Coronavirus Shows You Need to Join a Union

They haven't got much coverage for it, but trade unions have been getting results for workers as the pandemic hits jobs.
05 May 2020, 8:15am
Fund Our NHS
Pre-pandemic, trade unionists protest about cuts to the NHS.

Stephen Barnes/Northern Ireland News / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s a tough time to be a worker. If you’re not getting laid off, you’re getting a pay cut. If you’re not getting a pay cut, you’re being forced to go to work in the middle of a pandemic. And what can you do? You can’t just work somewhere else, because nowhere is hiring. You can’t stand up to your boss, because he could just replace you with one of the thousands of newly-unemployed people. You know it, and so does he. So you’ve just got to suck it up, right?

Wrong! There are thousands of workers who have been successfully negotiating with their bosses around jobs, wages and safety since the onset of the pandemic. What’s their secret? They’re union members.

There’s been little coverage of the fact that British unions have been quietly making sure certain bosses don’t force their workers to bear the brunt of the coronavirus crisis since the whole thing kicked off last month, but the measures secured by unions have been pretty impressive and they deserve more attention.

Take the refuse workers at outsourcing company Norse Medway who walked out over health and safety concerns. The walk out, supported by trade union Unite, secured protective gear, hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, and social distancing measures for hundreds of at-risk workers. Unite also successfully lobbied the outsourcing giant Amey to make sure it paid staff in full if they needed to self-isolate. This was even the case for staff that had to self-isolate for 12 weeks, and the pay was backdated. And the union also negotiated a deal to ensure 13,000 workers at the logistics company Kuehne + Nagel kept a minimum of 80 percent of their pay packet during the pandemic.

Similarly, Unison negotiated a deal which guaranteed zero-hours catering staff at the University of London were paid in full for the weeks they would normally have worked, and that their pay was backdated.

Over at Matalan, a combination of naming and shaming, media reports, and the support of local politicians meant GMB Union was able to force the clothing company to put its staff on the government scheme to pay 80 per cent of their wages, after the union was inundated with anxious messages from members working in crowded conditions.

And after Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin initially told his 40,000-strong workforce that they should get a job at Tesco after all of his pubs were closed, BFAWU used public pressure, and the testimonies of staff members to pressure Wetherspoons to join the government scheme to pay workers 80 percent of their wages.

This is just a snapshot of union victories during the pandemic.

To understand how unions have managed to achieve these things, it’s important to recognise that the relationship between a trade union and the boss is all about power – and that coronavirus has disrupted that power relationship. That’s not necessarily a good thing: suddenly a lot of companies have less money, and a lot more workers to potentially choose from. This puts workers in a vulnerable position: bosses would rather cut workers’ wages than their own, and that seems easier to do when everyone is suddenly a lot more replaceable. And yet what unions recognise is that, while a boss might find it easy to replace one worker, replacing an entire workforce is costly, time-consuming, and a logistical nightmare. Faced with the prospect of having to replace their entire workforce, most bosses will conclude it is easier and cheaper to negotiate.

Newspapers keep churning out apocalyptic headlines about the economy, so it’s understandable that we assume that people will lose jobs and wages will plummet – and some unions have set up charities to support hard-up members through the pandemic. But it’s important to remember that the people who are telling us job losses are inevitable generally aren’t suffering themselves.

Take EasyJet, which (thanks again to Unite) agreed to take advantage of the government scheme and pay staff 80 per cent of their wages instead of putting them on unpaid leave. But at the same time as EasyJet was asking the government for loans and contemplating getting rid of thousands of jobs, it was paying its shareholders a dividend of £170 million.

The airline says it was legally obliged to make the payment because it has already signed off, but what kind of company pays its shareholders that much while its cabin crew are on base wages of less than £15,000? Coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, but bosses do – and without unions there are a lot of bosses out there who would do everything they possibly could to make sure that all of the consequences of the pandemic are heaped onto you, not them.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this pandemic, it’s that we’re better facing difficult circumstances together. And as we enter the new world coronavirus has created: the one where governments have more draconian power, where tech giants are even more dominant, and where precarious work is even more precarious; people need to come together to make sure that the future is designed in the interests of the majority. Or, to put it another way, it’s time you joined a union.

And yes, I know that joining a union to fight for the future isn’t going to help you right now if you’re facing redundancy or a pay cut. But don’t worry, because knowing your rights is also a form of power, and unions have got that covered too. The TUC has produced a comprehensive guide on coronavirus, covering everything from what your symptoms might be to what your employer’s contractual obligations are.

The GMB has done the same, as has Unison. If you’re a creative freelancer, you can get involved in Bectu’s New Deal for Freelancers, which aims to permanently change the economy so that freelancers no longer have to worry about becoming destitute at the stroke of a pen. And if you’re already a union member, remember that most unions have hardship funds which support their members who are struggling to pay the bills.

Throughout the pandemic, we’re all going to great lengths to make sure we’re socially connected. We’re putting a lot of time and effort into maintaining our relationships with friends and family. Joining a union is the way for us to become economically connected: to recognise that most people have way more in common with each other than we do with the people who pay us. Joining a union means figuring out our shared interests and fighting for them. There is no need for you to be alone in this pandemic. So don’t be.


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