Unions: use the lull to organise

Submitted by AWL on 26 August, 2020 - 11:40 Author: Martin Thomas
Lewisham Hospital demo

Drax power station workers are balloting, 14-25 August, for industrial action against 230 threatened redundancies there.

The GMB union has won a 95% majority, on a 67.5% turnout, for strikes at British Gas if the bosses do not back down on a threat to fire their whole workforce and rehire on new terms.

The Unite union held a mass meeting of 1,000 British Airways ramp, baggage, and cargo workers near Heathrow on 20 August, and they voted for the union to move for “industrial and legal action” over job cuts, pay cuts, and BA cheating on redundancy pay for workers who have already signed for voluntary redundancy.

Workers at the Tate galleries in London have struck against over 300 threatened job cuts.

And the TUC and several unions are, at least on paper (or, rather, on the web), backing the call made by Safe and Equal for full isolation pay for all workers who have to quarantine because of the virus.

The labour movement is beginning to use the easing of the lockdown to do meetings, ballots, strikes, picket lines, and demonstrations.

We’ll need a lot more of that, and quickly.

The official Office for Budget Responsibility estimates 12% unemployment by the end of 2020.

The manufacturing bosses’ group Make UK reported in late July that 53% of its firms were definitely planning redundancies in the coming months. 42% didn’t expect to be back to normal within the next 12 months. 59% of firms still had more than 25% of their workers furloughed.

About three million workers are still on the furlough scheme now being phased out and due to close at the end of October. Many will be in pubs, cafés, and shops, likely to close outright as the pandemic continues.

Croydon council has announced 450 job cuts, and Luton 350. Other councils, having lost much income and spent much extra during the lockdown, will follow unless the government returns more of the billions taken from councils in cuts since 2010.

Local and government action

As well as plans for action workplace by workplace, employer by employer, we need across-the-board plans and demands for government action. Both the Labour Party and the TUC say that they are campaigning “for jobs”, but their demands are very vague.

A while back it looked like a high-pandemic, high-lockdown period, in which many jobs were saved by furlough and our attention was focused on anti-virus measures, would be followed by an eased-pandemic, eased-lockdown period of job-cuts fallout.

Now it looks like we will have a combination. Across the world new virus spikes are bringing new local or partial lockdowns. There will probably be more of that as we get into the Northern Hemisphere winter. The Tories have added to their record of floundering by abolishing Public Health England and putting its remains under the management of Tory crony Dido Harding, who has no medical or scientific expertise.

At the same time furlough schemes are being wound down. Bosses who have been on “wait and see” since the start of lockdown are moving to axe jobs, and axe all the more because no approximation to “business as usual” is near. The TUC reports that zero-hours contracts increased 41%, to April-June 2020 from a year before, in wholesale and retail, and 35% in health and social care. That indicates that many of the few new jobs created this year have been insecure ones, more easily cut, and making it often difficult for workers in those jobs to self-isolate when they should.

Job cuts and virus-control

The labour movement must work simultaneously on two fronts, job cuts and virus-control.

• Shorten the working week with no loss of pay, to create more jobs with a standard working week of four days or 32 hours

• Expand directly-employed public sector jobs in health, social care and other public services. Expand council house-building

• Take the manufacturing and aviation giants declaring job cuts into public ownership, and convert them to green and socially useful production; take the banking and financial sector into public ownership and democratic control

• Drop the reintroduction of “conditionality” on Universal Credit, introduce a fallback emergency basic or minimum income as a safety-net.

And also:

• Full isolation pay for all

• A public-health, publicly-accountable virus-control strategy, not the current semi-privatised mess in test-and-trace and in NHS supplies and logistics

• Taking over of the private hospitals and integrating them into the NHS

• Taking social care into public ownership, and staffing it on regular public-sector pay and conditions

• Extension of furlough payments, and rent holidays, to prepare for closing areas like pubs, cafés, and inessential travel when and where infections mount.

World-wide, data show the virus slightly subsiding. New infections rose exponentially from mid-May to early August, but since then have declined slightly. New deaths have plateaued or decreased in August, too.

We don’t know whether those figures are artefacts of the balance of infection shifting more to countries with poorer detection of cases and deaths, like India, or real trends.

Since the tourist season in Europe led to rising infections, we have to expect that tourist returns-home will also do that. Almost certainly the winter will be difficult. The labour movement must use the “gap” we have now, when organising is easier, to prepare.

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