Radical Roundup: 10 stories that have got buried – Week 2 March 2021

Left Foot Forward's roundup of the progressive news you might have missed this week…

Radical Roundup

Your weekly dose of under-reported news, in no particular order… 

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10. Unite says it is mobilising a ‘standing army’ of 30,000 workplace reps to promote the benefits of the Covid-19 vaccine to workmates across the UK.

Unite, Britain and Ireland’s largest union, today (Friday, 5 March) launched a major initiative with its general secretary Len McCluskey saying the UK’s accelerating vaccination programme is ‘a bridge to a safer world, and the chance to live, work and travel as we did before’.

Unite is especially keen to assist those hard-to-reach groups which have been hit hardest by the virus but where some are yet to be convinced of the merits or safety of the two major vaccines currently deployed in the UK – Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

The union also repeated its call for an urgent uplift in statutory sick pay stating that the country needs ‘more than one club in its bag‘ to beat this disease, including much more support for low waged workers who have to isolate. 

The union has produced a raft of promotional campaign materials, including films for its million-plus membership across the UK, urging workers and their loved ones to ‘get a jab’.

9. Momentum has published a new strategy for ‘socialist organising in a new era’.

The socialist group wants to pivot to more ‘outward-facing’ organising in communities and in support of trade union struggles, while continuing to work within the Labour party.

Momentum argues that key policies of the Corbyn-era to be extremely popular with the public, despite a shift to the ‘centre’ by Keir Starmer. 75% of voters support a 10% pay rise for nurses, according to a recent YouGov poll, and 70% support a pandemic windfall on profitable companies like Amazon according to Survation.

Left-wing activists say they will continue resisting moves by the Labour leadership they say limit debate, including a recent ban on debating the EHRC’s report into antisemitism.

Momentum has committed to three strategic focuses: “Building left power in the Labour Party and electing socialists; campaigning in communities and supporting working class struggle; and popularising socialist ideas.” The document reveals hopes to push the leadership to contest the 2024 election on a ‘socialist platform’, launch a Momentum trade Unionists Network, and push for mandatory re-selection of Labour candidates.

8. Energy companies are exposing staff to unnecessary Covid risks, Unison says.

The UK’s leading energy suppliers – including many of the big six companies – are needlessly forcing staff to enter up to 80 homes a day each during the pandemic to take meter readings.

The union is calling on the government to intervene and class meter reading as non-essential work, if the companies fail to suspend these visits. 

Despite cases falling nationally thanks to the vaccine rollout, millions of adults are yet to receive their first dose, so in-home meter readings create an unacceptable risk of the virus spreading, says UNISON.

Of the dozens of energy suppliers, only British Gas has stopped in-home readings in England and Wales. The Scottish government has already recognised the clear risk to both employees and homeowners and stopped readings until further notice, says UNISON.  

7. The Scottish Greens have won major concessions from the SNP in Scotland’s budget.

The budget includes measures to tackle poverty and ‘sow the seeds of a green recovery’, in what the Greens say marks the biggest budget concessions in the parliament’s history. The SNP does not have a majority in Holyrood and must negotiate with the Greens.

The budget deal amounts to £316m of wins for Green priorities, with more to follow next year as commitments on free school meals and bus travel are rolled out post-pandemic.

As the parliament debates the budget at stage three, the Child Poverty Action Group hailed new ‘pandemic relief payments’, which will see direct payments of up to £330 to households worst hit by the pandemic, and the rolling out of free school meals during the holidays, saying they will ‘make a real difference to struggling families’.

The STUC welcomed an increased pay deal for public sector workers. General Secretary Roz Foyer said: “It is clear that the Scottish Greens went into the negotiations with Government with public sector pay high on their agenda.”

Free bus travel for everyone under 22 across Scotland was also welcomed by the Scottish Youth Parliament, and NUS Scotland said: “This will make a big impact on the finances and mobility of many students.”

Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie said: “We’ve had a fantastic response to our budget deal, which delivers real results for those who have struggled as a result of the pandemic, a better pay rise for public sector workers and sows the seeds of a green recovery.”

6. Unite has proposed a new industrial strategy for post-Brexit trade, in a new report.

The publication calls for a fresh approach to support coordination between reps across industries and Unite’s sectors at the workplace level.

A survey for the union found that the vast majority of dozens of Unite reps interviewed see a threat to their site from Brexit, putting jobs and conditions at risk.  

Unite reps want to see a new collective bargaining strategy across sectors, to benefit workers throughout supply chains and to counter the industrial impact of trade.

The majority of reps also reported using digital tools to organise in the pandemic, with two thirds reporting a positive experience of using these tools, suggesting they could help sustain supply chain coordination.

5. The public want it to be made easier to vote during this May’s local elections, according to new polling for HOPE Not Hate and the National Education Union.

