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CORONAVIRUS has restricted the British left to its second May Day running where virtual rallies predominate over real marches.
In the little more than a year since lockdowns began, the labour movement has not been idle.
The TUC was instrumental in securing support for furloughed and self-employed workers last spring, while union organisation has meant the difference between a safe and an unsafe workplace for millions.
Battles to ensure proper protective equipment is available and public health measures are enforced are far from over. Workplace reps are continuing to fight for them today, even in the NHS.
For many workers the importance of joining a union has been made clearer than before as a life-threatening virus exposes just how little value employers really place on their safety. The result has been strong recruitment by unions in key sectors.
When combined with effective use of workplace organising and new technology, this has delivered some impressive results: the National Education Union (NEU’s) January 3 Zoom call, watched by 400,000 people, may have been the largest trade union meeting in history.
And that show of engagement and determination by teachers to protect their communities’ health by opposing Boris Johnson’s reckless drive to reopen schools despite rising infections helped force the Tories to back down a day later, undoubtedly saving lives.
From national organisations to local branches, audiences have grown so hundreds or thousands will tune into meetings that organisers would previously have been pleased to see a few dozen attend.
Even as we emerge from lockdown, it is likely that far more of the movement’s activity will take place online than before.
So long as this enables us to reach wider audiences, this is all to the good. Because for all the heroic work of thousands of union reps, the last year has not been one in which working people’s interests have been advanced.
Across the world, the pandemic has not merely cost hundreds of millions of jobs — it has punished the worst off most.
Job insecurity and poverty pay, major injustices that have become more prevalent across the workforce over years of neoliberal economic policy, will trap millions more workers as soaring unemployment and the fire-and-rehire drive force down wages and weaken contracts.
That requires our movement to emerge from the pandemic fighting.
New technologies have all the familiar pitfalls of social media — appearing to attract vast audiences while rarely reaching the ears of the unconverted.
We enter an elections week in which, despite widespread media coverage reporting the Prime Minister talk of deliberately allowing thousands of people to die — as we know they did — polls show the Conservatives maintaining a double-digit lead over the Labour Party.
That’s a product of Labour’s stultifying lack of vision under Sir Keir Starmer, its refusal to make the case for radical change despite the evidence. It also reflects the difficulty of mounting an election campaign when you have spent the past year in a relentless war against your own activists.
But it also shows the hard work that needs to be done by our whole movement in drawing the political lessons from people’s experiences at work — or out of it — to win support for an alternative.
Job losses and fire and rehire are taking place all over the country. The pain of the unfolding jobs crisis is only just beginning.
Socialists need to take the message that it doesn’t have to be this way into every workplace and every community, organising again in public wherever we can do so while ensuring public health is not put at risk.
If the Labour Party won’t provide an alternative, the labour movement can, beginning by ensuring a huge turnout at the June 26 People’s Assembly demonstration for a new normal.
This International Workers’ Day most of us will not be marching. But we should be organising to hit the ground running this summer.
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