The Socialist 25 March 2020 |
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Organising in the workplace in the time of coronavirus
Despite organisational difficulties, trade unions can, and should, continue to function during the course of the corona outbreak. I work for Unite housing workers' trade union branch.
As well as responding to members' fears and inquiries, we are having to encourage and develop new ways of organising, ensuring that workers can communicate and act collectively to exert pressure on employers to keep workers safe.
Many housing workers are being told to work from home. This raises certain problems. Many families and young people sharing cramped accommodation will find it very difficult to work in their homes, especially if they are having to look after children at the same time.
However, other workers such as repair workers, night workers and some support workers are still having face-to-face meetings with tenants and clients. These workers are more susceptible to the spread of the virus because of their jobs, but there are many stories of employers not providing the correct protective clothing or putting proper safety procedures in place.
This has caused a spike in contacts from members seeking advice and wanting to know if they are obliged to carry out these tasks. On the one hand, the government is telling them to socially distance themselves.
Yet the working conditions of many of these workers often make this impossible. Workers are concerned about their health. But they are also concerned about their jobs and their wages, and so feel compelled to take risks.
Some workers, however, are very angry, and are even refusing to work if they have concerns about safety. This is a very positive step. But our advice is, as far as possible, to ensure that workers take action collectively.
They should discuss the risks in their teams and local areas, formulate demands, and refuse to undertake any of these risks until the employer has agreed to their demands. In many cases, this will not only be protective clothing, but also provision for washing and disposing of their clothing afterwards.
We are advising workers to ensure that all risk assessments are amended regularly, in line with health and safety legislation. Where there are new or heightened risks, the employer is obliged to take this step. However, despite the existence of limited regulations, we know that employers routinely ignore these unless there is a trade union present to enforce them.
New and imaginative steps are being taken by many workers in terms of communicating and formulating demands.
There are a number of WhatsApp groups now existing in workplaces that our branch covers, including in St. Mungo's, where workers have recently been on strike (see 'Determined St Mungo's homelessness workers strike for three days' at socialistparty.org.uk). Workers have not waited for a lead from union officials. They have now organised among themselves, and formulated a set of minimum demands such as hand sanitisers to be installed in foyers.
These forms of organisation will become increasingly necessary to ensure that workers are not isolated. And while it is a positive step that workers are not waiting for a lead from union officials, or in some cases workplace reps, it is important that trade unions seize this opportunity to encourage and support these steps.
Unite housing workers' branch has been contacting reps and activists in an attempt to join up these groups and raised the possibility of an online conference to share experiences and draw up a set of sector-wide demands. This could see the emergence of a new layer of predominantly younger union activists.
Paul Couchman, Surrey Unison local government branch secretary (personal capacity)
Our Unison union branch committee has been working remotely since 16 March. We are communicating and making decisions via WhatsApp. Our workplace reps are also linked up in their relevant WhatsApp groups, and are supporting each other during the crisis.
We have passed an emergency motion, pledging to provide support and advice on Covid-19 issues to all members (including those who join now), pledging also to provide emergency financial support via Unison's welfare charity, and putting aside an initial £50,000 for that reason.
Workplace issues so far have been mainly related to if members should go into work or not, and when and how. Our branch covers members in over 400 schools, and there is understandable confusion as to who is expected to go into school and how this is all going to work.
Our school reps are stepping up to the mark, working with their schools to ensure all staff are treated fairly and kept as safe as possible if they are at work - and ensuring they do not lose any pay if they have to stay away.
We had an issue with dozens of our members in libraries demanding that the libraries close.
We were in urgent negotiations with the council (all virtual of course) and we were advising members of their rights under the Employment Rights Act S.44, not to place themselves at risk at work. The council closed the libraries on 20 March.
We are daily providing telephone and email advice to members through our network of branch officers, reps and branch-employed staff, and we intend to hold virtual video meetings as regularly as possible via Skype or Zoom, while being in constant contact via WhatsApp.