Never going back to 'Normal'

Issue section: 
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Ifeoma Obi spoke to black workers from around Britain about the impact of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement

Ameen is a Union Official in Salford City Council
SR: How has your job changed?
“The first thing we agreed was that all individual representation would be suspended because we have bigger things to deal with. This was agreed with management. As a general position this approach has been very helpful although individuals with grievances that predate the lockdown are still stuck. But it has allowed us to do organising work on a collective basis with our reps. The level of engagement within the union has been much higher than I’ve ever seen.
We have more union meetings, and they are bigger. We have had more section meetings that we’ve never had before and they are all well attended. We have more reps than we ever have had as a branch. Because the government and our employers were slow to react to the threat of the virus, when lockdown happened our members didn’t trust the employer to be thinking about their health or well-being. So we wanted to be prepared to look after ourselves.
On top of this, the Black Lives Matter movement has given us a tremendous boost. For me, a whole new set of opportunities have opened up to fight for demands that I never actually thought we would ever realise for black people in the workplace, things that I have been banging on for as long as I’ve been living in Manchester, like the fact that the workforce doesn’t represent the community that it serves.
Things like putting that right are now on the table because of the protests. But I have to say, they’ll only stay on the table so long as we don’t go back to a pre-lockdown normal. I don’t want to go back to austerity, I don’t want to go back to black people being stopped and search, or not getting compensation or not getting British citizenship or the levels of islamophobia or asylum seekers not having real rights in this country. There is nothing that I liked about the world we lived in before. For me, there is a load of things to fight over that we shouldn’t be accepting in any kind of return to ‘normal’.”

Dean is a shop steward and works with young people in North London
SR: What have been the key challenges?
“Its the uncertainty about the future that young people face. The majority of young people I work with have poor qualifications. Some who might have progressed onto further studies have been held back due to this pandemic. Poverty shapes their education. A lot of young people I work with don’t have access to any source of technology at home. They might have a phone but no broadband and once their data runs out, that’s it. I have helped a lot of my young people who have qualified to get laptops and tablets, but they are still really starting from a low base.
A lot of the young people I work with come from BAME backgrounds, but there are a lot of poor white working-class kids who get excluded from school as well. Lots of those I work with live in overcrowded houses so they’re under enormous pressure since lockdown. If there is tension with your family you’re bound to want to go out. I found a lot of my young people are going out, and naively thinking they might get a warning from the police, but many are getting arrested, often for possession of even tiny amounts of cannabis. This is reflected in the stop and search figures, it is quite startling.”

Dr Jones works with mental health patients in the NHS in the West Midlands
“My role changed significantly when lockdown began. Working within the guidelines, only essential faceto-face contact is permitted. Now we’re doing mostly telephone or video contact which presents many problems. It has been difficult for a lot of our patients simply because a lot don’t have smartphones or Internet access. So it has been pretty tough trying to balance keeping up the support they need. Before patients would be able to drop into the hub I used to be based at.
Also, our team would’ve popped round to see some of them daily or twice a day. So the patients are losing out. It’s a tough trying to balance reducing contact with the mental health team against maintaining it and the risk of infection. Social isolation has not helped many of my patients maintain their mental health.
But lifting the lockdown brings its own problems. You’ll potentially see an increase in mental ill health so we need to prepare for it. There could be issues that we might need to deal with the trauma that people are experiencing now from Coronavirus. There may be additional trauma following the death of George Floyd.

Elizabeth is a preschool teacher
SR: What is being a teacher like under the lockdown?
It’s been really difficult, my school has been closed for most of the lockdown. We just opened up for Key Workers’ children. We are a Montessori school and are very much about free movement, children are allowed to freely move in and out of classrooms. The space is totally theirs, so making it COVID safe and separating friendship groups is very difficult.
It almost feels like you are starting from scratch because we had such a long break and then you really want to reconnect with the children in a way that’s most natural.
It’s been stressful trying to organise ways that are safe for children and adults. We talked about pushing the start date back and procedures we had to put into place for the teachers. The staff was able to put in workplace risk assessments, we had really good conversations with our head that ensured we are going to be as safe as possible. We got PPE in.
I got the school to acknowledge that there needed to be a BAME risk assessment which recognised we were most at risk. We managed to reduce our hours. The school management have taken on board a lot of our suggestions which we first discussed with our union. There was a real understanding that the school could not open without the staff’s say so.
Everyone was so determined to make sure that our concerns were heard. It’s daunting to do what we did but the power of being able to say no we are not ready, it really helped.

Ebony is a station supervisor for London Underground
SR: What has work been like for Key Workers?
“It’s been pretty quiet. The volume of people was minimal. I could count about 10 people maximum getting on or off the train. A lot of people adhered to the rules and worked from home. You could actually feel the quietness. This obviously had an impact on the numbers of people using the tube and the revenue that London Underground brings in went down. I think over the past three months TLF has lost around £500 million.”