The EIS: Covid-embattled but still 175 years strong

Andrea Bradley recounts how the EIS responded rapidly and radically to the ‘new’ normal in education.

As the world’s oldest teacher union, the EIS has faced massive tests of its strength and resilience throughout its 175-year history. Covid’s capacity to shake education’s foundations to their very core – not only in Scotland but worldwide – could have been startling. But there was simply no time to be stunned. Seeing the size and scale of the challenges facing our members in every education sector, the EIS’s reflex action was swift, deft and sustained.

As a union formed in the nineteenth century and whose systems in many ways were a legacy of the Victorian era, the urgency of moving operations online when meetings and mailings abruptly ground to a halt during the first lockdown, could have been a test too great. But in a matter of days, the EIS was using digital technology that prior to the arrival of Covid had only been fledgling and had been regarded with more than a degree of scepticism by members and staff alike.

The acuteness of the need became the antidote to any technophobia and Teams, Zoom and Webex fast became our meeting rooms. This is where we examined, debated, and strategised to tackle the vast array of challenges that Covid immediately brought to a sector whose work pre-pandemic was almost exclusively grounded in face-to-face interactions of large numbers of people within physical buildings.

Quickly impressive to see was the relentless commitment of EIS activists and staff to EIS members, no matter where in the country they were working or in which rooms of their houses. The strength of that commitment is an asset that the EIS is now, perhaps, more acutely conscious of.

Campaigning throughout the pandemic to secure critical health and safety protections, and acceptable remote learning arrangements both for teachers and pupils, the EIS has utilised both traditional means – letters and emails, press and media – and digital to lobby government and local authority employers nationally.

To ensure the EIS’s national body and Local Associations (LAs) were in-step, regular meetings of EIS LAs Secretaries, Organisers, Area Officers and national officers and officials took place to co-ordinate the emergency response. All had to adapt at pace to the online environment: the mechanics of the technology, the altered dynamics of human interaction, and the increased frequency and range of meetings enabled by the absence of travel time, in the context of an entirely new set of threats to our members. What was originally expected to be a very short-lived crisis response, due to the prolonged nature of the pandemic, has remained unchanged.

A lesson well-learned is that digital technology – while not necessarily first choice – can be used well to facilitate the democratic processes that sets our campaigning objectives and strategy, and then enables the associated actions. So, whilst virtual meetings might not be first preference for some, for others, such as disabled and BAME members, and women with younger children to care for, it has enabled much greater participation. This is something we will keep in mind as we move towards the restoration of the in-person dimensions of organising and campaigning: inclusivity of approaches. The capacity to adapt and to deploy creative thinking has been essential- another key learning from the Covid experience so far.

As well as battling on health and safety across all sectors from nursery to universities, we provided a raft of online union learning opportunities for members as part of our organising strategy. We intuitively understood the need to stay connected with members in this way, making sure that the learning was directly responsive to member need.

Two very comprehensive all-member surveys, with strong supporting communications to elicit exceptionally high response rates, enabled us to stay in touch with members’ views in order to inform national and local campaigning. More than ever, we understand how essential this kind of data collection is to strategy.

On the industrial relations front, we’ve supported LAs to declare local disputes on Covid-related health and safety issues and organised a series of successful ballots and industrial action campaigns in higher and further education, with Teams, Twitter and email substituting where they’ve had to for in-person branch meetings and demos; and where industrial action coincided with buildings being open, socially distanced workplace picketing. Traditional tactics have continued where possible and been adapted to the fit the context where they could not.

We’ve learned from this situation that while the methods might have to differ, the underpinning principles of any campaigning or organising activity should be the same: the grievance must be widely and deeply felt if members are to be sufficiently engaged in action towards winning; that sufficient time is needed to do the work in talking with members, building the grievance and engagement, particularly where ballots are involved; and that staying in control of the narrative is critical to outcomes.

A consultative ballot at the turn of our 175th year on our Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers (SNCT) pay claim, supported by largely online and social media organising and campaigning, came at a point in time when teachers were thoroughly exhausted. But we beat the anti-union support thresholds and delivered almost unanimous rejection of an unacceptable pay offer. That’s testament to our union’s strength. That ballot result tells us, though, we have more to do to support members’ recovery from the pandemic, build the grievance and willingness of members to act on pay restoration, and to shift into campaigning mode on class contact time, class size and workload reduction. We have more to do. And 175 years strong, and two Covid years wiser, we will do it.

Andrea Bradley is an assistant general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) union