2020: A Workers’ Perspective


As 2020 draws to a close, we hear from those at its frontlines: nurses, teachers, posties, binmen – the workers who've kept society going through Covid-19, despite the best efforts of the government.

This was an extraordinary year. Not since the Spanish Flu more than a century ago has a pandemic so thoroughly transformed the world. Few of us ever believed we’d live through something like it, and its consequences on our lives have been devastating – from the loss of loved ones, to the loss of work and the means to support ourselves, and the loss of community.

But while profiteers exploited the Covid crisis for their own bottom lines, and the government disastrously mishandled the national response, workers have kept society going. Day by day, their work stitched together a social fabric torn apart by years of cuts – and ensured, where possible, that essential functions continued, even as their lives and livelihoods were thrown into chaos.

Here, as we bid farewell to 2020, Tribune gives voice to those experiences. From nurses to teachers, posties to binmen – and those on picket lines over Christmas – we hear about the year from the frontline. And, in doing so, renew our commitment to fighting for a Britain where workers not only keep society running, but run it themselves.


NHS Nurse

In the past year, the experiences of myself and my colleagues in nursing revolved around a sad, unnecessary loss of life. After a decade of underfunding and understaffing, we were surrounded by death and struggling. The fact that so many lives have been lost – including those of my fellow nurses – is testament to this vandalism by the political class.

The narrative encouraged by some of the most powerful voices in media – that some deaths are basically acceptable, since those who are dying are old, or have other health conditions – is very disconcerting. 2020 should go down as the year where all of Britain was forced to recognise the need and the value of properly funded and staffed universal healthcare, not the year where we decided some people deserved death due to issues mostly beyond their control.

In that light, we should remember in the new year, both health workers and the public deserve better. As I write this on my break from a rammed Christmas A&E, the gimmicks of clapping hands and half-hearted attempts at emergency hospitals could not feel more meaningless.

Any government serious about the challenges we face must mark 2021 as a turning point. Staffing levels are still incredibly unsafe. There are nowhere near enough emergency wards, and not enough staff – we are at an all-time low, with many colleagues even developing PTSD as a result. 

Despite these pressures, the warmth we have felt from the public has been touching, and it won’t be forgotten. We are all looking after each other, and I could not be prouder to work with the people I work with. Here’s to them, and here’s to 2021.

Ciara Connelly


Palliative Care Nurse 

The year has been a rollercoaster. Back in March, we were told to start getting beds ready for terminal Covid patients, and then, in the summer, all those beds were empty. Now we’ve had an outbreak, and every patient in the building has Covid-19 – even those initially admitted with other conditions.

Our PPE was decent, but I contracted Covid in September. It was inevitable, really – lots of us have had it, and thankfully those staff members who were really vulnerable have been able to go off sick long-term. I had a few days in bed and then I was fine.

It’s been much harder watching the patients passing their time here, particularly as the ability of visitors to come into the hospice is now almost nonexistent, except in exceptional circumstances. Before, they could come in and see patients whenever they wanted. My job is always strange, and often sad, but the visits are a comfort, both for staff and patients. This year that’s been impossible.

And I suppose I’ve even had the blessing of working somewhere where everyone, including the patients, know that they’re reaching the end of their lives. They have time to prepare; so do we. For medical staff who have to fight to save people, who don’t know whether their patients will live or die, I can hardly imagine. Medical staff around the country were overworked and underpaid before the pandemic, so the situation now is like something from a nightmare: I have friends who nurse in mainstream hospitals and their mental health has been so low that some of them have been forced to seek medical help themselves.

This is a vicious disease – trust me, I’ve seen the worst of it. So the fact that the government—its laziness, incompetence, ideology, whatever—has caused so much more suffering, so much more death, makes me angrier than I can say. Every day I watch patients die without family or friends at their bedside, with only staff in masks and visors to comfort them, and every day the infection rate goes up – and every day it becomes harder not to think about what else might have been.

Louise Johnson (pseudonym)


Care Worker

Early on this year, I started experiencing symptoms of Covid-19. I had a temperature while still at work. I came home feeling really bad, I was struggling with my breathing so I had to self-isolate.

I self-isolated for two weeks so it really impacted my income. I had a big deduction to my wages. Knowing the huge financial hardship this was going to cause me, I did wonder if I should just try to go to work even though I was unwell.

I stayed off but then struggled financially. Other care workers faced with the same choice might take the risk of going to work, so it’s been clear for some time that care workers need to be guaranteed full sick pay.

My employer didn’t allow people who have to self-isolate paid time off. It’s heartbreaking, some are single parents who are in full-time work, their children still need to be fed and looked after and they still have their monthly bills to pay. 

