A series of strikes are hitting schools across England this week—many of them sparked by the victimisation of union reps.
And behind the targeting of union activists are nasty attacks on jobs, conditions, safety and education.
In West Yorkshire, NEU union members struck on Wednesday and Thursday at North Huddersfield Trust School in defence of victimised rep Louise Lewis.
Louise was suspended after she raised concerns about coronavirus safety measures.
Union members at Leaways School in Hackney, east London, also struck on the same days to defend their rep Ian Forsythe.
NEU rep Ian Forsythe was sacked after workers started organising in the union.
And on Thursday, NEU members at Shrewsbury Colleges Group took their 13th day of strikes in defence of victimised rep John Boken. Bosses targeted him after he raised concerns about racism.
An online solidarity meeting on Wednesday evening reflected the anger that exists among workers at how activists are being targeted.
Shrewsbury NEU rep Jean Evanson explained how John “found himself under increased scrutiny” after he reported an incident of racism.
“We found that a file was kept secretly on him,” she said. “The NEU has resolutely defended John.”
John had highlighted a complaint from a student that a staff member had repeated a racist idea that black people aren’t good swimmers.
Daniel Kebede, senior vice president of the NEU, said this is a trope that “has roots in slavery”. “It was to justify that black people should be taken from Africa to the Americas to work in the fields,” he said.
“John was absolutely right to report that as racism. This case really matters. Not only is John being silenced, the young person who reported this is being silenced. It’s a vital battle – we need to rid our education system of racism.”
Weyman Bennett brought solidarity from Stand Up To Racism. He said it was important to defend teachers “who come forward and complain about racism”.
“It starts with words, and it ends with deeds,” he said, referring to the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. “Without people standing forward, you don’t have change.
“If we don’t do this, it leads to a society where institutional racism is covered up.”
Other strikes are also winning widespread support. In Huddersfield, the trades council said it would back picket lines this week to defend Louise Lewis.
“We recognise this is vindictive victimisation of a local union rep whose only ‘crime’ has been to challenge the school on their inadequate health and safety protocols,” it said.
NEU members at The John Roan School in Greenwich, south east London, also struck on Thursday to defend rep Kirstie Paton.
Kirstie faces dismissal after she raised criticism over health and safety issues in the school. Workers planned to protest at her disciplinary hearing on Friday morning.
The school is run by United Learning. Its boss, Jon Coles, is one of the highest paid multi-academy trust bosses in Britain—grabbing an annual salary of over £250,000 a year.
Meanwhile, bosses plan to make compulsory redundancies at The John Roan School.
Tim Woodcock, district secretary of Greenwich NEU, said bosses “want to victimise Kirstie so they can intimidate staff into silence”.
“They want to push through job cuts and unsafe practices,” he added. “For UL schools are a business to be run as cheaply as possible and trade union reps removed.
“NEU members won’t stand for that. If that means ore strikes to defend our reps, then so be it.”
Workers at Wednesday’s meeting described an “epidemic of victimisations” of NEU reps. But there is also growing resistance.
NEU member Jane Bassett described a “fantastic spirit” on the picket line at Leaways School. “There are teachers, support staff, black, white, young, old,” she said. “It’s a really hard fight. Our rep has been victimised.
“It’s turned into a union-busting operation by a multinational.”
She added that the battle is also for students. “We’re fighting for decent sick pay,” she said. “But also fighting for those students – for better provision.”
At Shrewsbury, NEU members plan to strike for a day every week in the run-up to half term.
Striker Dave Charlton stressed why the struggles matter. “This fight is absolutely crucial,” he said.
“Instead of settlements, of people leaving because they can’t stand being in a certain workplace, we have to change that to a culture of threatening industrial action when our members are at risk.”
Workers take on privatisation
School workers are also fighting plans to snatch schools from public ownership and turn them into privately-run academies.
This week, workers in the NEU, GMB and Unison unions at Moulsecoomb Primary school in Brighton struck on Wednesday and Thursday.
They are fighting a plan for The Pioneer Academy to be imposed as the new sponsor for the school.
Parents, children, councillors and local MP Lloyd Russell Moyle joined pickets outside the school on Wednesday morning. It was “festooned” with homemade banners and placards while passing vehicles constantly hooted support.
Parents voted by 96 percent against turning the school into an academy in a ballot run by the council.
Unions are outraged that Lee Mason-Ellis, head of the Pioneer Academy, grabs £145,000-£150,000 a year. They said such “bloated” pay “reduces resources devoted to children in the classroom”.
NEU branch secretary Paul Shellard said the strikes are “about the long-term security and success of the school”. He added that workers wouldn’t fall for Mason-Ellis’ “charm offensive”.
“The message is clear—the sponsors should withdraw,” he said.
GMB branch secretary Mark Turner said workers would not stand for private groups being “parachuted in to take control of our school”. And local Unison education convenor Matt Webb condemned the “harmful and unnecessary ideological hostile takeover”.
He said the union would not allow the school to “be handed to an unaccountable and distant multi academy trust that bleeds money out of classrooms and into massive CEO pay cheques”.
Webb added, “Mason-Ellis needs to realise that this is not a battle he or his Pioneer Academy Trust can win.”