Editorial of the Socialist issue 1086
Tories put profit before lives – unions must stand firm on workplace safety
On workers’ memorial day, 28.4.20, in Newcastle, photo Elaine Brunskill (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)
“Meet the new messaging: same as the old messaging. Only even vaguer and more confusing. Not so much 15 minutes of TV fame as uncomfortably like watching someone have a breakdown in front of you. Rather than just stay at home, Boris’s new maxim was to ‘stay alert’. Less a slogan, more like a piece of advice to himself, given all the times he has taken his eye off the ball over the past few months.”
This was how the Guardian sketch writer John Crace described Johnson’s Sunday night announcement (‘Smart suit, brushed hair. It was just Boris Johnson’s speech that was a mess’).
Undoubtedly, the contradictions and caveats were surreal and almost comical, if you forget how catastrophically serious the situation is. How many workers will be put in danger by ‘instructions’ that could lead to crammed public transport and people going back to workplaces with no plan or system to make them safe?
Johnson’s muddle represents the deep divisions in his Tory cabinet about how to proceed. Reflecting the needs of big business, all want to get the economy going, but some have more appreciation of the government’s blunders, and the affects they have had.
The UK has the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in Europe, and pro-rata in the world. The real figure is at least 60,000 according to the Times. A second wave of deaths risks provoking a huge working-class backlash. As one senior official put it, the public will forgive us for mistakes going into lockdown but not coming out.
But despite the confusion, the material point from Johnson’s statement is that the Tories are moving to lift the lockdown, even though people are still dying in their hundreds on a daily basis, the 100,000 per day tests are continually not being reached and the chaos over PPE provision continues.
Johnson’s government is clearly putting bosses’ profits before workers’ safety. The continuing Covid pandemic is being used by the bosses and the Tories to put a gun to workers’ heads – your job or your life.
Under rank and file members’ pressure, the leaders of all of the major unions have belatedly been forced into opposition to a return to work at this stage, without the necessary health and safety measures in place. This even had some effect on Johnson’s stance on schools reopening. Imagine what could be achieved if the whole weight of the trade union movement was employed in this crisis.
But that union pressure needs to be stepped up to prevent any backtracking. Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, has already described the Tories’ totally inadequate workplace safety guidelines as “a step forward”.
The bosses, however, have been given the green light and will be pressing for a return to work. Workers will now be asking what concretely the union leaders will do to protect their safety. It is not enough to make a statement and then leave individual workers alone to take decisions about whether to go back to work or whether a workplace is safe. There must be an immediate collective response from the unions in support of those who refuse to work.
On the eve of Johnson’s announcement, transport union RMT publicly gave its backing to London Underground members who have a “legal right to use the refusal to work policy” should social distancing prove impossible to maintain. Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite union said: “Workers should be safe. If they don’t feel safe, if their stewards and health and safety reps say it’s not safe, they shouldn’t go to work.”
Our starting point is clear – unless the unions and their members say a workplace is safe, it isn’t. That means no return to work until the necessary safety standards are met. And that should be on 100% pay. There must be no dilution of the two-metre social distancing, with clear floor markings and safe capacity in all factory floors, offices, buses and trains, etc.
It has been calculated that the London Underground can only be operated at 15% capacity to comply with social distancing. This must remain intact until the transport unions decide differently.
Sufficient PPE complying with NHS safety standards, regular testing, ample hand sanitisers and washroom facilities – if these are not available, work should stop on full pay.
Workers should be advised to meet collectively (complying with social distancing). If they decide that their workplace is unsafe, they should decide together not to work, citing Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
Even though official strike ballots would take weeks to organise and process, they can be useful in giving a lead and confidence to workers, and sending a message to the employers and the government. This should be combined with the demand that any victimisation of workers taking action over health and safety will be met with coordinated action across the union movement.
Workplace safety must be under the control of the workplace unions with democratic accountability to members. On a regional and national level there should be union committees, with access to medical and scientific advice, with oversight of any governmental decisions.
Economic predictions are painting an ever bleaker picture. Thousands of redundancies have already been announced, and tens of thousands more workers could face permanent job losses. If any company threatens redundancies, bankruptcy or closure, workers’ committees should demand that that the books be open to union scrutiny. And, if necessary, the company should be taken into democratic public ownership to protect jobs and communities.
An emergency TUC General Council should be immediately called and turned into a council of war on workers’ safety and jobs. If this isn’t forthcoming, then the left unions should urgently meet to map a plan of action.
This should also include a discussion on how workers’ independent political interests can best be represented. The consistent refusal of Keir Starmer and Labour front bench spokespeople to say they would back workers’ refusing to work in unsafe conditions is yet more proof that this will not be through the post-Corbyn Labour Party. A new mass workers’ party will be needed to fight for the working class against all of the attacks of the capitalist bosses and their political representatives.