“With a Labour Party shifting rightwards, and not always in-step with the wants and needs of trade union members, it is up to us to use our collective strength to make sure our political demands are heard loud and clear.”Amy Jackson
By Amy Jackson, Director of Executive Policy, Unite the Union.
A year ago, the political landscape was known. The Conservatives had a new large majority, a defeated Jeremy Corbyn was heading for the exit as Labour leader, with uncertainty over the future direction of the Party in the race to replace him and Brexit just days away.
But then Covid hit, sweeping away the business as usual politics and replacing it with a national crisis, and the big questions on how to respond.
The government’s response has been shaped by arrogance, negligence, and delay. It has repeatedly ignored the advice of specialists – waiting until it was already too late to introduce lockdowns and extend the job retention scheme, and refusing the trade unions’ offer of an army of roving health and safety reps, to ensure that those workplaces that had to stay open were as Covid-secure as possible. Over 100,000 have now died – the highest death toll in Europe. Do not be deceived. It didn’t have to be this way, and while people are back to partying in Wuhan and New Zealand, this government’s political choices mean that we are still in the deadly grip of the virus nearly 12 months on. But not everyone has suffered during the pandemic. The Tories have chosen to line the pockets of their cronies – with billions pounds worth of contracts handed out to companies who have failed to deliver – be it on PPE or test and trace. Indeed, life at the top has been rosy for some. The wealth of UK billionaires has soared by 35% in the pandemic, with the number of UK billionaires rising by over 15%.
Meanwhile, working people have once again borne the brunt of the crisis, and trade unions have taken centre stage in defending them. Since the pandemic hit, Unite has had three main priorities – protecting jobs, incomes and ensuring safety at work. Unite was among the first to call for wage support when the crisis hit, which eventually came in the form of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. While welcome, there have been many shortfalls in government support. We are still fighting for on so many fronts: for a rise in Statutory Sick Pay to bring it up to a living wage level, and ensure everyone is able to access it; to fix furlough so nobody is paid below the minimum wage and parents forced to stay at home while schools are closed are supported; and to keep the £20 uplift in Universal Credit and to boost it further. Recent research revealed six in 10 workers don’t self-isolate because they cannot afford to miss work. Unite will continue to press the government to provide these support mechanisms, so we can get through this without any more needless suffering and destitution.
Unscrupulous employers following the old political saying of ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ has been another sinister aspect of the pandemic. Some huge, profit-making companies like BA, Heathrow and British Gas have fired thousands of their employees in one go, only to rehire them on worse pay, terms and conditions. To give an example, Heathrow workers are currently in dispute over plans to slash their pay by up to £8000 a year. Unite has placed fire and rehire front and centre of the political arena, working closely with the Unite group of MPs to place maximum political pressure on the government to take action to stop companies firing and rehiring at will, and to outlaw this immoral practice.
As if workers weren’t facing enough difficulties, the government has chosen this moment, when unemployment is at record levels and the economy is in crisis, to launch a ‘review’ of workers’ rights. Boris Johnson has repeatedly said that the government would never do this, but have been forced to admit they have been plotting to roll back rights on working hours, affecting overtime, holiday pay and how many hours you can be expected to work in a week. TUC analysis showed that British workers are already putting in the longest hours in Europe, and now they want working people to do even more. At a time with massive job losses and an unemployment crisis, the government should be looking at reducing the working week. There is a long history of workers agreeing to shorter hours to save jobs, to share work more equally across the workforce and keep as many in jobs as possible. Instead, the Tories are doing the opposite.
The trade unions have their work cut out. To protect jobs, incomes and their members’ safety at work. With a Labour Party shifting rightwards, and not always in-step with the wants and needs of trade union members, it is up to us to use our collective strength to make sure our political demands are heard loud and clear. Unite has always been a powerful voice in politics and the labour movement, and that isn’t going to change now. But the world, and the politics that goes with it, is rapidly changing in the face of the pandemic, rising extreme inequality and a whole host of other factors.
Our General Secretary Len McCluskey is right to say that, ‘as a collective we are stronger, louder, and we will be heard.And as the new world emerges, Unite is finding new ways to bring our members together in common causes to make our collective shout even louder. We have launched ‘Our Collective Voice’, a truly new platform for our members to debate ideas, forge solutions to the big questions of our time and to build solidarity across our great movement. With regular online events and political campaigns driven by the members, we want to use our resources and political platforms to empower the collective voice of our members.
Because we know that no matter how strong or powerful, each of us cannot meet the challenges the world throws at us alone. Yes, those challenges we face now are enormous – and we need bold solutions to overcome them. But together we have the ideas, the skills and the power to build a new world that puts workers and their families first.
- Follow Unite Politics and find out about ‘Our Collective Voice’ at https://twitter.com/UnitePolitics