Coronavirus, the workplace and the trade unions

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Why workers need to take the lead on action

The sheer scale of the crisis facing workplace activists and the trade unions presented by the coronavirus pandemic are hard to understate.

An unprecedented public health emergency, which is almost certain to touch every working class family in some way is interlaced with a massive economic shock that may generate a recession on a greater scale than the global financial crisis of 2008-9 in the short term with mass layoffs.

Workers in airlines, hospitality, entertainment have been hit first, but with surely many more to follow. Alongside this is a massive reorganisation of daily working lives as ever greater numbers of staff self-isolate, work from home or and non-essential work is shut down.

The closure of schools from 20 March to all but the children of groups of workers deemed essential is likely to accelerate the process of withdrawal from work as people scramble to make new childcare arrangements, especially as relying on grandparents, the recourse for many working class families, is ruled out as it would place their health in jeopardy, and the over 70s have been told to completely self-isolate for at least 12 weeks.

Yet the initial responses from national trade unions has been slow, bordering with some on paralysis. In general most issued advice about requesting sufficient cleaning materials and restating your right at work. At best, the unions and the TUC started to make some demands of the government to support wages of those laid off. But at times the unions seemed more focused on whether to send their own staff home and discussing if they should cancel their annual conferences.

Unison’s Dave Prentis sent out an email simply praising members for running key public services. All well and good, but where was the call for Unison members to collectively fight to impose such rights on reluctant employers?

If anything Unison seemed more concerned to carry on its attack on branches it sees as a thorn in its side, such as Kirklees a left wing branch with a good record of taking strike action and challenging which is currently suspended and under direct supervision by Unison officials.

The action of those like the workers at Lambeth libraries who walked out to shut down a service the council seemed determined to prove it could keep open, or the Unison branch at Soas that threatened to walk out unless the university shut the library and other non-essential services, demonstrated the approach that should be encouraged and endorsed.

Worse, when Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, faced with plummeting bookings on its airlines, announced staff would be forced to take eight weeks unpaid leave, Unite according to reports seems to have agreed to this. Why? Because the union accepted the argument that protecting Virgin Atlantic profits is the only way to guarantee jobs.

The logic is that of the market—what’s good for the boss is good, ultimately, for workers, even if sacrifices have to made (not of course by Branson, whose personal fortune which is estimated at £4.5 billion would alone cover the wage bill of his cabin crew and pilots for several decades!).

For some union leaders, the pull of the argument that class conflict is suspended during a time of national emergency to protect jobs will panic them into concessions and retreats.

Yet the sheer scale of state intervention into the economy now being undertaken—by a Tory government, no less—points to the potential for a very different approach. The apparently unassailable laws of the market are suddenly less than sacrosanct and the mysterious magic money tree which the Tories once claimed only existed in Jeremy Corbyn’s head, has been not only discovered but is being shaken repeatedly. The question isn’t now is state intervention possible, or are funds available but is whose interest is that intervention or funding going to serve?

The NEU union has provided an example of a more combative approach. Once the union decided to call on Johnson to shut schools it has been on the front foot, arguing for exams to be suspended, for all those in vulnerable categories or caring for people who are vulnerable to stop going into school.

Most importantly joint general secretary Kevin Courtney tweeted out that “If your head says they have to be in, tell them no. Tell them it’s your union’s advice. Tell them you will work from home. Tell them we will see them in court. Tell them if they mess you about there will be trouble”, adding “this is your union’s advice: Follow it, fight for it.” Such statements from a national union leader boosts the confidence of every NEU activist battling to ensure union (and government) policy is adhered to by school managers.

One of the features of the trade unionism in Britain in the neoliberal decades has been the decline of workplace bargaining. In the post war boom of the 1950s and 1960s shop stewards across industry—in the car plants, engineering, manufacturing, the docks and elsewhere—were able to use full employment to drive up pay beyond nationally agreed minimums (“wage drift” as it was known by industrial relations experts).
As this declined, the range of issues workplace reps fight over and the collective strength they could mobilise has been much more limited. The result was most reps saw their power to challenge managers decline, and as a result their independence from full time union officials erode too.

But now protecting workers’ health and living standards as the existing way of doing things at work is suddenly thrown up in the air, places a premium on reps and workplace organisation challenging employers where they play fast and loose with either.

The terms of what Carter Goodrich called in his classic 1921 study the “frontier of control” in the workplace—the battle between labour and capital at the point of production—is again in flux.

If workers don’t act, managers will set the terms of the way the crisis is organised at work. In schools for example there is wide scope not just for pushing to ensure work rotas are voluntary and equitable but also to start experimenting with teaching— much of which will move online during the period of schools’ partial closure—outside the grim strictures of Ofsted, Sats tests and narrow exam-orientated curriculums. But taking initiatives from below were vital to pushing for such an outcome.

If renewed solidarity and new ways of organising it are at the heart of the challenge to workplace activists as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, then we may at some point also finding ourselves returning to more traditional forms of solidarity too.

The strike across 74 Universities by tens of thousands of UCU members over 14 days across four weeks in February and early March, was the first major national strike since Boris Johnson’s victory at the polls in December. Building solidarity—including financial donations from unions, with hardship a real issue for strikers—was a key task.

In truth, much of the trade union movement, even the left within the unions, are rusty when it comes to some basic tasks—getting union banners down to picket lines, arranging to get a striker in to address union meetings, asking for a donation from branch funds, asking for the same from regional committees and national executives, doing workplace collections for the strikers.

But a start was made by SWP members and others on the left. Without the pandemic, other opportunities to rebuild local solidarity networks would have arisen—almost certainly with a national strike in Royal Mail after the CWU won, yet again, a massive yes vote (94.5 percent) on a threshold-busting 63 percent turnout (in a ballot with just a two week turnaround) and with the PCS signalling that a new attempt to break the ballot threshold was on the cards in the spring. The pandemic has put paid to all that—for now. But there is unfinished business to be pursued.

But the biggest challenge we face in the unions is the following contradiction: our strength in the workplace rests on successful collective organisation, yet to protect lives we need to fight for extensive and urgent implementation of “social-distancing”, including shutting down all non-essential production and services and limiting the numbers at work.

Imaginative use of online technology to create networks in the workplace —WhatsApp groups, branch meetings via Zoom, conference calls etc that can not only allow experiences to be shared but to formulate demands and to mobilise pressure on employers and the government will be essential. Doing this can not only push the frontier of control at work in our favour, it can recruit more workers to unions, and save lives.