Three quarters (74%) believe the government should encourage people to vote by post or proxy in the May elections, if they are worried or unable to go to the polling station due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The same proportion of voters say that councils should send out postal and proxy vote forms to every voter to enable them to vote, if they don’t feel comfortable about going to the polling stations during the pandemic. The government has no plans to send out postal votes to all voters, unlike some states in the US during the presidential election.

Covid could pose a threat to turnout, with 26% of Brits saying they are less likely to go to the polling station to vote because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Of those who said that they would definitely not vote or were unlikely to vote, the most common reason was that they felt their vote wouldn’t make any difference (25%), followed by the belief that ‘politicians are all the same’ (20% of non-voters).

Roxana Khan-Williams, Campaigns Officer, HOPE not hate: “Even in normal times, local and devolved elections struggle with lower turnout, so we have to do everything possible to help people vote in May. Our findings that Covid fears are more likely to deter certain minority communities and the young are of real concern.

“Low turn-outs damage democracy – the people who are most likely to stay away are those whose voices most need to be heard, and it gives an opportunity for extreme and unrepresentative voices to encroach into mainstream political decision making. It’s vital that government and local authorities do everything possible to encourage registration and taking active steps to make postal and proxy voting as easy as possible.”

4. Yodel faces a £250,000 bill, as workers take the delivery giant to court over alleged ‘underpayment’.

The GMB Union says it has evidence of underpayment going back 20 years. Up to 500 workers for the logistics giant could have been underpaid for their night shift,  some of them to the tune of £1,000 each, according to the union.

Initially, a group of 18 night workers found their pay packets short because their overtime allowances were missing. They contacted their union – GMB – who launched a grievance on behalf of the Yodel workers. GMB has enlisted legal firm Pattinson and Brewer to take Yodel to the Employment Tribunal.

Steve Garelick, GMB Organiser, said:  “Being underpaid £2.70 an hour might not sound a lot to some people – but added up over weeks, months and years this is can be the difference between making the rent or putting decent food on the table.

“GMB union has evidence this underpayment goes back as far as 20 years  – it’s ridiculous Yodel has not settled and would rather take its chances at a tribunal.”

3. Labour MP Apsana Begum has written to the Health Secretary to challenge a US health giant’s takeover of local GP surgeries.

Operose, a subsidiary of US health company Centene, has taken over AT Medic which has a 49 GP surgery contracts.

Aspana Begum MP said: “I am very alarmed about the lack of process transparency regarding this contract– especially when there is currently lots of anxiety regarding the future of the NHS. 

“Amidst the Government’s smoke and mirrors, this big business back door takeover has catastrophic implications for the future of General Practice.

“The toxic involvement of the profit extracting private sector in the NHS has led to the fragmentation of care to the detriment of patients – as clearly exposed by the covid-19 response outsourcing debacle. 

“People want the NHS to be returned to the publicly funded, publicly provided, comprehensive health care service, available to all, free at the point of delivery, that we all have held so dear.”

2. The House of Commons Select Committee on Justice has launched a parliamentary inquiry into how the criminal law has been changed and applied during the pandemic.

Since the onset of the pandemic the government has created new criminal offences to ensure compliance with restrictions, such as the banning of groups of people meeting outside households.  

Many of these offences empowered the police to issue Fixed Penalty Notices which, if not paid, could lead to a defendant risking criminal prosecution – and there have been mounting concerns over BAME people being issued disproportionately high numbers of these notices.

More recently, the government has changed the law to enable the ‘single justice procedure’ to be used to decide cases involving Covid-19 offences. The single justice procedure means cases can be dealt with directly by magistrates and, if the defendant pleads guilty, without the defendant even being present. 

The committee will look at the process under which Covid-19 offences have been created, the use of Fixed Penalty Notices, and how these offences have been policed and prosecuted.

1. A new report from the Public Accounts Committee raises major concerns over the government’s handling of test and trace.

Pascale Robinson, campaigns officer at We Own, called the report a ‘damning indictment’ on the government’s handling of test and trace throughout the pandemic.

She added: “As the Public Accounts Committee rightly highlights, the government discarded the knowledge and experience in our public health teams and built a system reliant on private companies and consultants.

“This approach has been a disaster. The private sector has demonstrably failed to deliver an effective test and trace system, leaving the public unnecessarily exposed to coronavirus and putting countless lives needlessly at risk.

“The government must act on this immediately. It’s time to kick the private companies that have made a complete mess of the system out and put our local public health teams, NHS and primary care services in charge, so that the national system supports what works, and locally based test and trace links up with national best practice and data sharing. That’s the only way we’ll get the test and trace system we need to keep people safe.”

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward. Catch an audio version of some of this roundup on the UnionDues podcast.

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