Unions in the pandemic

Submitted by martin on 1 June, 2020 - 10:16 Author: Ollie Moore
May Day

Workplace activists in Workers' Liberty met via Zoom on Saturday 30 May 2020, for a joint meeting of Workers' Liberty's industrial “fractions”, groups of members in particular industries and sectors.

Workers' Liberty currently has four industrial fractions – school workers; civil servants; higher education workers; and rail workers – and two cross-industrial union fractions – Unison, covering local government and health; and Unite, covering a range of industries and sectors.

The meeting began with a survey of industrial and workplace issues thrown up by the pandemic, and union responses to them. Of particular urgency was the discussion around resisting the drive to school reopening; one member of the school workers fraction described how they'd set up a union-run safety committee in their school, to scrutinise management's proposals, make its own demands for additional safety measures, and empower workers to refuse unsafe work if reopening is forced through. As the comrade put it: “The aim is for the maximum degree of workers' control.”

Comrades felt that the national strategy of the National Education Union (NEU) leadership amounted to a strategy for political lobbying rather than industrial organising. It has talked up local councils which have said that they “share the union's concerns”, even though none have concretely committed to keep schools closed.

The meeting also discussed the rise in union membership in some areas. The numbers of school support staff joining the NEU (9,000 out of 20,000 new members since the beginning of the emergency, taking the NEU's support staff membership to 38,000, was felt to be particularly significant, as it strengthens the logic of industrial unionism in education and makes the NEU leadership's policy of not actively organising support staff, for fear of antagonising other unions which currently organise them, increasingly unviable. The Workers' Liberty school workers’ fraction recently held a public Zoom meeting to discuss industrial unionism. Comrades in Unison described how they'd argued for the NEU to be invited into collective bargaining structures for school support staff locally, and against an attitude of “territorialism” over which union should organise them.

There was a range of experiences in terms of how well unions have continued to function during the pandemic. The NEU's national meeting with over 15,000 attendees was noted. In the RMT, an initial stance of appearing to shut down union functioning and seeking collaboration with employers was reversed, in large part due to rank-and-file pressure, including an open letter and branch model motion declaring “Our Union is an Essential Service: Step Up, Don't Stand Down!”, organised by Workers' Liberty supporters working with other rank-and-file activists. The union is now actively encouraging branches to continue meeting, and has explicitly promoted Section 44 and other health and safety legislation and said any members who undertake refusals-to-work on the basis of these laws will be supported. Comrades in Unison had a range of experiences, with some reporting that their branches had continued to meet, while others said that regional officials were insisting online branch meetings were against union rules.

The meeting also discussed coming job cuts in higher education, transport, manufacturing, and other sectors. In HE, Workers' Liberty members are arguing against acceptance of employers' latest offer to settle the “Four Fights” dispute on pay, workload, casualisation, and equality, and for a strategy of re-energising the dispute, including, whilst acknowledging the difficulties presented by the present situation, building towards a new ballot. Comrades argued that just having given up on a major dispute will not be a good context in which to launch a new one against threatened cuts across the sector. The importance of an industrial unionist perspective for the fight against HE job cuts was also emphasised; the Workers' Liberty higher education workers fraction includes both academic workers in the University and College Union (UCU), and non-academic campus workers in Unison. Comrades argued for rank-and-file cross-union coordinations of all campus unions, including non-TUC unions such as IWGB and UVW on campuses where they organise. The emergence of new initiatives such as “Corona Contract”, a group of casualised HE workers demanding job security, and “Pandemic PGRs”, postgraduate researchers demanding extended funding, was noted and welcomed, with comrades arguing that a rank-and-file network could help these, and other initiatives such as Student Strike Solidarity, develop greater coordination. Workers' Liberty members in UCU are involved in the “UCU Rank-and-File” network, where they argue for these perspectives.

Comrades from the Workers' Liberty rail fraction discussed the threat of further cuts in Transport for London, as an emergency bailout package from the government has numerous strings attached, including a full audit of TfL finances conducted by the government itself. Rail worker comrades also described ongoing efforts to ensure safety measures are in place prior to any significant increase in passenger levels, and the potential use of refusals-to-work if maintaining distancing becomes impossible.

