In the UK, schools and colleges have been a major source of Covid infections and transmissions from last September 2020. The government ignored all the evidence to support this fact and has done nothing to protect staff and young people. Meanwhile, apart from giving ‘advice’ to workers, the education unions have left individual workplaces to deal with any issues locally. There has been no national strike action. In other countries, however, workers have not been so compliant.
On January 75% of primary school teachers went out on strike against the health situation in schools, together with 62% of secondary teachers and 24% of high school teachers. Demonstrations took place in Paris and many cities and towns around France.
Jean-Michel Blanquer, Minister of National Education, has succeeded in alienating a huge swathe of education workers, through his plan to keep schools open at all costs, despite the escalating levels of the Covid pandemic. He wants schools to be day care centres for capitalism, so that workers stay at work, rather than looking after their children, so that the wheels keep turning for profit. He boasted that “France is the country that kept its schools open the most,”
This huge movement, which will close down over half the schools in France, follow strikes in the most vulnerable education sector. This has led on to today’s action, Tens of thousands of teachers were involved in this move against the Macron government’s stated aim of keeping schools open at all costs.
Whilst the reason for this strike movement is around health, the roots of the situation lie deeper. Thirty years of neo-liberal policies in education have resulted in this explosion. Covid is spreading rapidly in schools, affecting both students and staff, and endangering the whole population as the virus is carried back to families and friends. About 10,000 classes have closed because of infections of students and staff. Teachers feel that they have been treated with contempt by the Macron regime.
The Macron government has repeatedly changed the rules for schools in regards to Covid, with no consultation with teachers.
Teachers absent because of Covid have not been replaced, leading to increasing pressure on those still working. Some of the demands of the teachers are for the more effective FFP2 face masks to be supplied and for CO2 monitors to check whether classrooms are sufficiently ventilated.
The strike was supported by the largest parents’ group, the FCPE, which urged parents to keep their children home on the strike day.
Meanwhile, in Chicago in the USA teachers there also went on strike for four days over Covid concerns. 73% of the membership of the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike because of their disgust at being forced back to in-classroom teaching by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Lightfoot then called the strikes “illegal walkouts”. In the end the leadership of the union reached a deal with Lightfoot which meant a return to in-house learning and set conditions to go back to remote learning if there were increased staff absences and an increase in infections. This has met with disquiet from rank and file union members.
And in Oakland, California, teachers and students acted together over concerns about Covid. Teachers went on strike at 12 schools and students threatened to strike over demands for the supply of masks, testing and remote learning.
Workers at a Starbucks cafe in Buffalo, New York, went on strike and closed down their workplace over Covid concerns.
UK Workers Cowed
Over 10 years of austerity has obviously had an impact on the UK workforce. It has been battered into submission and, even though its bargaining position has improved by Brexit and general staff shortages, there appears to be little appetite for the fight. We have to start having conversations with our fellow workers and communities about the real, collective power that we have.