NURSES protesting outside Downing Street on Tuesday showed one side of the Covid-19 crisis. They demonstrated the strength of collective action: a demand for appropriate protection, an end to poverty pay and explicit recognition that front-line health work exposes black and minority-ethnic workers to a disproportionate danger of death.
The other side of the Covid crisis was exposed by the statistics of food-bank usage. This was individual and not collective. It shows desperate need. The number of households dependent on food banks has doubled. This is the hidden toll of a failed social-security system, of rapacious landlords and the rapidly rising scale of redundancy resulting both from Covid19 and an underlying economic crisis.
Over the next months much will depend on how far the response can become fully collective and politically unifying. Yesterday’s rally by a range of unions under the banner of the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group was an important start — bringing together teachers and workers in transport, prisons, social security and the food industry.
All are in the front line. All have been under pressure to work in unsafe conditions both for themselves and those for whom they provide services — under pressure from a government that has already shown itself to be woefully incompetent and whose capitulation to the short-term needs of banks and big business is likely to do long-term damage to the economy.
Luckily collective trade-union resistance is working. Though teachers continue to provide education, a near majority of schools did not re-admit pupils as demanded. Transport workers are beginning to get a response to demands for safe working conditions for workers and passengers. Both are critical for securing the material conditions that can halt a resurgence of the virus.
But there are big dangers unless this collective unity is developed further. Tory MPs and the press are already attempting to sow division — stigmatising workers in these key frontline services as selfishly threatening the livelihoods of others. They will do all they can to blame the unfolding crisis onto “shirkers” and “the work-shy”, on “pampered public employees” — not on a parasitic financial system that fed unprecedented wealth accumulation and produced corporate debt levels double those in 2008.
The outlines of the coming crisis are already becoming clear. Unemployment jumped by close on a million in April. Almost nine million workers are on furlough and it is unclear how many will still have jobs when the scheme ends in October.
A quarter of all manufacturing firms have announced job cuts, and another 45 per cent are considering them. In services, aviation, hotels, hospitality and much of retail the situation is far worse. A whole tranche of small firms are likely to be wiped out come autumn. High Streets will be blitzed. Concentration and monopoly will be the name of the game. Amazon will flourish.
There needs therefore to be more than just the protection of work conditions. There needs to be a protection of work and particularly of socially useful work, of all forms of work that bind together our communities — and a unified collective movement to demand this.
When the Tories pushed unemployment over a million and closed “lame-duck” industries in 1970-71, the trade-union movement demanded the right to work. It rallied communities including small businesses — and defeated the government.
Today we see a united front developing among unions at national level. But we also need unity at the level of our communities, a popular front that can encompass all those that make up those communities, and in which trade unionists, through trades councils and peoples assemblies, can set new priorities reflecting the values of humanity, not profit-driven investors.
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