HeartUnions week: How Unite has secured wins for workers during Covid

Len McCluskey
© Andrew Skudder/CC BY-SA 2.0

“Thank you. We couldn’t have won this without Unite.” So began the email from a highly relieved Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick worker, sent hours after we’d clinched the deal to not just save the historic jet engine site from closure but to place it at the centre of the firm’s training commitment to the UK.

Not long after that, British Airways backed down on plans to fire and rehire its cargo team, which – had they been successful – would have wiped £8,000 off the average salary of employees who’d worked tirelessly for the airline during this crisis.

Days later, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwateng, forced to admit that the government was looking to “review” workers’ rights, most probably resulting in lower wages and longer hours conceded, having felt the fury of Unite, Labour and the whole union movement, announced that he wouldn’t be doing so after all.

And then came the vote by our members at Airbus in North Wales for a shorter working week to save jobs, shop steward-led trade unionism at its best that should inspire workers. A reminder that when your union is at your side, never give up.

Right now, we’re engaged in dozens of disputes with employers who are using this frightening time to raid wages, rip up contracts and stretch working hours still further. Time and again, we see the same employers in the frame – distribution, the food sector and the bus industry are especially turbulent – another reminder that the private sector is built on perpetual insecurity with bigger businesses or far off boardrooms wringing every penny from measly contracts.

But here, too, we’ve secured wins. Strikes at First West Yorkshire buses in Bradford have been called off after drivers struck an agreement with the company. Our members at bus manufacturer Optare in Leeds also ended their long-running industrial action when an agreement on pay was finally reached, with Unite winning a legal battle to defend the right for all workers to picket along the way.

This crisis has certainly been a harsh reminder of how easy it is to mistreat this country’s workers, while those in competitor nations are valued more highly. Belgian and French Eurostar staff have been furloughed while their UK catering staff colleagues worked on, but it’s our workers who face an uncertain future. While UK aerospace has lost skilled workers, their French, German and Italian colleagues keep theirs thanks to job retention schemes stretching into 2022.

It’s the same tale in the airline industry, where we’ve been fighting a lonely battle to stop our workers been sent to the dole while, for example, Scandinavian ones have been saved by a government package. Gatwick – the country’s second airport – is a ghost town, left to fail by the Chancellor who promised back in March 2020 that sector assistance is on its way. Not a penny has appeared and 60,000 UK airline workers are now jobless.

Now, we are once again having to press the government to extend the furlough scheme. Dither and delay cause redundancies, but the government refuses to learn that those nations protecting their skills and their critical infrastructures will be the ones best-placed to get their economies back on their feet.

Unite has a plan for jobs developed by our manufacturing sector that would get this country back to work and help deliver on our climate obligations. We have regularly held out the hand of health and safety friendship, offering to place our army of experts at the nation’s disposal to keep Covid out of our workplaces, but have been ignored. Throughout the crisis, we’ve been at the table in Stormont, Cardiff and Edinburgh, yet at Westminster it’s the cold shoulder for working people and their unions. Conservative hostility to working positively with unions may give rabid backbenchers a fuzzy feeling, but it is short-sighted and, at this time of crisis, irresponsible.

But it is in the workplace where we win our greatest victories. At Appledore shipyard, we never gave up and a workforce now has a future. At Bernard Matthews, our insistence on safe and free transport to work has protected the health of the workforce. At Marriott Hotels, the Woolwich ferry, and at dozens of other workplaces, Unite in action has seen workers put on furlough, not made redundant. At food manufacturer Bakkavor, isolating workers are now on full sick pay and the totemic Harland and Wolff shipyard was saved by a work-in because our members stood strong.

It’s a time of great anxiety but the role of the unions in safeguarding the health of the nation is a cause for pride. Certainly in Unite, where our members have worked all through the crisis in the private and public sectors – and are the ones making, delivering and administering the vaccinations that offer a route to a safer future – we are tremendously proud of what this union achieves every day for working people.

When the reckoning comes – and we want a full, open public inquiry – Unite will ensure that it gives loud voice to working people.  We are determined that their contribution is recorded for history and that the cost of this crisis is not further shouldered by the blameless.

This week, Unite will celebrate our amazing members, linking arms with our sister unions to proclaim our values of justice, equality and dignity for all, our tradition of standing shoulder-to-shoulder, and our belief that an injury to one is an injury to all. Yes, these are tough and uncertain times but our solidarity, our unity, and our unions, will get us through.

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