe and able to continue their education. Very few feel comfortable with online education. But there has been a deafening silence in political debate about the value and wellbeing of the most important resource in education: teachers. 

Unions know the problems and risks better than anyone else. Far from being attacked, they should have a louder and more influential voice in the debate about teaching during this lockdown, at national and local level. 

Gratitude - even from the prime minister himself - is not going to be much consolation if teachers' health and safety are neglected, and classroom teaching grinds to a halt as a result. 

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge) 

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