With reference to job cuts more widely, including in manufacturing, the meeting discussed the importance of the demand for a reduced working week with no loss of pay for full-time workers, and a pro rata pay increase for part-time workers whose hours would not be reduced. Various approaches to the question of the shorter working week were discussed, with comrades noting that some advocates of the policy in the labour movement pose it as a matter of “increasing productivity” rather than boosting working-class living standards. The question of transitions to socially useful production as a measure to avoid job cuts and respond to the ongoing climate crisis was also discussed, with comrades from the Unite fraction noting that the union has so far greeted announcements of job cuts in sectors where it organises by expressing “regret” rather than attempting to organise any sort of resistance that might hope to stop the cuts.

Job cuts is also an ongoing issue for comrades in the civil service, with the employer having used the pandemic as a pretext to accelerate the automation of some administrative work, as well as an ongoing programme of redundancies and office closures and plans for the outsourcing of more civil service work to companies like Serco.

Workers' Liberty members working in the civil service and active in the PCS union reported on organising for workplace safety, and particularly on struggles faced by outsourced workers, whose employers have frequently flouted protocols agreed between the Cabinet Office and the civil service unions, intended to cover all workers, such as the right to full pay for sickness and self-isolation. Outsourced contractors' refusal to pay this has already led to the death of at least one worker, Emanuel Gomes, a cleaner at the Ministry of Justice who died of the virus after working through his symptoms.

Comrades described particular flashpoints in the Passport Office and Ministry of Justice, where bosses have launched “back-to-work” drives. Like the NEU, the PCS now has a charter of five “tests” it needs to see met before it can be satisfied that it is safe to return to work, including returning only essential work to the physical workplace on a voluntary basis; ongoing protections for vulnerable workers; and union scrutiny over workplace safety and distancing measures. Comrades noted the majority of the PCS leadership's reluctance to assertively promote the idea of refusals to work under health and safety legislation on the basis that doing so might lead to the union falling foul of anti-union laws. But as one comrade put it, “if more-or-less immediate action is required, and we accept that a formal dispute and ballot will take too long, but we're ruling out promoting 'refusals-to-work' as a possible strategy, what weapons do we actually have left? Our 'five tests' don't mean much if we're not prepared to organise action if they're not met.”

Workers' Liberty members in local government reported that regional bureaucrats in Unison had taken a similarly conservative attitude, forcing branches that had issued material promoting Section 44 rights to withdraw it. With the Local Government Association having offered only a 2.75% pay increase, the need for a renewed fight over local government pay was also discussed.

The fight for workers' rights – including full sickness and self-isolation pay and adequate PPE – in the health and care sectors was discussed via a report on the Safe & Equal campaign, in which Workers' Liberty members across a variety of industrial sectors have been central. The government's new £600m fund for “infection control” in the care sector was noted, but with many councils simply handing the money over to private care sector employers, without insisting it be ring-fenced for sickness and self-isolation pay, there is now a risk, as one comrade put it, of “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”, unless unions are able to pressure councils to put conditions on how the money is used.

Members of Workers' Liberty active in Unite described how the union's national leadership had adopted a “seat-at-the-table” approach, with senior officials appearing to praise Rishi Sunak for his engagement with unions. Unite's approach is explicitly cross-class, with the union advocating a “National Recovery Council” involving business, unions, and the state. The union's policy document on aviation does not even go as far as opposing all job cuts, instead advocating redundancies of no more than 10% in return for bailouts. Union functioning, including national elections, is continuing to various degrees. Comrades reported that there is already backroom chicanery afoot to coronate an appointed successor once incumbent general secretary Len McCluskey steps down. Workers' Liberty members and supporters are active in United Left Scotland and North West United Left within Unite, and also described some independent rank-and-file activity in the construction sector around the Blacklist Support Group and the Siteworker bulletin, which have organised independent agitation around the demand to close construction sites and guarantee pay for workers.

Activity in the Safe & Equal campaign, and the Free Our Union campaign for the abolition of anti-union legislation, was also discussed, as well as plans to rerun from mid-late June the online political education course in “Marxism and Trade Unionism”, now approaching the last session of its first run.

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