Greg Collins discusses the role of trade unions during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.
As the nation gradually eases itself from the restrictions of lockdown it feels like we are beginning to get a sense of who the heroes and villains have been in one of the most challenging experiences we have faced as a society in the recent past. While we are currently pontificating on which minister is up and which is down in their handling of the virus, what will be truly interesting is which individuals and sections of society the history books in years to come will commend for their help to the public during the challenging time of a pandemic. There will doubtless be acknowledgement of a range of celebrities, public figures, businesses, charities and community groups and leaders that came to people’s aid in a variety of ways during the trials of the virus. I do however fear that one group won’t be credited for their efforts, this being the trade union movement who are rarely celebrated in public life for their achievements.
The demonization of trade unions is by no means a new phenomenon of modern Britain, indeed in the time they have been legal there has been a space to vilify them as a threat to the existing economic order. The Conservative’s will describe union leaderships as political commissars who have a Svengali like influence on Labour leaderships, and large sections of the media will portray striking workers as selfish, feckless and determined to interfere with the normal running of things. This is not to say all unions in history have acted rationally in all they have done, they haven’t. Indeed, it is also not to say that all unions operate in the same way and are homogeneous in their views, they are not. But what is true to say is that the movement as a whole will be unlikely to receive true recognition of its contribution to the coronavirus debate
During the lockdown period people have been naturally concerned about their jobs and the state of the economy and public services, with the unions acting as a firm and authoritative voice in favour of protections in these areas. The TUC was a loud voice in support of the major state intervention in the form of the furlough scheme which protected workers’ wages, and indeed became a major influence in the decision for workers to be able to have a gradual move back to part-time work. The union movement argued early to government about both extending the level of the workforce that is protected and for being more generous in what is provided. As economic projections have become gloomier in respect to jobs, they have been the foremost voice in warning of a return to the unemployment levels of the 1980s. In specific sectors we have seen the BMA speak out about protecting hospital workers and Unison campaign on the experiences of care workers. The teaching unions have focused on the issue of children going back to school, and whatever the contentions have looked to protect teachers and pupils rather than playing politics as they been accused. I have no doubt that there are countless other examples that could be noted.
The heads of major unions met recently with conservative Chancellor Rishi Sunak about workers protections, and he was even to publicly describe them as being social partners. This wasn’t quite beer and sandwiches at number 10, but undoubtedly a recognition of their contribution. After a long-term decline in union membership we now see the third year of increase, and following their efforts in lockdown hopefully this will continue. However, when history reflects on the unique lockdown experience of the year 2020, I fear that very little will be recorded on the efforts of trade unions. We will rightly celebrate the role that a wide section of society played in the effort against the virus from foodbank charities to Joe Wicks, but sadly union campaigns for workers protections in some of the most dire and unprecedented circumstances could well be forgotten.
Greg is a Labour activist from Cambridge who previously worked for a Parliamentary Monitoring Service and in the office of a Member of the European Parliament. He enjoys writing about Labour politics and parliamentary reform in a personal capacity.
He tweets at @GregCollins8.