So they put their health, our service users and their family members at risk. I have worked alongside someone who had been in contact with a family member who had Covid-19 but because of the pay pressures, she came into work instead of self-isolating. 

My colleague did eventually go off sick but only because her colleagues pressured her to. This work is low paid to start with and I know she is financially struggling. She doesn’t have a flash lifestyle, she lives within her means, so I feel really guilty because I know she has really struggled to manage financially after taking the time off. She shouldn’t have been made to choose between keeping service users safe and keeping herself out of poverty.

We do one of the hardest jobs – I walk for over an hour to work to avoid getting public transport and the risk of transmitting the virus to service users. We dedicate ourselves to making a difference to people’s lives.

Azhar Smith, UNISON member in the North-West (pseudonym)


Transport worker

The severity of the pandemic on British soil only hit home with me while I was on an RMT reps course at the union’s education centre in Doncaster, learning how to protect my members. On returning to London, I immediately set to work putting my new training into action. This was a difficult task; the government’s health advice was often vague or contradictory, meaning any advances on protective health and safety measures in whatever briefing came from Downing Street proved nigh on impossible for me to achieve. 

Luckily, the RMT and other rail unions were meeting with the Department for Transport and train operating companies on a regular basis, forming the Rail Industry Coronavirus Forum. This set a baseline of standards for all to follow and proved invaluable for a local rep like myself, as I could point to agreements made at the highest level and enforce them. 

Gradually, incremental gains were achieved, such as reduced staffing levels to decrease likelihood of transmission amongst staff. In early May, after six weeks of working on empty stations, my cohort of station staff were furloughed: Transport for London needed to cut costs after months of haemorrhaging money. However, unlike many others, we were fortunate enough to be on full pay – something granted by the company without attempting to fight with our strong union to pay us less.

After four months off, we returned with a renewed sense of vigilance against threats like corner-cutting on safety. Difficulties remain: passengers are still being forced to commute to workplaces they don’t need to be in, people are flouting mask regulations, and our shortages of cleaning staff mean that those low-paid people we rely on to keep us safe are even more overworked. 2021 must be a year for the labour movement as a whole to unify and fight back against the employers and political class who seek to divide us.

Ben Joyce


Aerospace Worker

As this year draws to a close, the economic impact is clear to see. So many industries have suffered, and the devastation within some sectors will take years to recover. While the hospitality industry has been damaged particularly badly, it is arguably the aerospace and aviation industry that has been hit the hardest.

As countries tried to halt the spread of the virus and closed borders across the globe, 90% of the world’s aircraft were grounded, leaving many airlines and tour operators fighting for survival. The stark reality is that their workers are those who have paid the heaviest price. Initially faced with no customers, the airlines sought to cut costs. Extensive use was made of the government’s furlough scheme, which saw workers’ salaries reduced, while outgoings for these workers remained mostly the same. 

But as it became clear the virus wasn’t going to be eradicated quickly, some businesses thought they would seize the opportunity to enact long-term plans under the cover of Covid. When Easyjet, Ryanair and Jet2 began making thousands of redundancies, this was quickly followed by aerospace manufacturing industry giants such as Safran, Airbus, GE, Boeing and Rolls Royce following the same path.

Unfortunately, the job cuts are only one part of the equation. Many organisations have also resorted to ‘fire and rehire’ techniques on vastly reduced terms and conditions. The most notable and high profile being that of British Airways’ parent company, IAG, who – on top of 12,000 redundancies – sought to fire all cabin crew and take back only 50%, with salary reductions of up to 50%. 

In the end, it was only government intervention and the threat of losing valuable landing slots at Heathrow that saw the company retreat. But there are thousands of other workers who have had their salaries cut and their terms and conditions reduced to prop up company balance sheets and maintain executive pay.

Most workers understand the economic impact the crisis has had within the businesses they work in, and are more than willing to accept temporary measures in order to aid survival. However, what sticks in the throats of many is the permanent nature of the changes they’ve been forced to accept, with the threatened alternative of joining the ever-increasing unemployed numbers.

So as a new year looms, and we begin feeling the cautious optimism that comes from the vaccine approvals, let us hope that the three-to-four year predictions of a recovery for the industry to 2019 levels turns out to be a pessimistic one, and that it recovers far more quickly.

But it’s just as important for workers’ terms and conditions to recover at the same time, if we are not to suffer another lost decade of austerity. The world undoubtedly changed in 2020. Surviving the crisis is just the start for many companies. How they rebuild and grow will very much rely on the people they employ – unless they decide to seek to place their loyalties elsewhere when the jobs market recovers.

Mark Porter, on strike with Unite in Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick


Postal Worker

When play was stopped for most in 2020, life for a postal worker just got harder. But like other key workers and the public sector as a whole, no one was complaining. In fact, many of us were glad to do what we saw as ‘our bit’ for our country in its time of crisis. 

