Covid-19 Has Shown Why Unions Matter

Trade unions have been at the forefront of protecting workers during the Covid-19 crisis, standing up to bad bosses and defending livelihoods – it's Labour's job to fight for them in parliament.

I was born in Stockport but I was raised in our trade union movement. For me, coming of age politically meant organising with my workmates for fair pay and conditions, not political theory seminars or debates at the Oxford Union.

Before I stood at the despatch box taking on Tory ministers I was a care worker on a zero-hour contract and poverty pay. I stood up for my workmates, I stood on picket lines and I stood up for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers fighting for equal pay, fair treatment at work and against the outsourcing of public sector jobs.

As deputy leader of the Labour Party I am proof of the inextricable link between the Labour Party’s members of parliament in Westminster and our millions-strong trade union movement, rooted in workplaces and communities up and down the country.

As we stare down the barrel of what could be the biggest economic crisis our country has seen for generations, this relationship is as important today as it has ever been at any other point in our history.

In the months and years ahead we will need all of our collective strength. The Labour Party and our trade union movement must speak with one voice: we need decisive action to save jobs, to save millions from the dole queue and to save our communities from the spectre of mass unemployment.

We know that once jobs go – especially skilled, high-paid unionised jobs – then it is unlikely that they will come back. We know the consequences of leaving entire communities behind and leaving a generation of young people without hope. Our communities are still scarred by the managed decline of the Thatcher era.

That is why we need flexibility in the Job Retention Scheme to protect jobs and to protect businesses that are at risk of going under. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach simply won’t cut it. We need sector-specific support for the parts of our economy that won’t be able to return to normality soon, such as hospitality, aviation and retail.

The coronavirus crisis has proven the importance of trade unions, the strength of workers when we unite and the power of having a union membership card in your pocket. It is our trade unions that have stood up to bad bosses and stepped in to ensure that workers are safe at work. Our unions have secured protective equipment for staff, fought to prevent workers being laid off and won sick pay for their members.

This is reflected in the increase in union membership that we have seen, particularly among women workers, with 170,000 women joining a union in the last year. We need to launch a mass campaign to increase trade union membership, particularly among the young and those on the frontline most at risk of Covid-19 – key workers and people employed in the private sector on casual and insecure contracts, who are disproportionately ethnic minority workers.

Unions were at the forefront of protecting jobs and livelihoods when the coronavirus crisis struck, they have been leading the way in ensuring that workers return to safe workplaces and they will be at the heart of the battles ahead to prevent job losses and create the jobs of the future that we need to build back better.

It is the role of the Labour Party to lead this fight in parliament. Workers need the Labour Party to have their back. We have been promised a ‘New Deal’ but so far it’s been the same old story – reheated announcements, hot air and a return to sanctions for those who are out of work, when what we need is a job protection and job creation programme that meets the scale of the challenge we face.

The Labour Party has always been the party of the workers – by hand and by brain. Our party was founded when working people came together to stand up for each other and for as long as our party has existed in parliament, that has been our guiding purpose.

There is no doubt that we face an unprecedented economic challenge in the months ahead. But as trade unionists we know that unity is strength. Our movement of half a million Labour Party members and millions of trade unionists has a responsibility to stand together and stand up for our brothers and sisters. We have work to do.