Trade unions are pivotal during this crisis. A spike in membership is promising
A message was circling across social media feeds on the bank holiday weekend, disseminated by trade union activists. It stated that “this long holiday weekend has been brought to you by the blood, sweat and tears of the labour movement”. This caption is certainly true and highlights the traditional influence of a long-standing trade union movement. With the worst public health crisis in over 100 years affecting the workforce, trade unions have stepped up to the plate once again.
After Covid hit and the majority of the nation was furloughed, angst-ridden workers worried whether there was a job to go back to. Key workers working in healthcare, retail, education, journalism and community care demanded safer working practises to do their job appropriately and diligently. For a long time, employers have ignored the cries of trade union representatives, taking advantage of their reduced powers under consecutive governments. But, since April, there has been a stark turnaround in trade union, government and employment relations.
Many unions have revealed a surge in their memberships since the pandemic hit. Teachers’ Union added 50,000 new members under lockdown after many teachers became frustrated with the lacklustre approach to the return of schools. The biggest general unions, Unison and Unite, saw “tens of thousands” join their ranks in worrisome times, a much higher increase than in previous years. The significant peak in numbers gives trade unions more power to voice the concerns of ordinary workers across the country.
The newfound negotiations, where possible, with the government and employers is in contrast with a decades-long deteriorating relationship. Unions have been a thorn in the side of many recent premierships as they juxtapose the neoliberal politics that the electorate has adhered to since the 80s. Former prime ministers and their allies have introduced legislation that robs trade unions of their ability to picket, strike or receive funding in consistent crackdowns against the working-class. The Trade Union Act of 2016, an amendment to the initial one in 1985 and introduced by former chancellor Sajid Javid, did just that. The Cameron administration could not predict an employment crisis four years later where the unions are the only ones standing up for workers’ rights.
The issue of mass unemployment, job cuts and a pressurised welfare system allows the trade unions to have a platform to speak out for their members. Boris Johnson, already borrowing many policies from the left to alleviate the crisis, now must bring trade unions to the table and reach agreements in how to make struggling workplaces safer.
Unions have been implementing measures throughout to ensure all workers are protected from the virus and that their incomes remain the same. Community Union, the smallest of the general unions, has formed a digital learning platform to ensure their members are informed on the “new normal”; from video-calling GPs to staying up-to-date with accurate health information. Meanwhile, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), acting as a federation for most unions, has promoted the upcoming Employment Bill which is due in parliament. This Bill would prohibit zero-hour contracts and “provides a vital opportunity” for those in insecure work to be better protected.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a crippling and vulnerable job market against the backdrop of a public health debacle. With government subsidies soon coming to an end and employees having no choice but to return to work, trade unions are paramount in the fight for a stable working-class environment. With such a significant increase in union membership, the government will have little choice but to listen and act fast.