The Pandemic has made Trade Unions Super Relevant

As the TUC holds its Congress online what is absolutely remarkable is that alongside the transfer of the traditional gathering onto the internet, no matter how tough it for unions to organise during an pandemic there are campaigns, demonstrations, actions and disputes breaking out all over the country and sectors of the economy.

Recruitment to trade unions is going on apace and union membership is growing once again. The pandemic has brought out the worst in many employers and has provoked a reaction from workers that many bosses significantly underestimated.

As people were being forced back to work it was to trade unions that they looked for guidance and advice on how they could be kept safe.

It was trade unions that they asked to speak up for them with their employers to secure changes in their workplaces to make it safe.

It has also been trade unions that people have resorted to when employers have tried to cut their wages, undermine their terms of employment and sack them.

There has been such a huge contrast in the pandemic between the sense of selfless dedication of workers in the NHS and Caring Services and the way in which members of the community have come together to help and support one another one with the brutal ruthlessness of companies like British Airways.

BA has clearly pursued a strategy of never letting a crisis go to waste and so has used the pandemic as the excuse for attempting to drive through the wage cuts and the ripping up of hard won agreements on conditions of employment that the company has long planned but never had the strength to push through on this scale.

The result is companies like BA taking grants and massive financial support from the government and using this income to make staff redundant and take some of them back on exploitative terms.

The irony is that the taxes the BA and other companies’ workers have paid are being used to support employers to enable the company to sack them and cut their pay.

The role BA has played is especially obscene because the management of its parent company has not only given themselves grotesquely large bonuses and pay rises but also bought itself a new airline during the pandemic, Air Europa.

Willie Walsh, IAG’s retiring chief executive, was awarded a golden wave goodbye of £800,000 whilst BA staff if they still had a job were facing a 40% cut in their wages.

In the meantime across the economy if someone has been unable to work because of sickness or self- isolation many have not been able to access statutory sick pay and if they have been able to receive it they are expected to live off £94 a week.

Potentially we stand on the edge of a possible recession of a depth and scale not seen since the 1930s. The lack of preparation by the Tories to seek to prepare for this shock to the economy is criminally negligent.

As this government fails to lead, it does mean that the trade union movement has a unique opportunity to take the lead in developing, promoting and campaigning for an alternative economic programme that at its heart employment rights.

By employment rights, of course, we mean the right of trade unions to recruit, organise and represent workers but it is now time to assert that it also means the right of trade unions to be able to have a say in the decision making within a workplace and a company and in the distribution of the rewards of the organisation and the wealth created by their company.

It’s time to turn the adversity caused by the pandemic into the opportunity for a revival of trade unionism but a new radical trade unionism with a much wider vision of the role trade unions could and should play.

Labour Outlook, 13 September 2020

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