Channel the spirit of 1945

Image: Steve Eason (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Frances O’Grady sets out the case for a National Recovery Council and a new deal – but will the Tories listen?

Trade unions are on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus. A huge public health emergency, the pandemic also poses the biggest economic threat since the Great Depression. With millions of jobs at risk, we need a plan to invest for growth. And it must have full employment at its heart.

Lots of people say this is the biggest crisis we’ve faced since the Second World War. Seventy-five years ago, Britain was bloodied, battered – and broke. Yet after the war Britain’s economy grew faster than ever before. We did it by making the priority decent jobs for everyone, new homes, infrastructure and a new national health service.

We need to channel the spirit of 1945. Coronavirus doesn’t have to equal mass unemployment and a poorer country. We can do what the post-war generation did: grow our way out of this crisis and build a better life for everyone.

Good jobs are critical. Jobs in a reborn UK manufacturing sector. Jobs in a social care sector finally getting some respect. Jobs in the green tech of the future. It’s time to rebuild our country through hard work, determination and investment in all our futures. We must ensure everyone has a decent job, with fair pay and security for their family.

That’s why the TUC is calling fo a national recovery council bringing together government, unions, business, metro mayors and the devolved nations. And it should have one simple objective: to deliver prosperity, opportunity and security for all.

Since the crisis started, the TUC has engaged constructively with the government to deliver real gains for working people. We worked closely with the Treasury to deliver the Job Retention Scheme. We followed up by helping to secure a similar scheme for the self-employed. We pressured the government to extend this support into the autumn. And we’re now campaigning for a new Jobs Guarantee Scheme to avoid the despair of mass unemployment.

But we’ve also held the government to account for its frequently shambolic handling of the crisis. Unions have been at the forefront of the campaign for proper PPE, highlighting mistakes that have cost countless lives. We exposed the gaping holes in ministers’ return-to-work plans, securing important changes. And we’re leading the debate about what safe workplaces should look like.

The crisis has put trade unions at the heart of our national life once again. Throughout, we’ve put the interests of working people centre stage. And with our membership rising, it’s clear workers want collective representation and a real voice at work. Strong unions and more collective bargaining must be at the heart of working life after the crisis.

The pandemic has highlighted longstanding flaws with our economy – and we need to learn the lessons. Years of cuts have left our public services on life support, including our NHS. Living standards have barely risen since the financial crisis. Millions of workers are trapped in low-paid, insecure work. And those doing the most important work are often paid the least. All are symptoms of a system that puts too much power, wealth and influence in the hands of too few.

But the fight against the virus has also shone a light on potential strengths too. Government intervention has saved jobs and boosted the economy. Local authorities managed to house thousands of homeless people within days when Covid-19 struck The mutual support and solidarity that has brought communities together has been inspirational.

Above all, the crisis has shown the value of our hard work. It’s not financial wizardry in the City that has sustained the country through these tough times. Rather, it’s the dedication of NHS staff, carers, teachers, council staff, posties, supermarket workers, delivery drivers and people working in our transport, distribution and energy networks. And they deserve a new deal, with fair shares and a fair say.

As we make work better, we must rebuild our public services. Months of clapping for carers must be followed by years of investment. It’s time for proper funding for our NHS, social care and all our services. And time too to put a stop to inefficient privatisation and outsourcing. If the crisis has taught us one thing, it’s that the private sector economy can’t function without public services to keep us safe, educate our kids and protect our health.

Great public services and great jobs must be the building blocks of our economic future. If we can get the basics right and deliver a better recovery, then we can face our long-term challenges with confidence. We can achieve net zero carbon in a fair and just way, ensure new tech becomes a force for the common good, and create a more equal society.

As we come out of the coronavirus crisis, the battle lines for the next fight are being drawn. We must be ready to set out the case for investment for growth, and full employment – and to oppose the siren voices of austerity, tax cuts and deregulation. They offer no route out of this crisis.

Instead, we need millions of working families with higher disposable income to create the economic demand needed for strong growth, healthy public finances and a fairer, more inclusive country. That’s how we recover, together.

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