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“AT EVERY level this virus has exposed the injustice of inequality and the impact of class, gender and race.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady is blunt about the government’s responsibility for Britain being hit harder by Covid-19 than any other country in Europe, with the highest number of deaths and the deepest economic recession.
“A decade of cuts left us unprepared, and governments allowing health and safety to become a subject of mockery, cutting inspectors and Health and Safety Executive budgets — and local authority budgets — has led directly to some of the sweatshop scandals we saw in fast fashion and food processing, where, as we know, there were outbreaks of the virus,” she tells me (virtually) from her TUC office.
“And I think there’s something deeper going on as well, behind all the policies we could list, the ‘austerity’ cuts and the attacks on labour standards and unions — something about values.
“Go back to that famous assertion that there’s ‘no such thing as society.’ What’s now very clear is that there has to be.
“You cannot separate people’s health from the economy. You need strong unions to look after people’s rights. You can’t exclude people from decision-making. This is about decency and dignity, at work and in the community.”
O’Grady says the disproportionate impact of Covid on black and ethnic minority people “tells a terrible story, not just about racism but about class in Britain today.
“We see that black workers are much more likely to be working in the ‘key jobs’ more exposed to the virus. But more than that, they’re more likely to be on insecure contracts, zero hours and the rest of it.
“And we saw in the social care sector the way that meant agency workers were being sent from home to home, taking the virus with them.”
That example, the TUC general secretary points out, shows in a nutshell how contempt for workers’ rights is “a key reason why Britain has ended up with one of the worst rates of — that horrible phrase — ‘excess deaths’ and has been among the big economies hit hardest.
“Who pays the price for that? It’s clear there are some who think the natural order of things is that the poorest pay the highest price.”
A number of trade unions have reported surging membership over the course of the pandemic as workers realise that without union representation they are more likely to be made to work in dangerous conditions. Is this an opportunity for the labour movement to assert its relevance to a new generation?
“I’m happy to use that word opportunity because I believe that trade unionism is the best way to protect working people.
“The evidence is clear. If you’re organised at work, you’re much more likely to be safe and avoid accidents and injuries — and, in this case, avoid being exposed to the virus.
“And you’re more likely to get training opportunities, stuff that doesn’t get a lot of attention but really matters to careers and quality of life.
“One issue that is common at the moment is flexible working. We’ve seen trade union membership rising for a few years and the majority of those new recruits are women.
“We recently released a report on what’s happening to working mums during Covid, picking up the majority of the childcare responsibilities, having to take early morning or late shifts to try to manage or being stuck working in the kitchen with kids running round your feet. Very often having no choice but to ask for a cut in hours — which of course means a cut in pay.
“Those are the issues that really matter, day to day, week to week and you have a much stronger chance of getting a fair deal at work if you’re part of the union.”
But there’s nothing automatic about this translating into a bigger and stronger trade union movement.
“We’ve got some unions putting on quite significant numbers. We’ve got other unions facing massive redundancies. So nobody knows quite how this is going to wash out in terms of numbers.
“We’ve got to keep our foot on the pedal of organising. In the end, that’s the best way we as working people can protect ourselves.
“There’s some fantastic work going on by digital campaigners, lay leaders and full-timers across the movement to meet that challenge and maybe this was the disruption we needed to make us try out new ways to organise.”
Aside from protection at workplace level, unions were also instrumental in negotiating job protection schemes like furlough. But furlough hasn’t prevented many of Britain’s biggest employers from announcing sweeping job cuts, and — as the Institute of Employment Rights’ Keith Ewing has written in the Morning Star — it gave no rights to workers and took the form of a subsidy to businesses if they wished to take it up, of which workers were “secondary beneficiaries.”
O’Grady is forthright in defending unions’ achievement in negotiating the scheme. “Both the job retention scheme and the self-employed support scheme were by no means perfect, but the first thing I would say is nobody should be in any doubt that if it wasn’t for the trade union movement, nine million jobs would have been in peril.”
