Covid-19: public health, and workers' rights too!

Submitted by AWL on 24 March, 2020 - 9:27 Author: Editorial
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1. Requisition (in other words, take into emergency public ownership):

• private hospitals, so that all their resources are directly available to the NHS
• the pharmaceutical and medical-supplies industries, so that production can be ramped up in a coordinated way to meet the crisis
• manufacturing facilities which can be adapted to produce ventilators and other medical equipment
• hotels and empty houses, to use them for the NHS, for the homeless, and for domestic violence victims
• transport and logistics, so that essential deliveries and travel can be coordinated and planned
• the big supermarket chains and food supply operations, so that food supplies can be guaranteed in the most cooperative and coordinated way
• high finance, so that the epidemic is not compounded by a snowballing economic slump resulting from an implosion of credit
• all big businesses which lay off workers in this emergency

2. Fight for workers’ control

Millions of NHS and other essential-services workers are decisive for the fight against the epidemic. Many of our managers are working from home, overwhelmed by the emergency, or blinkered by bureaucratic inertia or profit priorities.

The workers ourselves know best how to run things and how to adapt for the emergency (including sometimes redeploying workers to different duties).

In every essential service running during the semi-lockdown for the epidemic, we want to see emergency commissions on which the unions are represented and through which they are informed, with the right to speak out independently when they need to.

3. Make the labour movement operate as an essential service!

It is the duty of the labour movement to make itself an essential service in the emergency:

• to impose workers’ control on the emergency response, to stop it being impeded by bureaucratic inertia and profit priorities
• to defend workers’ rights — all workers, including those still at work in essential services, those who have to self-isolate on public health advice or stay at home to look after children, and those already laid off
• to stand up for the worst-off, who generally suffer the worst in epidemics: low-paid and insecure workers, the homeless, migrants.

Too many union activities have been shut down during the emergency. For example, trade union educational courses have generally been shut down, instead of being moved online, as they could have been.

Too many union officials have failed to push for workers’ rights even when a small but determined push could have won them. Union officials in the NHS have failed to publicise the NHS England policy document from early March calling for full pay for all workers in NHS workplaces (that includes casual and agency and subcontracted workers) following public health advice. It’s been down to local union activists, workplace by workplace, to get that policy enforced.

Too many union officials have rushed to offer uncritical or all-but-uncritical support for the government.

Too many union officials have accepted that all industrial action is ruled out in this emergency. It is not. Often, industrial action or the threat of it may be an essential tool to push management into a serious response to the emergency, and to safeguard workers’ rights.

Plenty of employers are still pushing on with established plans for cutbacks. It may take industrial action to stop them.

If it is safe enough for workers to go to our workplaces, then it is certainly safe for us to take industrial action inside the workplaces or to organise picket lines (with necessary social distancing) outside them.

It is also a legal right (and not “industrial action” in terms of the law) for workers to refuse to enter parts of a workplace where they reasonably think they face “serious and imminent danger”. The Employment Rights Act 1996, section 44, makes it illegal for the boss to subject workers to “any detriment” for such refusal (i.e. to dock wages, or threaten of disciplinary action). Unions should be publicising that right.

In Queensland, Australia, the teachers’ union has refused to rule out striking (even though it would be illegal under Australian law) if schools are not closed for routine operation from 25 March.

In practice a school closure there would be an early start to a school holiday due to start soon. But the union is also mooting the idea of having students who lack internet at home as well as key workers’ children in school under future reduced operations.

Post workers in Bridgwater, Somerset, struck on Monday morning 23 March to demand improved safety in the workplace. They said they were ready to work, but refused to start until they got an agreement on improved safety.

4. Defend workers’ rights

In Britain, as in the USA and other countries, the government has moved first to bail out big business — with a £350 billion package — and only later to make provision for workers.

• All workers outside essential services should be at home, working from home if possible, on leave otherwise, on full pay. As of 24 March, most construction sites, for example, are still working. Some construction work in repair and maintenance may be essential to continue, but in London, for example, much work continues on new blocks of luxury flats. There’s nothing “essential” about those being finished a few months earlier rather than later. The workers should be allowed to stay home on full pay, to be safe themselves and not endanger others. Workers and unions should demand a voice in what is essential and what is not.
• In all essential services, unions must insist on full pay for every worker in the building (including zero hours, agency, and subcontractor staff) who takes time off to follow public health advice or because they have to care for children whose schools or nurseries are closed.
• There needs to be fallback pay for all, including the self-employed, including workers whose employers have already shut up shop. The government has promised to increase Universal Credit by about £20 a week and to increase advance payments, but as things are moving so fast probably even the demand to pay Universal Credit in advance (rather than in arrears) is not sufficient.

Whether or not Universal Basic Income should be considered a general substitute for the benefits system (and in our view there are drawbacks), right now an immediate payment, sent to all, without application and assessment procedures, is called for. Even the US government has promised rapid universal payments of about $3000 per household (one-off). Bernie Sanders has demanded a universal $2,000 per month per household for the duration of the emergency. All “reviews” of benefits (for example of disability benefits like PIP) should be cancelled during the emergency.

• The government has promised to ban evictions during the emergency. The London Renters’ Union and others have called for a rent “holiday” during the emergency. A group of senators in New York state, USA, led by Michael Gianaris of the Working Families Party, is campaigning for cancellation of all rent and mortgage payments during the emergency. That will help the self-employed and people like small shopkeepers too. Utility bills should be cancelled during the emergency, too. Cancelling rent and utility bills for everyone, and giving them enough income to buy food during the emergency, will enable everyone to get through, and stop people being forced to go to work, unsafely, in order to survive.

5. Take care of the worst-off

• London mayor Sadiq Khan has talked of arrangements with hotels to house the homeless. The hotels should be requisitioned to make that work quickly and comprehensively.
• Hotels and similar accommodation should also be made available to domestic violence victims.
• People held in detention centres should be released and offered accommodation if needed, and “No Recourse to Public Funds” and other rules and charges restricting public services for migrants should be abolished. Suspend all enforcement of restrictions on migrants, and enable “illegal” migrants to get help, and defend their rights, without risk of deportation.
• Many thousands of volunteers have flocked to mutual aid groups. Local councils should support them; and, conversely, mutual aid groups should also act politically, pressing councils to mobilise resources for the homeless, domestic violence victims, and migrants, and helping workers in their local areas to claim their rights.

6. Defend civil liberties

There is a public-health case for restricting movement and assemblies. But the emergency powers law being pushed through by the government goes beyond that in a number of ways documented elsewhere in this issue of Solidarity. In particular, it would give the police the right to disperse any picket line, even one by workers in essential services who will be safer on that picket line than in their workplace.

The rail union RMT, for example, has suspended all industrial action ballots on the grounds that it is no longer possible to operate and count them (by law they must be postal ballots). Unions should be demanding that the postal-only legal rule is changed as part of the emergency legislation, at least so that online ballots become admissible.

7. Think internationally

Things look bad in Britain. They look worse in many poorer countries where health care is way below the level of the NHS even in its cuts-raddled shape, and where housing for poorer people is crowded and may lack even clean running water.

They look worse again in the refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Greece.

The labour movement has a duty to think internationally, and to demand the resettlement in decent conditions of those held in the refugee camps, and massive aid to poorer countries.

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