by Jack Harris
Tuesday, 5
May 2020

The trade unions are back in the driving seat

Worker groups are going to play a powerful role in our exit from lockdown
by Jack Harris
Unison protesters in Edinburgh, UK.

In recent weeks, there has been a growing difference in attitudes to the lockdown between those who can work from home and those who can’t.

Mark Drakeford, a Welsh politician, summed up this predicament on The Andrew Marr show last week: ‘You can open anything you like, but if people don’t think it’s safe to go there, then they’ll vote with their feet… we are going to have to persuade people it’s safe to resume normal activity’.

What Drakeford is referring to is an event that has not been seen in British politics for decades: a walkout by workers over their rights. He’s spot on, and we should expect over the coming weeks and months trade unions to play a pivotal role in our exit from lockdown.

I came to this conclusion a few weeks ago when my mum, an administrator at a secondary school, said to me she had joined the public sector union, Unison, because she wanted to know her rights in the workplace. She is not alone — over 16,000 people joined Unison alone during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Several other trade unions have also expressed an appetite in taking on the government. RMT, TSSA, NASUWT and PCS have all made clear that they will not tolerate workplaces that are unsafe for their members.

Trade unions appear to have a renewed sense of confidence in their role as intermediaries in society. For decades, such groups have been irrelevant to public opinion in relation to politics. Other than decisively electing Corbyn as leader of Labour, what else have the unions done for the politics of labour?

But this time round, the unions have been the first association in our body politic to capture the mood of public opinion. Rightly or wrongly, ordinary people are scared of coming out of lockdown, and do not want to be the government’s cannon fodder while everyone else works from home for the next 12 months.

You can see from a mile away what the headline of the red-tops will be if they have don’t get their say over the lifting of lockdown: ‘Government abandons the people for profit’, ‘Tories over workers, again’, ‘a return to the 1980s’.

The government is doing everything possible to avoid that moment, so expect deference to trade unions in a way we haven’t seen for decades.

Join the discussion

  • The virus may move those in the Conservative party a touch closer to the centre, which may be a good thing. Some in the new labour party seem to be acting during the pandemic with a conciliatory tone, again a good thing. The Unions have a duty to protect their confused members from a rush back to business as usual and i would hope that the new reality will bring all sides closer together.

  • Forgive me, but working for an engineering company selling to the motor industry in the 70’s, I do not trust trade unions. Who now remembers Longbridge – once the largest car plant in the UK.

    In theory trade unions should be a force for good to hold unscrupulous employers to account, but if they become too powerful then the union itself becomes the unscrupulous.

    As a country we need to get back to work, so that the country does not become bankrupt. If it does, then there will be no jobs, no income for anybody. At least we will be “safe”, but going very hungry!

    Statistically, it is mainly the old and already ill people who have died from the virus. So it is safe for most people to return to work and the unions should not stand in the way.

  • As an active union member I urge every member to temper the leadership in this time to avoid the “Doomsday” cult mentality that have seen so many of us put under unnecessary financial hardship.

    We must work in partnership with employers to find a way forward together so that we can return to work. Your employer “owes” you nothing. Your employer did not create this virus. Your employer has been a victim as much as you to the negligence of the CCP and their misinformation/propaganda, which is unfortunately being repeated by many Corbyn disciples in the labour movement.

    Want to be unemployed. Be difficult and unreasonable. There will be 5 in line for your job after this disaster. No one is asking you to take a risk you don’t want to. You have a choice. My view is exercise it wisely and not let others make it for you.

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