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As workers are encouraged to return to the workplace, as part of the government’s botched and reckless easing of lockdown measures, an urgent discussion is taking place across workplaces and through unions about resisting a lurch back to work in unsafe conditions.
School workers’ unions are organising to resist a planned reopening from 1 June of schools (beyond the vulnerable and key workers’ children for whom they have remained open throughout. Joe Anderson, the Labour mayor of Liverpool, and some other Labour councils have said they support the NEU’s “five tests” which the union says must be met before schools reopen, and have indicated they will resist pressure to reopen schools under local authority control.
In public transport, the RMT union has issued clear advice to its members that they should refuse unsafe work, and given a commitment that it will support members who take this action. Guidance issued to its reps states: “RMT will not accept any plan that we believe increases the level of risk for our members and will take whatever steps are necessary to protect those members.”
Passenger levels increased on the Tube on Wednesday 13 May, with widely-circulated photos and video footage showing packed buses and train cars, where passengers could clearly not maintain 2m distance from each other.
After weeks of refusing to issue masks, London Underground bosses are now distributing them to workers, but many have queried their effectiveness. A Tube worker told Solidarity: “They’re not proper masks with a filter, they’re just cloth face coverings. It’s a token gesture from management because they realise distancing will be much harder as passenger levels increase.”
Local managers are consulting with union safety reps to produce station-by-station distancing plans, but with some including plans for station workers to be positioned at the bottom of staircases or in passageways to direct passenger flows, making distancing impossible, some reps have denounced these as “business-as-usual with a face cloth.” Tube cleaners have also been issued with face coverings, but without adequate filters.
Thus far, London Underground bosses have said they will support workers who remove themselves from unsafe situations. An RMT rep said: “It’s good they’ve taken that line; now we’ll have to see if it holds up if refusals to work in unsafe situations start leading to disruptions.”
On the mainline railway, an anticipated service increase on 17 May will see agreements for reduced working hours amended or abolished altogether. A mainline driver told us: “Early on in the pandemic, our company introduced reduced shifts and shorter working weeks. We won’t be going back to our full rosters, but the service increase means our existing arrangement will end. With more passengers anticipated, that means increased risks.
“Some ideas workers have discussed include using tape or barriers to section off certain parts of the train or the platform, to regulate where passengers get on and off, to maximise distancing, both for passengers between each other, and between passengers and staff.
“There is some concern about how management might respond if workers refuse unsafe work, with some worrying that people will be sent home without pay. We need to be prepared to organise in defence of any worker who has that happen to them.”
The “Rail Industry Coronavirus Forum”, a committee involving both Train Operating Companies and rail unions, has issued comprehensive guidance, “Principle 1” of which is “maintain social distancing”. Policing the implementation of that principle will rely on alert and assertive union organisation in individual workplaces, prepared to intervene and, if necessary, organise refusals to work if the principle is breached.
In the civil service, the PCS union continues to push for an agreement that any worker who can work from home is allowed to continue to do so, with any return to the physical workplace to be voluntary as far as possible, with numbers not exceeding levels at which it’s possible to maintain safe distancing.
The key aspiration for all workers must be the maximum possible degree of workers’ control, with risk assessments and decisions about return-to-work plans either directly drawn up by or overseen and scrutinised by workers themselves, via elected representatives.