THE usual May Day marches and rallies are not taking place this year for obvious reasons. Yet the solidarity we proclaim with workers around the world on International Workers’ Day is felt throughout our movement.
The reality of the Covid-19 crisis has made stark the difference in the value of the work done by some of the worst-paid and worst-treated workers in the country, without whose labour our streets would pile up with rubbish, our shops would lie empty, our deliveries would not arrive and our sick would not be treated or cared for – and the handful at the top paid astronomical sums for no conceivable reason.
It makes clearer than ever the need for a new deal for workers, a concerted push by our whole movement to call a halt to the march to a bargain-basement economy where labour is cheap and workers are expendable.
For years workers have been forced to work harder for longer, to put up with whatever terms and conditions are imposed by unaccountable management, trapped on zero-hours contracts or bogus self-employment arrangements designed to deny them access to rights our trade-union forebears won through relentless struggle – to sick pay, holiday pay, defined working hours, weekends.
Now, with government ministers forced to sing the praises of “key workers” keeping the country running, we must stand together to demand that they receive the pay and dignity they deserve – above all through winning the right to have pay and conditions agreed through collective bargaining where the representatives of workers – unions – are able to fight their corner against bosses.
For years government has outsourced real decision-making to “the market,” refusing to stand up for British manufacturing, outsourcing the delivery of public services or selling them off altogether, dismissing the possibility that it was in the power of the state to end homelessness or joblessness. The utter inability of the market to meet the requirements of the people during this crisis shows the need for an entirely different economic approach.
And for years government has tried to find scapegoats to take the blame for the stresses and insecurities of capitalism, seeking to divide workers against their fellows from other countries. As Covid-19 began to spread, there was an alarming spike in anti-Chinese racism, but the collective effort of the lockdown is an opportunity to point to the common interests of all workers and the contribution people from every corner of the globe are making to our survival and recovery.
Even if we are trapped inside our homes and unable to meet comrades and friends, the collective response to the pandemic has renewed a sense of community in many neighbourhoods, as we gather at our windows and doors at the same hour each week to applaud our health workers, volunteer to deliver essential supplies to those who can’t go out and make sacrifices, some small, some large, in a national effort to keep everyone safe.
In the process we can begin to glimpse what a different social order might look like.
Internationally, we are presented with the contrast between the immediate steps taken to help others by China and Cuba, rushing medical aid and doctors to the worst-hit countries, and the behaviour of the United States – blocking the shipment of medical equipment to Cuba, sending gunboats to the shores of Venezuela and slapping additional sanctions on Iran even as the latter struggles to cope with the most severe Covid-19 outbreak in the Middle East.
At home, the proliferation of mutual-aid groups and the heroic work being done by trade-union reps to keep people safe at work show the power of co-operation and collective action.
The changes we need will not come from politicians or Parliament. It is our movement’s job to win them, in the workplace and in the community.
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