We welcomed not just more mail and parcels, but new responsibilities like delivering and collecting Covid-19 home testing kits. And we wanted nothing in return beyond an appreciation for our great postal service – and an assurance that our services would remain required after the crisis.

This appreciation was felt every day of the crisis – not only in the media, but on the doorsteps. Signs and drawings sat in house windows; elderly residents who could not receive visitors each day would knock on the glass to signal gratitude; some would even leave a chocolate bar on their porch with a heart-warming note. 

Our other hope – that our services remain required in the traditional sense – has been delivered in time for 2021. After two years of dispute with Royal Mail, the Communication Workers Union won an agreement with the employer to take the company forward without any compulsory redundancies, with accompanying guarantees that Royal Mail would commit to expanding the role of postal workers in the company, and an above-inflation pay deal too.

This all came after CWU members held back their live industrial ballot – with a 97.1% vote for strike action – to deliver for the country in these difficult times. Posties have shown again that only the unified membership of a committed, serious trade union can win against the race to the bottom for workers’ terms and conditions. My hope is that we all remember these lessons as we go into a new year.

Luke Elgar



The events of this year radically developed my view on organising and of the concrete questions facing trade unionists – how do we increase workplace militancy and increase socialist consciousness among workers? How do we develop defensive campaigns while also going on the offensive to transform our education system and our society?

As a union rep in a school during the first lockdown, I organised education workers with an increased sense of importance in their labour value, and of their receptiveness to trade unionism. This resulted in a rapid increase in union membership in a multi-academy trust, we gained a much greater density of reps, and we won on our health and safety demands.

Over the summer months, two events were incredibly instructive. One was training alongside other rank-and-file NEU reps in Jane McAlevey’s International Strike School. Here, I co-developed rank-and-file organising methods with other education workers in the United States. This included mapping and charting worker engagement, structured organising conversations, including workers in negotiations and building joint community organising. 

I developed an understanding that organising is not solely to build membership but about building workers’ power in collective struggle. This means rejecting a servile service trade unionism for a model which involves setting out collective demands, relentlessly building with the rank-and-file, and escalating the dispute until you win.

Another was meeting and learning from organisers across the movement particularly from Acorn and Greater Manchester Tenants Union. During months of lockdown, it’s been this invaluable comradeship, political education and movement building that has inspired me. It’s also where I learnt the importance of uniting class struggles and developing the capacity of other organisers.

In order to develop the militancy and consciousness of education workers in our union, there must be an organised tenants union and anti-fascist movement in our communities. We want teachers to understand that oppression from the landlord, racist policing in the street and poverty in the classroom is the fault of capitalism. The role of an organiser is demonstrating the solution is their own active, collective and political participation as workers – socialism. 

The last year has shown that when workers struggle, they can win and develop the confidence for further transformative change. I’ve developed from a union rep to a socialist organiser – an experience that will no doubt be replicated by many others across our movement. If we’re to meet the challenges ahead and build rank and file organisation capable of political change we must as Thomas Sankara once said, ‘‘dare to invent the future’. This is the task for socialists in 2021 – to be bold and win. 

Vik Chechi-Ribeiro


Teaching Assistant

As two TAs working at an SEN school in London, 2020 has been a difficult year. The government-sanctioned clapping of key workers painted us as superhuman martyrs ready to put ourselves on the line to educate our kids, feed our communities and treat the unwell. It has felt particularly demoralising that this has come at the expense of real discussions over our safety and dignity as workers.

The personal anxiety we felt throughout the crisis hasn’t been helped by the lack of clarity around our rights in the workplace, the absence in government assurance about our safety, and how testing will be rolled out in schools. Many workers in our school are agency workers, and this lack of solid employment status has caused anxiety for so many of our colleagues and friends. We have been relatively lucky in that our school is paying people who are self-isolating, but there is no statutory necessity to do so. 

In 2021, we absolutely need to work towards a zero-Covid strategy. We need to work towards a vaccine program for education workers and ensure the majority of us are vaccinated before we return to work. Workers deserve above-inflation pay rises, and we need real government consideration about questions such as education structure and funding. Due to the devastating death statistics of those with special education needs, we also believe a specific strategy must be adopted for SEN schools. 

But in this new year, we wish to emphasise that we should end the individualisation of the crisis. This was a crisis that could have been entirely averted with political will and decisive action, and we can’t go into 2021 believing that blame for our sorry situation rests with kids who hug their dads – it’s at the government’s door, and our anger should be directed in that direction.

