When Heroes Strike: Unions’ Role in Light of a Pandemic

“Trade unions are back”, boldly claims an Economist article from May 16th, and it’s true– the last few months have been a busy time for unions across the country. By the time PM Boris Johnson delivered his first coronavirus press briefing on March 16th– in which he advised the nation to work from home and avoid pubs, clubs, and venues– events were already being cancelled, restaurants had already shifted to takeaway-only services, and airlines had already begun to limit their operations. Advising consumers to stay away from social gatherings without outright ordering businesses to close meant that big employers in the hospitality sector began to dismiss workers en masse, claiming that they could not afford to keep paying workers without running business. On the 19th of March, the G1 Group dismissed hundreds of staff with less than two years’ experience across Glasgow and Edinburgh over the phone. Cineworld Group claimed it would be sacking all staff with less than three years’ experience, and that those left would be kept on 40% of their salary. The SEC sacked over 600 workers via Facebook post. The QMU laid off 31 of its members of staff before the job retention scheme was announced, and refused to reinstate them even after the job retention scheme was announced on the 20th by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, then reversed that decision after a board decision to reinstate staff and pressure from Unite Hospitality. By June 1st, the QMU had laid off all their staff, despite the Job Retention Scheme remaining the same until August. In an email to staff, QMU CEO Margaret Davison claims that one reason for this decision was that there will be many people seeking employment in August after the change in the Job Retention Scheme, so it would be better to fire their workers in May as there are currently many employers recruiting staff. They also stated that the board decision was made amongst financial difficulties arising from the QMU’s sustained losses over the past few years and current lack of cash flow that is impacting all hospitality and event businesses. The GUU also laid off all of their term-time staff in May. In all of these cases, jobs are being fought for by unions campaigning for change.

Public services union Unison reported 65,000 new members since January, the National Education Union has gained 20,000 new members over the last few months, and Unite and GMB have also reported thousands of new members. With the pandemic bringing so much job instability, unions have become a newly become vital part of people’s working lives. But without the option to physically rally together or strike, how have unions adapted? And how has this led to success?

The UK has a complex relationship with unions, to say the least. Membership of all trades unions has been falling steadily since the 80’s, with numbers reaching their lowest since the 1940s in 2012. Some blame Thatcher-era restrictions on union activity that has been impossible to recover from, while others claim that unions have lost their relevance. Unions are rarely representative, with most Black and other enthic minorities under-represented in unions, as well as migrant workers, gender minorities, disabled workers, and LGBT+ workers. Additionally, older employees tend to make up a much larger proportion of union members, which tends to alienate the younger workforce, if steps are not made to reach out and campaign on issues that are relevant to younger and newer members of a union.

But the stakes in workplace conflict are undoubtedly much higher than ever before. These are, as I’m sure you’ve probably heard, unprecedented times, and there’s no knowing when business will return to normal. Workers are facing massive uncertainty, and it’s not surprising that so many have organised to demand answers where they may not have turned to a union for support before. This has meant that, particularly in the hospitality sector which was hit hard in March, unions are starting to become more and more representative of their workforce. Younger members are often leaders and organisers in their respective workplaces, changing the face of unions from the inside out.

 Additionally, organising from home has not been as much of a challenge as one might assume. Without the surveying of employers in the workplace, workers can freely organise over WhatsApp or different forms of social media, and it’s much easier to control who hears what information, without the fear of disciplinary action being taken against those attempting to unionise against an employer. The influx of younger members also means that there is a far bigger base of workers that are familiar with social media, and can use it as a form of organisation that reaches much further than a strike would. Social media intimidation is used in place of strikes, attacking the employer’s reputation rather than their business– and it has worked.

Despite trade unions’ success, there’s no time to rest on any laurels– general secretary of the Trade Union Congress Frances O’Grady has said “Like puppies, we don’t just want to be for Christmas”. That may be a somewhat reductive assessment of the moment (and likening a pandemic that has killed almost 40,000 people in the UK to Christmas is more than slightly tone-deaf), as there is also concern that this sudden burst in influence will only last as long as the pandemic. Being active in a union is a lot of work, and as we start to leave lockdown and businesses begin to open, there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that employers are protecting their workers with adequate health and safety regulations and requirements. Burnout is unavoidable, but needs to be carefully managed so that activism and pressure can remain constant, particularly as businesses and workplaces begin to re-open.

However, the pandemic has led to changes in how the public views their community that will be difficult to reverse. Over the last few months, it has become clear who keeps the country moving. Our ‘heroes’ are not employers, they are healthcare workers, refuse collectors, transport workers, supermarket workers — they are the people we would not be able to live without, and it has become more and more evident that they are not being treated adequately. Hopefully, unions will take advantage of this moment to rethink what is needed to make a larger impact, how they can strive to be more representative of the larger workforce, and encourage a culture of confronting your employer in the face of injustice that will change the face of unions in wider society.

Goose Masondo [they/them @musgaria]

[Image Credit: Pixabay “3 Silhouette of Man Under White Sky”]

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