It was a case of “speed over perfection,” she argues, noting that while trade unionists were in talks in March with the Treasury and the Chancellor, “we were all very conscious that there were some very big names who were going to cut their losses, as they would put it, within 24 to 48 hours. It was vital for us to get an announcement to stop what would have been a tsunami of job losses in the spring.”
Seeing it as simply a business subsidy also ignores what trade unions were able to make of it: “Unions used that scheme imaginatively in bargaining with various employers. Negotiating for staff to be paid up to 100 per cent of their wages [rather than the 80 per cent reimbursed by the state], negotiating work-sharing rather than people being made redundant. Unions aren’t just spectators.
“I’m clear in my own mind that without the unions, we would not have had those schemes. It’s the first time we’ve ever had wage-subsidy schemes in Britain. There are often handouts for business. This was the first time the money was tied to an obligation to use it to pay wages.”
One of the biggest threats now is what happens to jobs when the government pulls the plug, as it plans to.
The TUC is calling for a job protection and upskilling deal that would see the government subsidise wages with employers allowed to bring back workers on short hours, using the rest of the time for training and upskilling. “This is what’s happening in France, Germany, Austria. It’s under active consideration in Ireland.
“Let’s be honest — many of us were hopeful that we’d be through the worst by now with the pandemic. It’s clear we’re not. It would be criminal to see good jobs go to the wall. When we’re through, we’ll still need manufacturing, aviation, a strong steel industry, arts and culture and many more things.
“There is no greater threat now than mass unemployment. And mass unemployment allows bad employers to set worker against worker, to drive down wages and conditions.
“And it has a scarring impact on a whole generation. We saw it in the 1930s and the 1980s, to some extent in the 1990s, what happens to people in families and communities if unemployment is allowed to let rip.
“This is going to be about political choices for government, industrial choices for employers. Some employers with cynical opportunism are using the crisis to make workers pay the price. We’ve seen that in a number of companies. But we’ve also seen unions fighting back.
“For me personally, one of the most inspiring episodes was when unions, Unite in particular, led the call to switch production and manufacturing to PPE and ventilators,” she notes, raising the way in which unions made the practical case for creating meaningful, useful jobs to meet the threat of Covid, and the way jobs that were previously not respected had their value recognised.
“People want dignity at work, in manufacturing, in shop work. We saw it with porters and refuse collectors — that they felt the value of their work was being recognised for the first time ever, and they could feel proud of the job they do.
“We’re determined that people should be rewarded for that, in terms of respect, but also in terms of their pay packets. It’s outrageous that so many key workers, seven out of 10 in social care, earn less than £10 an hour. It’s shameful. And I sense that the public supports us on this.
“I’d like us to learn as a society the value of collectivism from this experience. That we’re not just individuals, socially distanced from other individuals.
“Those Thursday nights, no-one was coming out to clap for hedge fund managers or private equity partners. People were turning out for health workers, social care workers, transport workers, all the key workers. We can’t allow that to be a moment. It has to be a real shift.
“And how about remembering how many workers from other countries have worked in our public services throughout? The virus did not respect borders. If we’re going to beat it, we need international co-operation.
“And I’d like us to demonstrate that spending should not be seen as a cost but as an investment. Even if the pandemic was over tomorrow, surely we’ve learned we need more investment in public services. We’ve got to tackle the big challenges like climate change.
“There have been winners from coronavirus — corporate winners who’ve done very well, and in some famous instances they’re the ones who pay least tax here. So the pandemic makes the case for a more equal, more democratic, greener world.”
O’Grady says she will miss the buzz of a TUC Congress in normal times. “This is our parliament, where side by side you’ve got shopworkers, footballers, engineers, factory workers, scientists, you know, everybody from all walks of life finding the common threads that bind us and figuring out what action we’re going to take to win for working people.”
But she is also hopeful that the first online Congress, to which thousands have signed up who would not normally be in a position to attend, will raise the profile of the movement and draw in new activists.
“It opens up possibilities of participation by people we may have struggled to reach. It’s exciting. I hope it shows how we can make a difference and proves that it’s worth everybody joining us.”
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