How Unions Are Responding to the Employment Crisis

With unemployment numbers rising rapidly, and the end of the furlough approaching, trade unions are the last line of defence for thousands of workers trying to save their livelihoods.

The widely predicted cliff edge resulting from the end of the government’s furlough scheme on October 31st may not turn out to be the quite as dramatic as was expected when it was launched back in March. Some 9.5 million workers in 1.2 million companies were furloughed at a cost of £32 billion. Many were believed to be facing the prospect of having no jobs to return to because they would be made redundant shortly thereafter. But there are a few reasons to suspect this might not be the case.

First, many employers resisted putting their staff in the furlough scheme because they wanted to make redundancies as soon as possible and without additional restrictions. Second, the furlough scheme is already being wound down from August 1st through less generous wage compensation and higher employer contributions. And third, employers who keep furloughed workers in employment for four months after October 31st will be entitled to a payment of £1,000 per worker from the government for doing so.

The cumulative effect of these factors is that unemployment is already rising rapidly. It will, nonetheless, still continue to rise – but likely at a steady pace rather than all at once in October. The Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that 10% to 20% of furloughed workers will be made redundant, with overall unemployment rising from 4% to 12% by the end of 2020. There is, therefore, no suggestion of a quick V-shaped recovery being in prospect.  

Though there are some areas of limited employment growth in supermarkets, provision of home delivery and Job Centres, overall, this is a dire situation for unions to be operating in as they try to protect members’ employment and livelihoods. All unions are helping to give advice to their members on their legal and contractual entitlements. But some unions are being hit far harder than others because of the sectors they organise in.

Unions like Unison and PCS have been relatively less affected than those like the GMB and Unite. Unite provides the best example by which to examine what unions are trying to do in this awful environment because not only is it one of the biggest unions in Britain but also because of the sectors it organises – those like hospitality, manufacturing and travel where employment levels are being hammered.  

Like all others unions, Unite is organising less strike and industrial action ballots than it did before the pandemic. But now, it is taking steps to organise ballots – such as the one at British Airways (BA) – where it can combine political and industrial leverage. The union has run a high profile and well supported campaign to put pressure on the company to stop its planned 12,000 redundancies and the ‘fire and re-hire’ of remaining workers on downgraded terms and conditions. Now it has moved to begin an industrial action ballot.

Similar campaigns are being run at the likes of Centrica energy supply and Sheffield University where ‘fire and re-hire’ schemes are also being imposed. Those that do not resign will, the employers say, be deemed to have effectively sacked themselves. At EasyJet, Unite has organised a staff vote of ‘no confidence’ in the chief executive and supported this with daily demonstrations after announcing it was making 1,300 redundancies among cabin crew. And, in Scotland, Unite Scotland commissioned the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde to produce forecasts for employment in civil aviation overall in Scotland to help with its lobbying for intervention by the Scottish government.

But not all employers provide individual unions such opportunities to combine considerable political and industrial leverage. BA is an important, internationally recognised company where strike action can have an immediate and effective impact because such travel is still a perishable service, even in these times. It would be hard to get MPs to take notice of other employers in the high profile way that House of Commons’ transport committee did on the BA case.  

By contrast, the emphasis of Unite’s work in the manufacturing sector has been more focussed on political work. This is because of the lower ability to make an effective impact with industrial action in the period of the pandemic’s reduced demand for most manufactured goods. In aerospace, the union published a report called ‘Survive Recover Rebuild’ from Acuity Analysis which detailed on a regional basis the economic importance of the sector. This was part of its longer standing campaign called Manufacturing Matters which aims to get a national manufacturing strategy adopted by the government. In the process, this would help to ensure the security of these jobs.    

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has backed these types of campaigns through political lobbying and public awareness – but it has been shy of calling for national lobbies and demonstrations to support these campaigns due to the requirement for social distancing. The same limitations apply to campaigning for a shorter working week, but this is probably one of the most strategically important campaigns for the union movement as a whole.

With a disinterested (at best) or hostile (at worst) government in Westminster, the campaign targeted at employers to share out the existing amounts of work more widely could prove a fertile furrow to plough given the precedent set by companies like JCB in the aftermath of the 2008-’09 global financial crisis. All unions could put their shoulders to the wheel on this campaign in order to make the approaches by individual unions to particular employers more effective.

Devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to be more open to support measures for a shorter working week. The tricky issue for unions will be whether they are willing to offer, accept or condone commensurate reductions in pay for the reduced working time. If the Labour Party had been in office during the pandemic, it would be far more likely to have offered a subsidy to facilitate short-time working arrangements with limited reductions in pay. 

Some on the Left in the union movement have traditionally raised calls for generalised action to deal with generalised problems. The most obvious recent example was the call for a general strike against the austerity measures implemented by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition after 2010 by the likes of Bob Crow, former general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union. It is interesting to note that no such calls so far have been made for similar action this time round. This would seem most likely to highlight the inherent difficulties of organising such physically-orientated action in this unprecedented period of the pandemic.