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It has become a weekly ritual – each Thursday, all those stuck in their homes come out to applaud the key workers pulling us through this crisis. The NHS staff, carers, firefighters, postal workers, cleaners, supermarket workers and delivery drivers are apparently being recognised – even by government ministers - as crucial to the functioning of society.
But this crisis has also exposed many of the injustices in workplaces in Britain and abroad. With bosses forcing staff to work in unsafe conditions during a global pandemic, the level of bullying and exploitation in many workplaces is clear to see. The UK has some the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe – and it is workers who feel the consequences.
In the last few weeks many of you will have seen the horrifying footage of Sean Madden, a boss at food supplier Bakkavor, telling workers that those who take time off sick during the Covid-19 crisis would be top of the list for future redundancies – all while the company could not guarantee basic safety measures such as social distancing or adequate PPE.
Similarly, Amazon has demanded its employees work overtime to meet backlogs of orders and others including the Post Office, Halfords and Asos are accused by their own staff of putting them in danger.
Workers can’t always afford to wait for the public to join them in their fight, and an entirely reasonable response in these situations would be to simply walk out – immediately and without any ballot.
That’s why the recent advice from the Royal College of Nursing, that nurses can refuse to continue to work if adequate PPE is not provided, is entirely sensible and has been echoed by the Unite union. Firefighters have previously had to resort to this and it is entirely lawful under existing safety laws.
The truth is that bosses and governments feel brave enough to put their workers in danger because they face too few consequences. And despite the praise heaped on nurses and other key workers, our collective workplace rights have been under their own permanent lockdown, with decades of laws shackling unions in the public sector.
Today, trade unions are required to follow a series of complex steps before any type of action can be called. These steps, nigh-on impossible to clear at a time like this, were designed to be incredibly difficult for unions to make work, with power weighted in favour of employers.
Under these rules, an employer must be notified of the existence of a trade dispute; the union must then take detailed steps to prepare for, and complete, a ballot, including providing full detail to the employer of the groups of members who will be balloted. This is not a simple process.
Unions must meet arbitrary voting thresholds before action can be taken (plenty of right-wing politicians aren’t in favour of voting thresholds when it comes to their own elections) and, while increasing numbers of workers today often primarily interact with their employers through a smartphone, they can only be balloted on industrial action by post; the government has so far refused to allow any form of online balloting.
These hurdles also give employers an abundance of opportunities to challenge a union in court. Recently, postal workers secured a momentous 97 per cent vote in favour of industrial action, but the High Court ruled that there had been “improper interference” in the ballot and it could not stand; industrial action would be unlawful.
The current crisis throws these issues into sharp relief and we see that where trade union laws have been weakened, workers face almost identical attacks.
On both sides of the Atlantic, years of deference to the demands of the market over the rights of workers sees Amazon able to put profit before workers in the most serious and dangerous of circumstances.
In the 1980s, as a wave of anti-union laws were introduced, those of us who opposed them pointed out that they would particularly weaken workers when urgent action was needed, like cases of victimisation, non-payment of wages, or over safety issues. In these circumstances the best response would often be simply to walk out and stop the job immediately. And rightly so.
For firefighters, trade union representation has been as crucial as ever in this crisis, and in negotiations with employers and fire chiefs we have agreed a number of additional activities that our members can assist with, including the moving of dead bodies, driving of ambulances and fitting of masks for NHS and care staff.
With us around the table, and with the opposite side knowing we have thousands and thousands of fire and rescue personnel behind us, we have been able to reach an agreement that keeps our members safe, fire services running all whilst delivering additional activities to support the struggle against Covid-19.
But as a trade union there is no beginning and end when keeping your members safe, and our union is continuing to press employers and the government over issues of PPE, health and safety protections, and trying to protect firefighters’ terms and conditions. Last month the government fell to our pressure to make Covid-19 testing available to fire and rescue staff.
Many speak of this as a time of “national unity” and we certainly do need a huge collective effort to defeat the threat from Covid-19. But workers on the front line should be wary of plaudits, especially when they are coming from Establishment politicians whose entire political strategy involves weakening and undermining the working class and the trade union movement: our interests are very different from theirs.
For the good of workers everywhere, we need to free trade unions from the undemocratic and draconian anti-union laws. If the clapping every Thursday night is anywhere near serious it should mean respecting workers for the long term and restoring their collective rights.
Matt Wrack is general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.
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