COVID-19 highlights the role of trade unions
The government is keen to see a return to school for primary school students. Teaching unions are recalcitrant. The public is unsure. The situation is threatening to break out into a virulent dispute, with the Daily Mail describing unions as ‘callous’ while unions flood the airwaves to butt heads with the government. This conflict, which hearkens to an earlier age, once again puts the question to society: ‘Are unions the enemy within?’.
The partisan nature of the modern trade union is hardly surprising when you trace back their history. Ernest Bevin rather crudely claimed in 1935 that the Labour Party as we know it today “emerged from the bowels of the Trade Union Congress”. Trade Unions have moulded Labour Party leaders and staffers ever since their inception. Historically, these two organisations have strived towards common endeavours, such as creating the welfare state, regulating the labour market and struggling for full employment.
However, now far removed from the towering behemoths of the 1970s – which at their height boasted a membership of 13 million – a combination of factors have coalesced, to leave Britain’s union organisations a shadow of their former glory, with a membership of 5.5 million today. The Winter of Discontent in 1978-9 is seen as the beginning of the end in this respect. Large-scale public sector strikes demanded larger pay rises, destroyed public opinion, took down the Labour government of James Callaghan, and provided a rationale for tough legislation and regulation by the subsequent Thatcher administration. The following reforms saw the end of mass blue-collar jobs in manufacturing and mining. The result was a two-pronged attack on organised labour, with the erosion of the traditional trade union membership base twinned with severe measures to limit their actions. From then on, they have been fighting an uphill battle; struggling to recruit members and lacking the legal framework for industrial action.
Although the nature and means of unions has changed drastically in the last 40 years, the divisive discourse to undermine the movement has not. Their raison d'être has always been safety, security and social justice for workers. Arguably, against the backdrop of a global pandemic and recession, their value has never been so vital.
COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown have presented numerous obstacles which threaten the financial and physical security of workers. Currently, a huge proportion of the workforce is unable to work. Social distancing measures have made some jobs impossible and forced many to work from home. The resulting school closures have also made it difficult for parents of young children to go to work, and people with infected co-habiting relatives are also being made to isolate. Additionally, some may rightly fear coming into work due to the worry of contracting the virus, and there is the added danger that those who do come in will be required to work harder, for longer hours.
During this time, trade unions have been on the front line of the crisis, demanding adequate PPE is available, and social distancing measures are in practice in the workplace. Originally, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy left these measures at the discretion of business, to implement “where possible”. However, the TUC put forward a different approach which sets clear guidelines and penalties for employers who don’t guarantee their workers safety. The General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) Frances O’Grady stated that “Unions want everyone to get back to work and start rebuilding Britain. But workers need to be confident that they won’t put themselves or their families at unnecessary risk.”
An example of the vital interventions they are making is the support they have provided for London’s bus drivers. Tragically, 20 bus drivers in London have died of COVID-19, with more perishing around the country. Unite have fought for tougher regulations of buses to make sure this does not continue. These regulations include permanent closure of the front doors, out of bounds seating near the driver, and a fully-sealed protective screen. This intervention is an attempt to make the environment safer for everyone to get back to work again, rather than preventing drivers from working at all. These regulations have enabled the transport industry to keep afloat and keep the cogs of the capital turning, whilst also safeguarding drivers as much as possible.
The importance of this extends beyond the safety of individual workers; businesses do not operate in vacuums. If workplaces do not adhere to strict guidelines and keep their employees safe, it would be disastrous for the neighbouring communities, who would feel the effect of increased spread of the virus as a result.
Of the numerous interventions made by trade unions during this crisis, none has occupied more space on the front pages than the teachers’ union, NASUWT. The Government intends that 1st June would be the date to open primary schools to pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. However, in a poll of their membership, NASUWT found that only around 5% of their 300,000 members thought that going back to work would be safe. As previously stated, the role of a union is to protect the safety and security of its members, and this poll has given them an overwhelming mandate to do just that. What’s more, teachers are not alone in their concern for the safety of a return to the classroom. The Government’s own Deputy Chief Scientific Advisor Dame Angela McLean even stated that changes to lockdown – which opening schools would be – would require an effective track and trace system, a system which is not currently in place. She added that; “observed levels of infection and not a fixed date”, were important.
Regarding observed levels of infection, there is currently a large regional disparity between the ‘R’ rate of different areas in the UK. Whereas London has been steadily on the decline and sits at around 0.4, the figure is thought to be double in parts of the North East and West. Therefore, it seems common sense that they should not follow the same policies in terms of opening up schools as their southern counterparts.
At the time of writing, up to 1,500 primary schools are expected to remain closed on 1st June after the decision of 18 councils not to open schools. Some of these councils are Conservative led, such as Solihull and West Sussex. Even Staffordshire County Council, where the Education Minister Gavin Williamson’s constituency is based, have said they will leave the decision to the headteacher’s discretion. The partial cross-party consensus demonstrates this subject as a non-partisan issue over safety, and not “callous unions” who are “plotting” against the country, as some newspapers suggest.
By supporting the teachers against both the virus and the vitriolic reaction from certain elements of the media, the teachers’ unions have not only allowed the teachers’ voices to be heard, but reinforced their views. These opinions are now being validated by scientists and politicians alike. In areas where the R number is as high as 0.8, opening primary schools could see that figure rise dangerously close to 1, at which point the virus spreads exponentially. Crucially, this is not a political debate, but a scientific one. It is damaging that certain sections of government and the media claim that NASUWT support of their members is driven by ideology rather than concerns for their safety.
A note on Furlough
In contrast to the perception of unions, as perpetually hamstringing a Conservative government, unions were amongst the first to praise the work of Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, with the enrolment of workers onto the governments Furlough Scheme. This scheme currently protects 7.5 million jobs, covering 80% of an employee’s salary (up to £2,500 a month) and is intended to safeguard against mass redundancies and unemployment. This goes a long way to ensuring the financial security of business and workers. Additionally, the TUC has worked collaboratively with the government to extend the current scheme into October. They have also called on the scheme to be flexible, and from August businesses will have the ability to take employees back part-time. This shows a commitment to getting people back to work, preserving their financial security and their physical safety.
This isn’t just a phase
Unlike an ear-stretcher on an angsty teen, it has become evident at this early stage that COVID-19 is not just a phase. It will have profound, immediate and lasting impacts on the world of work and beyond. Employees who have worked from home have proven, (on the whole) that they can be trusted to do so. It is even likely that a four-day working week could be trialled. On the front line of these changes and venturing into – *apologies in advance* uncharted territory – the role of our trade unions is paramount to ensure the transition is safe and puts the needs of workers first.
Furthermore, the role of unions during this crisis has been to eliminate as much risk to the individual and society as possible, by ensuring necessary precautions are adopted by employers. This has no ideological location on the traditional left-right conception of politics. It is counterproductive to suggest otherwise. Union involvement with government to provide guidance on the safety and interest of workers during these – *sighs* unprecedented times – should be viewed in these terms, and thus welcomed by both sides, rather than dismissed in an anachronistic discourse of militancy and treason.