Education unions have rightly said the Tories’ “big bang” reopening of schools in England is reckless.
In January NEU union leaders called on primary school staff to refuse to return to schools by citing Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act.
This says workers have a right to refuse to attend unsafe workplaces.
The successful call helped push the Tories to include schools in the latest lockdown.
The NEU has not issued such a clear call this time. It says there is “potential” for workers to use Section 44 “under advice from the union” but is not generally encouraging this.
UCU union leader Jo Grady has spoken out against a full return to face to face teaching in colleges and universities.
Delegates to the union’s annual congress this year called on the union to instruct workers to use Section 44 to protect safety. But Grady has so far not done so. Workers organising on the ground will be the key to protecting safety in schools, colleges and universities.
Some have already shown it is possible to win better safety measures and a phased return.
UCU rep and vice chair of the further education sector Sean Vernell said safety fears drove workers at one north London college to take action.
“The union made clear we are prepared to support members who wish to use Section 44 if they need to,” he told a union meeting last week. “We’re in a difficult situation.
“Boris Johnson says that we are on a ‘one way road to freedom’. But for many, it is more like a ‘one way road to an early death’.
“Johnson is prepared to risk our members’ lives for the profits of big business. We are prepared to go into dispute to protect our members’ lives.”
Sean told Socialist Worker that “campaigning has made a difference” in how cautiously bosses stagger a return. “Half the college won’t be going back to face to face teaching until after Easter,” he said.
“The return for 16-19 year olds is spread over two weeks. The vast majority of students will have blended learning, which ranges from 30 to 60 percent online.
“Before Christmas, we were heading for a dispute over health and safety.
“Some 400 union members signed a petition in support of our demands.
“Two weeks ago, Ofsted was doing a monitoring visit. Again, 400 staff in half a day signed a petition demanding a halt to all inspections until after the pandemic.
“It was delivered to the inspectors as they ‘virtually’ entered the building.
“This demonstrated to our employers that we can and will take action if necessary to ensure a safe return to onsite teaching.”
We need more resistance to make workplaces safe—and to refuse to attend if they are dangerous.