Liam Renouf and Lauren Wright


Refuse Worker

I get up at 3.30am look out the window, and it’s raining again. I have to get the train to Grays to meet the lorry – it’s a Sunday timetable because of Christmas. The lorry turns up just after 5.30am, and I’m glad because I’m freezing cold. It’s still raining when we arrive at 6am, and we’ve got 12-15 miles of walking. I’ve got blisters on my feet and my boots are still wet from yesterday (we only get one pair of boots because we’re agency workers, not staff). At some point I’ve got to phone the agency because I’ve been paid short again. It’s going to be difficult because we’ve got a big day ahead of us, and the driver moans at us if we use our phones.

Some bloke has just come over to us and started accusing us of deliberately missing his bin last week. He’s aggressive and shouts. I look in his bin and it’s contaminated with polystyrene, so we can’t take it on recycling. I tell him it’s contaminated and he doesn’t care – he just wants his bin emptied. He’s getting more aggressive, and the driver’s getting anxious because I’m holding the lorry up. I put the bloke’s bin on the lorry because I don’t want any aggro. He says if I leave the bin next week he’ll come and find me.

The other loader keeps coughing. I’m worried he’s got coronavirus. He’s also agency and we don’t get paid if we’re off sick. He smokes loads of fags so I hope that’s what it is. I can’t afford any time off because my girlfriend’s pregnant and we’re saving up to put a deposit on a flat.

I desperately need the toilet but there’s nowhere to go. All the places we usually go won’t let us in anymore because of the virus, so I’ll just have to hold it. An hour passes and I run into the bushes for a pee. I was busting. I hope no one saw me because I’d be laid off – it’s against the rules. I can see the driver looking for me in the mirrors: I’ve held the lorry up again, and he’s not happy.

We’re in a cul-de-sac and someone has parked their car in the way. We can’t get past. I put a postcard with a message about leaving room for dustcarts and fire engines under the wiper, as that’s what we have to do. A bloke comes out of a house and says to me, ‘What was that you put on my car?’ I explain to him that we can’t get through. He shouts that his car is broken down. I look at it – it’s brand new. He goes back in his house and slams the door.  We have to leave the rest of the bins in that road because we can’t get past.

Half an hour later a car pulls up behind our lorry. There’s a man and a woman in it, and they’re staring at us. ‘Why did you miss our bin?’ I explain to her about the car blocking the road. She’s having none of it. She gets out of the car and starts pointing her finger in my face. ‘It better be empty when we get back.’ I say to her, ‘We’ll go back later but if that bloke’s car is still there, there’s nothing we can do.’ She calls me a lazy bastard and they drive off down the road.

My feet are killing me and we’re only half way through the round. We run into the shop and get a Red Bull and a bag of crisps. We don’t get time to stop for a break. We’re well behind, so the other loader tells us to step up the pace. We’ve still got miles to go. On our way we meet a lovely old lady. She’s assisted, so we help her with the bins. She always talks to us and today she gives us a packet of biscuits. It’s the highlight of the day.

We finally get done after six hours of non-stop running. It feels like twelve, and my feet are lead weights. The driver drops me at the station and I make way to the platform. I hope I don’t fall asleep on the train.



Bar Worker

This past year was a disaster for so many people that it seems almost churlish to moan about work. But out of the past 12 months, my central Manchester pub could only operate for five of them. A difficult situation was made practically impossible by the government’s abject handling of Covid-19, with mixed, contradictory messaging and little or no notice for changes in regulations making it an impossibility for us to enact any sort of plan or strategy.

After the first lockdown, we briefly reopened, but were soon thrown to the wolves through the tier system. It was, essentially, Boris Johnson’s muddled “we’re not going to close pubs, but don’t go to them” messaging of March made into policy. 

A small, city centre pub such as mine went from a thriving, community hub to an unviable, empty building, shorn of everything that made it magic. Indeed, we were caught in the awful position of both cheering on Andy Burnham sticking up for the rights of low-paid workers against the government, yet also wanting to be able to close – we were operating at such loss that shutting with state support was our best chance of saving our jobs.

I am lucky in a sense that the brewery is supportive and in a robust financial position, meaning that even at this stage, closure remains unlikely. But all their plans for 2021 are pinned on a successful roll out of a vaccination. I worry about the future. Our pub went from a capacity of 40-60 people to one of just 12. The numbers don’t add up. 

If I have a hope for 2021, it’s that we somehow make it through and that the pub can once again be full of my regulars and new customers alike. A pub is so much more than a place that sells beer. It’s an organic community defined by the people who drink and work in it, a home for all our histories and traditions. 

The hospitality industry was under attack from greedy landlords, pubcos and gentrification prior to the crisis. And looking at how we’ve been repeatedly singled out by government policy throughout the past year, it’s easy to think that we remain under attack. But we will fight to survive, and it’s vital we receive proper, ongoing support – otherwise the hospitality industry as we know it will cease to exist.

Chris Taylor