Workers in every industry and workplace must fight for the maximum degree of workers' control over the conditions under which any “return to work” takes place and under which services are resumed and increased.
While this will necessitate “working with” employers in the sense of meeting with them to present our demands, and scrutinise their proposals, the basic stance we must fight for our unions to take is one of militant distrust and hostility to our bosses. This doesn't require a belief that every individual manager is a moustache-twirling villain, desperate to plot ways to harm workers; it is merely the stance implied by the fundamental structural reality of capitalism, that the employing class is ultimately motivated by profit.
On 5 May, the government shared guidance documents on conditions for returning to work with employers' organisations and unions. The TUC and Labour leader Keir Starmer criticised the documents for their “vagueness”, highlighting the use of language such as “employers should consider” measures such as hand washing stations, suggesting such measures were simply optional nice-to-haves. TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady said, “we cannot support the government's back-to-work plans as they stand.”
The TUC has called on the government to “agree plans with unions for safe operation of public transport”, as well as calling for workplace-by-workplace risk assessments overseen by union safety reps. The TUC wants a “National Enforcement Forum” made up of “government, the Health and Safety Executive, local authorities, Public Health England, unions and business” - a version of workers' involvement in assessing safety that involves working in partnership with bosses and the state, rather than demanding control.
In a period of a historically low ebb of class struggle, the demand for workers' control can seem almost fantastical, but a crisis like this brings its logic into focus. It is not employers, who are often distant from the shop floor even in normal times, whose labour will deliver the “return to work” or any resumption of services, but rank-and-file workers. Why, then, shouldn't those workers control the basis on which that takes place?
At the workplace level, demanding that union reps sign off workplace risk assessments, which must be published and made available to all workers, detailing the safety measures which will be implemented in advance of any return or resumption, is a way of focusing the demand for workers' control.
Across the economy, many unions, with varying degrees of combativeness, are already tabling demands for measures that must be in place prior to any return to work. In the civil service, the PCS union is fighting for a commitment that anyone who can work from home is able to continue to do so, and only minimal levels of staff will be brought back into the workplace for essential work. The PCS calculates that 34% is the maximum proportion of staff in a given workplace who can be present and still comply with distancing measures.
The union has also been pushing for a clear protocol for what will happen in situations where a case of Covid-19 is confirmed in a workplace, including the complete isolation of the workplace and the sending home of all workers on full pay. The PCS has issued advice reminding its members of their legal right to refuse unsafe work.
School workers' union NEU has issued a platform including five basic conditions for any reopening of schools: much lower numbers of Covid cases; a national plan for social distancing; comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff; protocols to be put in place to test a whole school or college when a case occurs and for isolation to be strictly followed; protection for the vulnerable. It's right that unions pose these kind of broad, national and sectoral demands, and level them in national negotiations with employers. But unions must supplement that by equipping their local reps to fight for workers' control at workplace level to police and enforce any nationwide agreements that are secured.
Unite reps at an Aston Martin plant in Wales have announced that they have “worked closely” with the employer in drawing up a back-to-work plan, which includes mandatory wearing of masks and temperature checks on arrival. The statement, issued by the employer, states that their measures “exceed government advice.”
Where safety measures have been drawn up and implemented in workplace, unions must not only trumpet how “closely” they have worked with the employer, but ensure continual scrutiny and policing of the ongoing implementation of those measures by reps. Aston Martin's statement also says that its workers “have been engaged in a number of activities designed to help in the fight against Covid-19, from the manufacture of various items of PPE to the offer of free emergency repairs to NHS workers’ cars.” While Aston Martin poses these as gestures of goodwill, workers must fight to expand such schemes.
If measures can be implemented to give reasonable assurances for resuming production, we must fight for that production to be geared towards social need rather than profit. Part of the labour movement's return-to-work policy should be that the manufacturing capacity of private industry is socialised and repurposed to produce PPE, ventilators, and other necessary medical equipment – inarguably far more socially necessary, and less ecologically destructive, than Aston Martin cars.
While the demand for workers' control of return-to-work plans, rather than a blanket position of “extend the lockdown indefinitely!”, must be central, the current evidence suggests that Britain is not ready for a rapid or substantial easing of lockdown measures. This means that, in many sectors, the necessary response to bosses' return-to-work plans may be, for now, to simply oppose and resist them. In the construction sector, which the government has highlighted for a rapid resumption of work, rank-and-file workers have been running a “Shut the Sites” campaign for several weeks, arguing that safe distancing is impossible.
