Paul Nowak explains how trade unions, in contrast to some business fat cats, have been at the forefront of pushing Government to take belated but necessary actions to protect us from the ravages of Covid-19. But there is more to do
Covid-19 has shone a light into the workings of our society, showing us at our collective best and worst. It can hardly come as a surprise to anyone that Mike Ashley cynically tried to claim that Sports Direct was operating an essential service in order that he could carry on flogging exercise bikes and trainers. Nor can we be surprised that Wetherspoon’s founder Tim Martin wanted to keep his pubs open despite clear public health advice, and told staff they wouldn’t be entitled to claim sick pay from day one if they self-isolated – as ever profit trumping the interests of staff and the wider community.
But for every Mike Ashley and Tim Martin we have seen the best in our society shine through. The NHS workers – doctors, nurses, cleaners, porters and health professionals – putting their patients first. The staff keeping our supermarkets open, our bins emptied, our children safe and our buses and trains running so that key workers can do their jobs. All these workers, and so many more, have shown clearly who keeps this country running day in, day out, crisis or not.
Covid-19 has also thrown up some big questions which our politicians and policy makers will have to address once the immediate crisis has passed. A decade of under-investment in our public services has been starkly revealed by the additional pressures placed on them by efforts to tackle the virus. Likewise, the precarious state of our labour market has been placed front and centre, with many vulnerable workers feeling they are faced with a stark choice between following the public health advice and keeping themselves and their families safe, or going out to work to earn a living.
The crisis has also shown the very best of the trade union movement in every region and nation of the UK. Over the last few weeks we have seen examples of unions delivering for both their members and their wider community. The NHS unions led the way with joint guidance with NHS employers and public health authorities on safe ways of working. Unite has been securing agreements with employers across sectors from aviation to manufacturing to protect jobs and livelihoods and the GMB has done ground-breaking deals with the likes of ISS and Hermes to make sure vulnerable workers don’t lose out during the crisis. You name a major employer, or sector of the economy, and you will see that unions have stepped up to the plate – from education to the creative industries, retail to construction, Royal Mail to Greggs the bakers, unions have demonstrated the value of a union card in the most difficult of circumstances.
And it’s not just in workplaces that unions and the TUC have made a difference. At the Budget the Chancellor announced that Statutory Sick Pay would be paid from day one – a direct result of union campaigning. A week later, he announced the Job Retention Scheme which will guarantee ‘furloughed’ workers at least 80% of their pay – again, a direct result of union campaigning for unprecedented action to secure jobs and livelihoods. And a week after that, he announced a similar package of support for self-employed workers – again, on an unprecedented scale, and again thanks to the lobbying and campaigning efforts of our unions. I think it’s fair to say that there is no way we would have seen a Conservative government take such comprehensive action if it wasn’t for the actions of our unions.
None of this is perfect. We will have to work hard now to ensure employers do the right thing and stand by their staff, rather than make redundancies. We will need to ensure the self-employed have the support they need over the coming weeks while the government’s scheme kicks in. And we need to extend sick pay to the 1.9m who don’t earn enough to qualify for it, and to raise the level of sick pay – which Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health, has admitted isn’t enough to live on. We also need proper government support for parents who need to take time off to look after their kids while our schools remain closed except for the children of key workers. And we need government and employers to work with unions sector by sector – making sure that those who are working to provide essential services are doing so safely, and that more broadly we are protecting jobs and incomes.
I am proud that in the midst of the biggest ever peacetime challenge to face Britain, our unions and their members have responded so magnificently. I’m proud that we have shown our relevance and the difference we can make in the workplace and beyond. And I’m proud of the fact that because of our actions hundreds of thousands of jobs have been secured that otherwise may have been lost. The crisis isn’t over. The risks to both our health and our livelihoods remain, and there is absolutely no room for complacency, but I am confident that unions will continue to rise to the challenges we face over the coming weeks and months.