Workers' rights in the pandemic

Submitted by martin on 19 March, 2020 - 9:38 Author: Daniel Randall
civil peace

A “joint statement”, published in the name of the Department for Transport (DfT), eight individual unions organising in the transport sector, and the TUC, appeared online on Wednesday 19 March.

It reports the “first in a series of Ministerial calls” between the DfT and transport unions, and ends with an affirmation that “Transport Ministers have pledged to work tirelessly with the unions to support staff in the transport industry through not only the immediate challenges but also the issues that will affect the sector once the country has overcome this pandemic.”

Good news, you might think. If the pandemic has forced a hostile, anti-union Tory administration into a spirit of dialogue and collaboration with the organisations representing the workers the country relies on to deliver essential services, then that's surely a silver lining.

But all is not as it seems. Tory leopards do not change their spots, even in a pandemic. This DfT is part of the same Tory administration bent on forcing through new laws to restrict transport workers' strikes... the same Tory party under whose previous spells in government our railways were privatised, and, more recently, the drive towards de-staffing and “Driver Only Operation” has accelerated in earnest. This is the same Department for Transport which recently intervened to prevent the a settlement to the South Western Railway dispute that would have retained some role for the guard.

What this statement represents, then, is a blank cheque for collaboration with the bosses and their state at the very moment when workers should be demanding control, and refusing to let the architects and partisans of inequality and exploitation call the shots. We do need dialogue and consultation with our employers and the state; that must take place on as open and transparent a basis as circumstances allow, with the maximum degree of democratic scrutiny and control allowed by the pace needed to respond to changing events.

In any crisis, pressure mounts on the labour movement to adopt a policy of class-collaborationist social peace, and for workers to suspend our struggles in an “all-in-it-together” spirit. It is pressure to which our movement should not bow.

The decision of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) leadership to commit to not taking industrial action in the union's dispute with Royal Mail, and instead to demand of the government that the post is designated an “emergency service” is part of the same trend as the DfT statement. Undoubtedly, CWU's leaders think they can accumulate some social capital by their stance. They may well be right, but committing more or less unconditionally not to take industrial action, without extracting any concessions from the employer or the state, does not serve their members' interests. Worse still, Virgin airlines' announcement that it will ask workers to take eight weeks' unpaid leave was announced in the press as having the support of the Unite and Balpa unions.

All three cases – the DfT statement, the CWU leadership's decision, and the Virgin policy - also point to a democratic deficit within unions. There is no indication of the leadership's policies having been consulted on or informed by discussions amongst rank-and-file members. At least within RMT, the largest industry-specific union in the transport sector, the DfT statement's content, nor the decision to co-sign it, were not presented to any level of union democracy. Unity House, RMT's national office, is currently closed, but no attempt was made to seek comment on or ratification of the statement from the union's rank-and-file National Executive Committee, which could easily have been done remotely. One can speculate that the mechanism for signing unions up to the statement was similarly undemocratic in the other transport union signatories.

A collective, state-led, social response to the crisis is necessary to confront it. Clearly, that requires workers in the services integral to that to play our part. A working-class desire for everyone to pull together comes from a good place, usually informed by some elementary spirit of social solidarity. But that should not involve writing blank cheques for the bosses, with whose interests our own remain irreconcilably opposed.

For sure, the boss class will not be suspending the class struggle from its side. It was ever thus: in 1915, during the First World War, James Connolly wrote: “Of course, we will be told that 'now in this supreme hour of our national danger', etc., all ideas of war between classes should be laid aside and we all should co-operate harmoniously together. In answer we would ask – Has any capitalist or landlord shown any forbearance towards the workers more than they have been compelled to by the force of law, or by the power of labour unions? Is it not the fact that 'in this supreme hour of our national danger' the employers are seizing eagerly upon every pretext to reduce wages and victimise the workers?”

Virgin's policy on unpaid leave is just one example of “employers seizing early upon every pretext to reduce wage and victimise the workers”; there are numerous others. Ferry company Stena Line, where RMT organises, is refusing to pay company sick pay even to staff diagnosed with Covid-19. Outsourced contractor Sodexo unilaterally laid off agency cleaners at the Institute of Education, part of University College London. Pub chain Wetherspoons has refused to extend its company sick pay policy, which currently only covers managers, to other staff. Supermarket giant Morrisons is proposing that staff who take time off due to self-isolation or caring responsibilities “make up the hours” at a later point... with no additional pay. Landlords are continuing to demand rent, despite the government's mortgage holiday, and private healthcare firms producing coronavirus tests are engaging in blatant profiteering, charging hundreds of pounds for the tests. The state is continuing its brutal policies towards migrants, and refusing to release detainees despite crowded conditions in detention centres posing an increased health risk.

Civil liberties may also come under attack, with the state using surveillance methods to invade privacy, and violent repression against people who breach possible curfew conditions. The labour movement will be severely hampered from resisting such attacks if it has gone along with a policy of social peace and class collaboration.

Unions should be issuing our own statements, reiterating our demands for improved working conditions, and highlighting the fundamental structural reality of capitalism that this crisis reveals: that it is our labour that makes society function.

As Eugene Debs, the railway worker and socialist leader, put it: “We can run the mills without them, but they can't run them without us.” Or, as a picket line placard during the Uprising of the 20,000, a strike of migrant garment workers in America in 1909, proclaimed: “Our employers have wealth, but we have the power of reproduction.”

It is perfectly possible, and necessary, to continue to prosecute the class struggle during the pandemic. Workers should continue to raise basic class-struggle demands – for higher wages, reduced hours, and improved conditions – as well as demands specific to the crisis itself, including improved workplace safety and full sick pay for all. Wherever possible, workers should organise action to pursue such demands. On London Underground, for example, RMT has demanded that self-service ticket machines be powered down and that all cash handling cease, given the hygiene risk this poses. If Tube bosses refuse to agree, workers should organise to impose the measures themselves. The CWU could use its ballot mandate to call action in the form of a refusal to deliver non-personal mail, such as advertising circulars and junk mail. Already, some gains have been made, with union pressure securing commitments that outsourced cleaners on London Underground and outsourced workers at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy will be paid in full if they self-isolate.

As the “Blitz spirit”, the historic touchstone for a moment of “all-in-this-together” adversity, is increasingly invoked, we should recall that then, too, class struggle continued. As Raymond Challinor's essay “The Class War in the Blitz” recalls: “Britain was a class-divided society. Not everyone had to endure [...] hardships. [At the Dorchester Hotel,] management had converted the cellars into expensive luxury shelters. Nine peers slept there each night. One of them was Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary. Throughout the night, he stayed well-supplied by a waiter with his favourite brand of whisky. Their wives and lady friends tended to frequent part of the subterranean complex that had been turned into a games room. Other wealthy people arranged for their own private shelters to be built.” Working-class people organised to demand such things as safe access to Tube stations as public shelters, initially opposed by municipal government.

A crisis like this will require sacrifice. It will require emergency measures. It will require all of us who are able to make extraordinary efforts to help society through. What it does not require is the suspension of our basic struggles; the suspension of democracy in our movement; nor the suspension of our fundamental understanding that bosses and workers have opposing interests. No class peace in the crisis!

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