TUC Congress: Covid has shown what unions can achieve for working people

Frances O’Grady

As we come together for the 153rd TUC Congress, I couldn’t be prouder of the role union reps, members and officers have played over the last 18 months. Blowing the whistle on unsafe workplaces – like at the DVLA offices at Swansea where PCS members took strike action.

Winning landmark recognition agreements after years campaigning and fighting in the courts – like the GMB did at Uber. The continued success of furlough – a union brainchild – that has saved the livelihoods of millions and helped companies get back on their feet.

Every day, unions are making a difference to working people, and it’s great to see membership grow for a fourth successive year. But we are not complacent. Working people – and their unions – face huge challenges.

A tale of two pandemics 

Congress meets again under the shadow of Covid – a pandemic that has brutally exposed the inequalities in our labour market. Low-paid workers, many in key worker roles, have borne the brunt of this crisis. While the better-off have benefited from greater flexibility and more financial stability, the story has been very different for those at the sharp end.

Many keeping the country going – including care staff and delivery drivers – have risked their lives while on low pay and insecure contracts. And millions of others, mainly women, have been forced to work without the protection of even basic sick pay.

This must change. We will not rest until every worker is treated with dignity and respect at work, and until hated practices like zero-hours contracts and fire and rehire have been outlawed. And we’ll keep up the heat on ministers to deliver their long overdue employment bill.

Achieving racial justice

Covid has also shone a light on structural racism in our society. BME workers have been more likely to die from Covid and more likely to have been pushed into financial hardship.

TUC analysis published just last month revealed the unemployment rate for BME workers has risen at three times the speed of the unemployment rate of white workers. We will not allow this to go unchallenged.

The TUC’s anti-racism taskforce – led by my brilliant colleague Dr Patrick Roach, the general secretary of NASUWT – is working on a landmark statement that will set out how we end the systemic discrimination and prejudice BME people face in our labour market and beyond.

Alongside that, we will adopt an action plan to make unions more diverse and better allies of BME workers. We will also push for an independent public inquiry to look at the role economic inequality has played in making the Covid crisis worse.

A forward-looking movement

This year, we have seen a number of changes at the top of the union movement, with new general secretaries at UNISON, Unite and the GMB. For the first time in history, the leaders of Britain’s two largest unions are women – leading a movement with a record number of women union members.

I look forward to working with Christina, Sharon, Gary and all our other brilliant union general secretaries and activists to protect jobs and to win a new deal for working people.

An immediate task is stopping unemployment from spiking as furlough comes to an end. The TUC has already published proposals for a permanent short-time working scheme to help the UK through future crises.

But we also have our sights on growing our movement. If we are to build a better and fairer Britain as we emerge from this pandemic, we must increase workers’ bargaining power.

There is strength in numbers, so we must make organising a top priority in the public and private sector, and reach out to a new generation of young members. Nobody is pretending this will be easy. But we have shown during Covid what unions can achieve for working people.

Make sure you follow Congress this year. Anyone can watch and keep up to date with proceedings here: www.tuc.org.uk/welcome-congress-2021. And our vibrant fringe will host discussions on all areas of working life – in the UK and beyond.

As we emerge from the pandemic, unions have plenty to discuss – and even more to do!

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