Since the start of the pandemic, the MU has stood out from other trade unions on a number of occasions through repeatedly calling for members to be allowed to get back to work.
On the surface of it, this is a difficult position to argue with given how many members have fallen through the cracks of government support and are now facing genuine and desperate struggles to survive, but is it right to allow that desperation to justify unsafe work? I’d argue no.
For many years there has been a tension within the MU between getting (and keeping) as many members in work as possible on the one hand, and protecting and advancing the pay and conditions of working musicians on the other. Ignoring either of these priorities would be dangerous for the profession, and the same goes for allowing one of them to always come out on top, and yet that is exactly what has happened throughout the pandemic so far.
It began back in June when General Secretary, Horace Trubridge, went on record stating that the 2m rule seemed to be overkill for musicians who might be able to work side-by-side rather than facing each other. Given what we know now about the risks of airborne transmission, thank goodness he wasn’t taken seriously by anyone.
We now see a similar response from the MU to the situation facing schools. MU Deputy General Secretary, Naomi Pohl has tweeted:
What Naomi is saying is pretty straightforward, and it stands to reason that there will be a variety of contracts in place. It’s disappointing though that the MU offices are closed until the 4th January which is of course too late for most members faced with this situation.
Naomi refers to the NEU’s position, but it’s worth highlighting that this position is shared by all of the teaching unions. School Leadership unions have gone further and begun the first stages of legal proceedings against the Department for Education aiming to see any information they have which shows “it is safe to to reopen schools on Monday, given the higher transmissibility of the new Covid-19 variant”. Some of the classroom teacher unions go further and are advising members of their individual right to use the protection of Section 44 of the Employment Relations Act not to attend work where they do not believe that doing so would be safe. These trade unions are actively engaging in attempts to protect their members from harm. Equity, who don’t represent school based workers have issued a statement urging their 48,000 members “to stand in solidarity with education unions calling for schools to return only when it is safe to do so.” (full statement here.)
Are we asking too much when we expect the MU to come off the fence and actually advise members collectively about whether the union believes it is safe for them to go back to work at the moment? We also see a complete absence of any public commitment of support for members who find themselves being asked to return to work who don’t believe it is safe to do so. Arguably, MU members need these public pronouncements of support much more than members of the other teaching and support staff unions because they are likely to be lone workers without the benefit of employer-centred members meetings. Our strength always rests in our collective voice. However, we rely more than most unions on our leadership when we are in difficult times and when there are workplace challenges. Leadership is something that has been sadly lacking at the key stages of this pandemic. The MU has tended to react to events and membership pressure, rather than anticipating the issues and leading from the front.
So what could the MU be doing differently?
- Publicly commit to supporting any members who wish to invoke the protection afforded by Section 44 of the Employment Relations Act.
- Campaign in a coordinated fashion with other unions who have members working in schools – at the moment that means campaigning for remote learning for at least the first two weeks of term.
- Develop the partnership with NEU at member-level. MU members in schools could work hand-in-hand with NEU members in schools with the support of the leadership of both unions.
- Campaign that no MU member working in a school setting should suffer any financial detriment as a result of the decision to close the school – again this work could be done in partnership with the NEU.
- In the longer-term (but starting now) develop a new role of MU Teaching Stewards. These stewards could represent other members across a Local Authority area, developing strong links with stewards and representatives from other trade unions and providing valuable insight into the realities of the work.
- Establish an MU Pandemic Council consisting of a lawyer, a virologist, a workplace health and safety specialist, activists from across the union, and officials whose roles include working directly with members.