Covid Embattled but 175 Years Strong

As the oldest teacher trade union in the world, the EIS has faced massive tests of its strength and resilience throughout its 175-year history.

The capacity of Covid to shake the foundations of education 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 sector of Education, the EIS reflex action was swift, deft and sustained.

As a union formed in the 19th 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 Union 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 our technophobia and Teams, Zoom and Webex fast became our new meeting rooms, 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 as a Union we are 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 that the Union’s national body and Local Associations were in-step, regular meetings of EIS Local Association 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.

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 that our Union will keep in mind as we move towards the restoration of the in-person dimensions of organising and campaigning: inclusivity of approaches.

“sufficient time is needed to do the work in talking with members, building the grievance and engagement, particularly where ballots are involved”

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 university education, the EIS has 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 comms to elicit exceptionally high response rates, have enabled us to stay in touch with member views 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 Local Associations to declare local disputes on Covid-related health and safety issues and organised a series of successful ballots and industrial action campaigns in HE and FE, 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 picketing of workplaces. Traditional tactics have continued where possible and been adapted to fi t the context where not.

We’ve learned from this abnormal situation that while the methods might have to differ, the underpinning principles of any campaigning or organising activity should be the same: that 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 SNCT pay claim, supported by largely online and social media organising and campaigning tactics, at a point in time when teachers were thoroughly exhausted, beat the anti-trade union thresholds and delivered almost unanimous rejection of an unacceptable pay offer. That’s testament to our strength as a union.

That ballot result tells us, though, that we have more to do to support the recovery of EIS members from the pandemic, to build the grievance and the willingness of members to act on pay restoration, and to shift into campaigning mode on class contact time, class size and workload reduction as key elements of wider education recovery.

We have more to do. And 175 years strong, and two Covid years wiser, the EIS will do it.

“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.”