HeartUnions week takes place every February, and it is a chance for all of us in the trade union movement to tell the story of why unions are so important and encourage all those who aren’t in a union yet to join us. When I think back to last HeartUnions week, it is unimaginable how much everything has changed since then.
It may seem clichéd now, but it has truly been an unprecedented period of history, the results of which will be with us for many decades to come. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world, and the world of work, in too many ways to count. And as this shift happens, the work of trade unions becomes significantly harder.
As so many switch from the office to the video call, as we see fewer colleagues on the factory floor and as we keep two metres apart in the staff room, it is much harder for us to organise and have our collective voice heard. It also makes it harder for us to recruit new members: as a different working world emerges, some may question where a trade union fits into their lives.
The simple fact is that trade unions are more important now than they have ever been. Without trade unions, so many vital victories for workers, literally millions of people, simply would not have happened. Over the past year, I’ve seen at Community the life-changing difference that can be made when unions are there for you.
When the pandemic began to emerge, we fought to secure our members adequate personal protective equipment as well as for Covid-secure workplaces. This meant those who were unable to work from home could work in safer environments to protect them from the virus. In some cases, it meant those with underlying health conditions secured the right to work from home.
When the furlough scheme kicked in, our reps fought to ensure that employers made the morally conscious decision to top up member wages to 100% of basic pay to ensure they didn’t face financial distress or hardship during what was already an incredibly difficult time. When our members were working from home, our reps acted decisively setting up structures to stay connected, proving to be an effective method of reaching members about changes in the workplace and providing a blueprint for future collective organising.
When the economic tumult from the pandemic began to mount, we fought to protect all our members who work across the manufacturing sector. When rumours emerged that the government was planning a post-Covid bonfire of workers’ protections including the end of the working week directive, we joined with our fellow unions and came out to fight against any possible weakening or watering down of our workplace protections until they backed down. We have been there supporting our members who need to self-isolate, or claim benefits or tax relief.
This ceaseless hard work did not stop our members continually looked outwards, raising £11,000 for NHS charities and providing nearly 3,000 children with a stocking to open on Christmas Day. The news about vaccines is looking increasingly positive, and the possibility of a world that is post-Covid or where the virus is managed is seeming ever more present. But there is a great deal of uncertainty as to what this world may look like, which presents the trade union movement with perhaps an even greater challenge.
It is vital that workers are placed at the heart of any post-Covid economy, not as an afterthought. We cannot see the wide-scale rollouts of ‘fire and rehire’ tactics, or anything similar, that are becoming worryingly more present. An increased prevalence of people working remotely long-term must not be accompanied by any reductions in rights or conditions for those, or any, workers. Trade unions need to be there joining workers together even when they may be working apart.
It is true that in some cases the pandemic has accelerated automation in the workplace. Any changes must be made with the involvement of workers and unions, and workers should be given the skills and training to successfully transfer sectors if needed so that everyone is able to get well-paid fulfilling jobs. The next HeartUnions week will undoubtedly look different to the last one and to this one. The last year has demonstrated the power in trade unions, and the difference a trade union membership can make. For the future challenges, I’d say to anyone and everyone: let’s face them together.