Government deepens divisions

Paul Nowak outlines a green trade union response to the threat of mass unemployment

The Chartist fringe meeting at Labour Party conference gave us an opportunity to consider how we integrate our aspirations to both decarbonise and democratise our economy. 

This is a vital debate at any time, but none more so than when the threat of mass unemployment – driven by the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic – is a very real prospect. 

As someone who grew up on Merseyside throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I need little reminder of the harm that mass unemployment does – particularly to the young workers. In Merseyside, and in communities across the country, the scars from that experience have barely healed decades later. 

Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated the inequalities that exist in society, having a disproportionate impact on our black and minority ethnic communities, those in low paid and insecure employment, and those communities already struggling with poor housing and devastated public services, left vulnerable after a decade of cuts.  

Our social care system – held together by the efforts of mainly low paid, part-time women, working for a myriad of private providers and outsourcers – has exposed these unfair and unequal impacts of the pandemic, and the government’s response, most sharply. And it has highlighted what many of us knew before lockdown started: that for far too many people in this country work does not pay – with 2.5m women key workers earning less than £10 an hour and 1 in 9 workers precariously employed.  

Unions can be proud of the efforts they have made to secure lives and livelihoods over the last eight months. Without our efforts, there is little chance a Conservative Chancellor would have delivered the job retention scheme, and its equivalent for the self-employed, which helped secure the jobs and livelihoods of 12m workers at the height of the lockdown. Nor would we have seen the comprehensive safe working guidance developed by government with the support of unions and employers which has allowed millions more to work safely. In sectors as diverse as retail and arts and heritage, unions have worked to support jobs and to secure extra funding from government. 

But despite these efforts, we still face the prospect of huge economic upheaval which could see many hundreds of thousands of people lose their job without smarter, strategic intervention from government – words very few people would associate with the current occupant of Number 10. 

His next-door neighbour, the Chancellor, has delivered the job support scheme – effectively providing support for short-time working as is commonplace across many parts in Europe. Welcome though this was, it won’t be enough in and of itself to stave off mass unemployment.  

The TUC pushed for the scheme to be more generous to avoid triggering more lay-offs, to provide more support for the self-employed, and for protections to be put in place if we see more local lockdowns, and for people who can’t go to work because they’re caring or shielding.

The scheme will do nothing on its own to help meet the twin challenges of democratising and decarbonising our economy. 

So, alongside the job support scheme and a new programme of additional support for those working in sectors closed because of Government public health guidance, we need Government to commit to a massive programme of green infrastructure – £85bn over the next two years – supporting investment in everything from green public transport to retrofitting homes, high-speed broadband to low-carbon electricity. The TUC believes this could create 1.24m new green jobs – jobs desperately needed for those leaving school, college and university as well as those under threat of losing their job. 

We also need smart sectoral intervention – in sectors including aviation, retail and hospitality. A real industrial strategy would focus on creating and supporting good quality employment and driving up standards where low pay and insecure work are all too often the norm. 

We need government to make a genuine and long-lasting commitment to investing in people’s skills. A real job guarantee for every young person; funded individual learning accounts; and a new and improved financial settlement for our colleges, which will need to do the heavy lifting in providing support to their local communities. Instead the government appears to want to take an axe to the union learning fund, which helps unions support nearly a quarter of a million workers a year into new learning opportunities.

All of this will need to be supported by working people having a say in the big strategic decisions that impact on their working lives. Labour needs to put the case for workers on boards, for extending and supporting trade union membership and for supporting collective bargaining across every sector of the economy.  

The experience of the last eight months has shown us the vital role unions can play in individual workplace – keeping people safe, securing their jobs, protecting their livelihoods. It’s also shown the wider contribution unions can make to our economy and society.  

That’s why we have made calls for a national recovery council, bringing together unions, employers and government, to plot our way out of the pandemic – a central part of our demands on government over the last few months.  

Now is the time to reset the UK economy. To make sure we build back from the pandemic, in a way that provides real opportunities for working people, their families and communities. 

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