The suffering that millions of people around the world face is immense, and it’s trade unions which are taking a stand. From the cost of living crisis to the pandemic to the war in Ukraine, trade unions are a bulwark against injustice and are at the forefront of fighting for a better world.
This commitment to fighting for what is right runs through everything we do as trade unionists, but the catastrophic leadership from this Tory government and the bleak economic outlook have brought that importance into sharp relief. It’s thanks to the labour movement that the worst impacts of the challenging past couple of years have been curtailed.
Let’s start with the pandemic. The government’s response has been described as one of the UK’s worst-ever public health failures, and this includes the appalling treatment of workers up and down the country. With workers facing huge uncertainty, and in many cases the prospect of being forced into unsafe workplaces, it was unions who stepped in to protect them.
Across swathes of British industries, unions were winning for members. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union ensured Greggs topped up workers’ pay during furlough so they didn’t lose out. When 1,500 casual Marriott Hotel workers were set to be excluded from furlough payments, hundreds of them joined Unite, and after coming under pressure, Marriott agreed furlough pay for all workers.
In my union, PCS, members working at the DVLA in Swansea faced the biggest workplace Covid outbreak in the UK and felt that management was putting their safety at risk. In what was a high-profile dispute, PCS members took sustained action over a number of months and secured several vital concessions from the employer that made workers safer.
These are just a few case studies which underline the crucial role unions played during the pandemic. Unions kept workers safe, and kept them in work, a fact borne out by the research from think-tank CLASS: four of the five lowest redundancy rates were in industries with the five highest union densities, while two of the highest redundancy rates came from industries with the three lowest union densities.
Looking at the problems facing us today, the cost of living crisis is crippling families, with the situation set to deteriorate. Research shows that two million adults in the UK cannot afford to eat every day, and there are now more foodbanks in this country than there are McDonald’s restaurants. There was even news reports of a pensioner riding buses all day to keep warm because she couldn’t afford to put the heating on. Now that energy bills are set to rise again in October, it’s hard to comprehend how bad things will get for people.
The support offered by this government to those suffering doesn’t even touch the sides, and once again it’s trade unions who are the resistance to Tory cruelty. For months, unions have been calling on the government to do more, like introducing above-inflation pay rises, increasing Universal Credit and other legacy benefits, and tackling soaring energy bills.
We’ll make sure that the government can’t ignore these calls when unions come together in London for the TUC march and rally on 18 June—a great opportunity to take a united stand against the government. Crucially, this demo needs to be a springboard for more campaigning and action. If this government continues to let people down during the cost of living crisis, we should work to build coordinated strike action across the country.
PCS members aren’t afraid to take action, and we’re working towards a national statutory ballot in September in the UK Civil Service. Our strategy was agreed at the PCS Conference in Brighton in May, where our members were able to come together for the first physical conference in nearly one thousand days. We’d already been building towards a ballot later in the year, but in the week before the conference, we found out about government plans to axe 91,000 civil service jobs.
This outrageous attack on the civil service came as a huge surprise, so much so that some staff only found out about the threat to their jobs via media reports. For the government to treat its own workers this way is simply scandalous.
The news of these job cuts hammered home just how much contempt the government holds them in. As well as the job losses, civil servants were offered a derisory two percent pay rise, while inflation hits double figures. PCS members are also overpaying their pension contributions by two percent per year, and they’re planning on having another go at slashing redundancy pay, despite PCS defeating the government in the High Court over similar plans in 2016. The attacks are relentless. Our members have had enough.
To add further insult to injury, just as our conference was about to begin, the pictures of Boris Johnson attending drinks parties in Number 10 during lockdown were published. Never has an image better defined our time: an out-of-touch Prime Minister quaffing champagne while thousands died and millions more made immense sacrifices.
With the Prime Minister on the brink, millions of workers are relying on unions but also on those in opposition in Westminster, who should be applying pressure on a crumbling government. Sadly, the Labour Party is letting down the very people who should be relying on them. Several shadow ministers have gone on record opposing an above-inflation public sector pay rise due to fears of further inflation.
When the government announced further measures to tackle the cost of living crisis, Labour went on the offensive. Astonishingly, Labour didn’t attack the government for its hugely inadequate support for the millions of people struggling; it demanded to know how the measly proposals would be paid for. This isn’t good enough, and it’s letting the government off the hook for abandoning workers at a time of crisis.
What’s evident is that the battle lines aren’t being drawn in Parliament but in workplaces up and down the country. Our movement has faced enormous challenges before and overcome them, just as we will in the months ahead. The political sands shift and prime ministers come and go, but one thing remains constant: trade unions fighting for workers.