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  • Noah Keate

Return of the Unions

A trade union is a radical organisation within society. The notion that workers should be able to collectively ensure they have rights at work, safety checks and fair pay may seem normal now, but was once defined by its radicalism against the ruling classes. From the levellers to the chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the Peterloo massacre, working class movements have been oppressed over centuries for daring to fight for rights within both work and their wider lives.

Indeed, their very presence has been an intrinsic component of the Labour Party. Founded in 1900 to ensure those who undertook labour had representation within Parliament, the fused link between Labour and the trade unions remains to this day. In the recent 2020 leadership election, candidates on the ballot paper needed to either be nominated by 5% of Constituency Labour Parties or three party affiliates, including two trade unions. The role for unions therefore remains as strong and influential as Labour's founding 120 years ago.

However, while a link has always remained both in the Labour Party and the country, the levels of influence they have held have been in decline. Their influence was perhaps most notable in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in relation to mining. Following their strike in the early 1970s, Edward Heath was forced to call an election in 1974 on the mantra of ‘Who Governs Britain?’ He subsequently learnt from the electorate that it wasn’t him. Similarly, in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was forced to take on the National Union of Miners who engaged in an illegal nationwide strike in opposition to mines being shut down.

It is perhaps, however, the Winter of Discontent which trade unions are best remembered for. Following a series of disagreements with Jim Callaghan's government over public pay policies, where pay was limited to 5% increases, a number of public sector unions went on strike. Images of uncollected rubbish and even unburied bodies may seem a cliche, but it is reflective how damaged society was by a failure of negotiations. As part of Tony Blair’s Labour Party reforms, there was a far weaker relationship with trade unions. As such, according to Statista, the percentage of a workforce in a trade union fell from 32.4% in 1995 to 23.4% in 2018. Despite the worthy ideal of workers being collectivised together against exploitation, their importance within the political system was diminished.

Nonetheless, the return of the trade union has been prominent during the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has transformed our working patterns with a large proportion of the population furloughed: that is, having their wages paid by the state while they remain at home. As the lockdown is gradually eased, there remains both controversy and confusion about how society can restart the economy in a safe manner. While it is impossible to provide complete protection, and risk is, rightly, a part of our daily lives, unions want to ensure their work force are as safe as possible.

This has led to a great deal of arguments over the reopening of schools. A debate has ensued over the past few weeks about whether and when schools should begin to reopen. The government have proposed that Reception, Years 1 and 6 should return at primary level, Years 10 and 12 should return at secondary school, yet the unions have been more resistant. The aim is for this to take place from 1st June yet, according to the BBC, these proposals have generated great opposition both from councils and teaching unions. While Wales will not reopen schools and Scotland and Northern Ireland may not reopen before the summer holidays, England has announced a teaching plan. Yet councils including Liverpool, Bury and Calderdale have explicitly advised schools against reopening.

Despite the proposals to voluntarily send children in, the stark opposition from unions has been striking. Though some like the NASUWT, which represents teachers, have pledged to work with ministers and attend meetings, the general blanket refusal to even consider the idea of sending children back to school has been revelatory and regrettable in equal measure. Of course unions are there to ensure their members are protected. Obviously, if teachers aren’t well and catch coronavirus from schools reopening, they will be unable to teach.

Unions must also be willing to look at the needs of the wider community. While science is never settled and always evolving, the advice appears to be children are both unlikely to catch the pandemic and unlikely to pass it on to another individual. Within schooling, it is most important that teachers and parents are separated from one another. Teachers will always face a risk of catching infections: any location of a mass gathering of young people is a hotbed for infection and diseases. But they willingly take that risk because the importance of teaching and education so override the likelihood of catching an infection.

Unions, and the government, must be pragmatic. An approach demonstrated by some of the media that seeks to pit the public against the unions is shameful and forgets the importance of unions within the world. Just think if your rights at work were under threat. Surely you would want a central body to assist with pay rises, unfair dismissals and ensuring necessary safety protections were in place. Both have to work together cohesively; a conflict doesn’t move the debate forward and forgets the individuals at the heart of the debate: children.

A return to school for pupils would always have to be staggered. Some teachers would be elderly or have underlying health issues that would mean - until the risk was smaller - they wouldn’t want to resume teaching. Inevitably, to ensure an appropriate ratio of teachers to pupils, teaching would only happen in certain years. But, from the start of June, there are still weeks before the summer holidays would commence. That is a good amount of time to see what strategies do and don’t work for teaching. With fewer years groups returning, more classroom space will be available, perhaps empty cafes and museums could also be used! Given schools won't fully restart until September, there are appropriate opportunities to research the practices of European schools reopening to determine what works.

Why do teachers go into education? It is certainly not for the pay! Instead, it is a dedication to the pursuit of knowledge, helping the next generation discover who they are and equipping them with the skills and resources to flourish in the world. Inevitably, this requires a considerable amount of work. I perfectly understand why teachers would want to be in a union to ensure they are adequately protected as public sector workers. But teaching unions - especially the National Education Union - have been unclear about their demands. This is most notable in their definition of ‘safety’ for teachers and pupils. Schools can never be fully safe. If safe means when a vaccine is produced and distributed, this might not be for over a year. Do unions really believe schools should remain shut? In those circumstances, a locked school gate would cause far more harm to children than the risk of catching coronavirus.

Image - Unsplash.

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