Meanwhile, rail unions RMT, TSSA, and Aslef have written to the governments of the UK, Scotland, and Wales to oppose any increase in rail services at the present time. The letter says: “We are not convinced that there is any basis at this time for a safe escalation of services.” It argues for an “industry-wide agreement with the unions that any increase in services does not increase danger and risk of virus transmission for our members, passengers or our communities.” Like PCS, RMT has also issued material reminding members' of legals rights around refusals to work.
As Solidarity went to press, bosses on London Underground were in discussions with unions about a possible ramping up of the service. Passenger levels are currently down 95%, but are expected to rise as the lockdown eases.
As on the mainline railway, unions have argued against any immediate ramping up, and demanded network-wide agreements and safety measures be implemented prior to any resumption. Union pressure has already secured the implementation of a number of safety measures, including reduced shift patterns on stations to eliminate non-essential work. On some train stock, where the driver has to enter and exit their cab via the passenger car, screens have been installed to close off the first car, ensuring drivers can distance safely.
Safety reps are now advancing demands for additional measures, including the installation of hand washing points outside stations, with compulsory hand washing on entry; compulsory mask wearing; queuing and one-way systems to regulate passenger flow into stations; and the switching off of all touchscreen ticket machines, with entry via Oyster or contactless card only, with some gates left open.
Many other metro systems internationally, such as the Seoul metro and the Bay Area Rapid Transit System in California, have implemented measures of this type, as well as additional checks including temperature screening.
Unions are also demanding that 2m distancing measures, including physical barriers and station staff working from control rooms or behind glass wherever possible, be maintained and increased. This will be a key fight, as TfL and other transport providers have been pressing for distancing guidance to be reduced in order to facilitate an increased service. TfL calculates that it can only carry 15% of its usual capacity if the 2m guidance is maintained.
Unions must resist arbitrary reductions in distancing guidance. Any difficulties this poses for TfL's revenue should be addressed via government subsidy.
While London Underground has stepped up its antiviral cleaning regime, it was late to do so, and its frequency still lags behind other metros internationally. Meanwhile, it has denied staff travel passes to outsourced cleaners, and refused to top up the 20% differential for cleaners who are furloughed. This creates a clear additional public health risk, as cleaners who are unwell may now return to work, or work through their symptoms, to avoid being furloughed.
RMT is rightly taking up this demand, and securing it must be key to any safe resumption of the service. While other metros have issued masks to all frontline workers, LU has only just begun to issue some masks to some workers, after initially refusing to do so and claiming they were unnecessary.
On London's bus network, where more than 20 drivers have died of the virus, bosses were slow to implement the simple measure of having passengers enter via the middle door only. Prior to implementation, one bus company went as far as threatening to discipline any driver who acted directly to implement this measure themselves.
Without additional safety measures such as adequate PPE for all drivers, and access to regular temperature screening and testing, drivers face greatly increased risk if passenger levels rise as the lockdown eases.
The details of sectoral and workplace-by-workplace demands for safety measures that must be in place before workers deem it safe to return to work or ramp up services must be worked out collectively, from the shop floor up, ideally via unions' democratic structures. Underpinning all of those discussions must be a collective effort to empower and galvanise each other to take direct action to implement those measures ourselves where our bosses won't – or, where that's not possible, to withdraw our labour and refuse to work in unsafe conditions.
Workers must remember that it is our labour that makes workplaces function and produces goods and services. In Eugene V. Debs's phrase, “we can run the mills without them, but they can't run them without us.”
Remembering that, and acting accordingly to demand control over risk assessments, safety measures, and return-to-work plans, and withdrawing our labour if necessary, could make the difference between life and death.
Links, for reference:
• TUC: tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/tuc-proposals-ensuring-safe-return-work
• NEU: neu.org.uk/neu-five-tests-government-schools-can-re-open
• Rail unions: rmt.org.uk/news/rail-unions-this-is-not-the-time-to-run-more-trains/
• RMT response to TfL pressing for reduction in distancing guidance: rmtlondoncalling.org.uk/content/tube-union-rmt-leaked-report-showing-impact-maintaining-social-distancing-london-underground
• Aston Martin statement: media.astonmartin.com/aston-martin-lagonda-puts-safety-first-as-staff-begin-phased-return-to-work-at-uk-manufacturing-site/
• The version of this in the pdf and print version of the paper is slightly abridged