Tony Burke: Unions are back and we’re helping Britain

Trade unions have played a key part in tackling the crisis.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, popular support has grown for trade unions and membership has been growing too.

So when right-wing papers like the Mail described teachers unions as ‘callous’, it failed to chime with parents, doctors, scientists, local authorities and the general public.

Ministers have been left floundering after trying to bounce parents into taking their kids back to schools where heads and teachers say they are not ready for the return and it is unsafe.

Recently, the Economist (not normally a friend of organised labour) ran an article headed ‘The Trade Unions Are Back’. Of course, we’ve never really been away. But, at the start of the crisis the Government got in touch with us. They were keen to get organised labour on board.

Lots of things have happened since March – but it is worth examining the impact that trade unions have actually had in helping workers (and not just union members) since the lockdown. So have the unions done for us during the crisis?

The furlough scheme

From the very first meeting with the Chancellor the unions proposed – and secured a the Job Retention Scheme (furlough scheme).

In total 8 million jobs had been furloughed covering 986,000 employers. Over £11bn has been claimed.

The Job Retention Scheme provides 80% of wages – at first extended to end of June, then to the end of October.

When it was widely expected this would be reduced to 60% the chancellor agreed to maintain the 80% until October. This was in spite of comments from the right wing media and some MPs that furloughed workers were ‘addicted’ to being off work.

The government also announced that additional flexibilities will be available from August which will allow part-time working while on furlough.

When it was clear that genuinely self employed workers would be hit hard it was pressure from unions that secured the self-employment income support scheme which has seen two million applications, with £3.1billion being claimed.

Improving sick pay and social security

Unions were responsible for securing the changes to Universal Credit. The government increased the standard allowance – the monthly baseline every household receives – by £1,000 (upping payments by around £20 a week) for all new and existing claimants for 12 months.

It has also removed the minimum income floor (a calculation set at the national minimum wage) to ensure higher payments for those who are self-employed but unable to earn in this period.

On sick pay unions were instrumental in eliminating the three-day waiting period for people affected by coronavirus.

As of 13th March 2020, employees and workers were entitled to receive any Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) due to them from their first day of self-isolation if it’s because they or someone in their household has coronavirus symptoms.

Health and safety

When Boris Johnson glibly announced on TV it was time to go back to work (with 10 hours notice), the unions were the first to point out that proper risk assessment had to be carried out.

The documents on the return to work that unions and employers recived soon after the Johnson announcement failed to reference the requirement for proper health and safety risk assessments.

Unions offered an army of experienced health and safety reps to help carry out the risk assessments, which they had also done with the offer to switch manufacturing jobs to producing essential PPE and ventilators.

In addition, there are eight sets of BEIS guidance groups, covering different classifications of work. Unions have three or four union reps on all eight groups – something that would have been unthinkable in the recent past.

Add into the mix the many thousands of local agreements reached by unions with employers to provide safe working for those key workers who have worked throughout the lockdown.

There’s also the U-turns forced on those those employers who tried to just to sack their workforce and the work unions have done supporting communities and key workers. All that adds up some big gains for working families.

Build back better

One of the key proposals from trade unions including the TUC and Unite is the establishment of a National Council for Recovery to help rebuild the economy.

As TUC General Secretary France O’Grady said recently “There can be no return to business as usual after the pandemic”. This has been echoed by Unite’s Len McCluskey, the CWU’s Dave Ward and many others.

Frances O’Grady has called for a return of the unity shown after the second world war, when the post-war decade of social investment created growth of 3.3%, but a decade of austerity after the financial crash resulted in growth of only 1.9%.

“We’ve got to get that safety net strung again, we’ve got to invest in our public services, which may have to build resilience for a long time to come,” “Unions are back … but the state is back too” says Frances.

Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary at Unite and the TUC General Council’s Lead on Employment and Union Rights.

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