Meeting Covid: no substitute for fighting, workers’ organisation

At the beginning of the lockdown, the government’s mantra was ‘we’re all in this together’. The experience of the pandemic has exposed for many that no such unity exists. Instead governments around the world have put the interests of capitalism before people’s health. To varying degrees they have largely failed to protect people in the workplace and the vulnerable in the community.

For the likes of Keir Starmer, as the new leader of the Labour Party, the idea of supposed national unity was perfectly acceptable. It acted as a good excuse for Labour under his leadership not to challenge the government. In reality, Covid or not, this is the role which Starmer wanted to play, being second fiddle to the Tory party and potentially acting as a ‘second eleven’ if needed in the interests of British capitalism.

Under these circumstances, it was also easy for the mood of ‘unity’, pushed by the government, to be adopted by many trade union leaders. In early March, official industrial action was suspended, and some unions didn’t just stop meeting physically but stopped meeting altogether.

It was left to very few, such as the Socialist Party, to point out there were no joint interests even during the pandemic, only class interests. Not only was organising extremely necessary during the pandemic it would also be needed for the longer-term impact of the pandemic. In short, because the working class would be made to pay through austerity, growing unemployment, and worsening living standards for the economic policies of today.

It was also the job of socialists and the workers’ movement to expose that decisions around introducing and easing of lockdowns were being made on the basis of the needs of big business and profit motives, not people’s health. The Tories can’t be trusted to protect workers’ living standards or health. This can be seen though the last decade of cuts and privatisation of the NHS, which has let companies make profits, waiting lists grow, and health staff suffer under growing pressure. While one week Boris might clap for the NHS and key workers, the next he would deny them the pay they need and deserve.

Now six months into the Covid crisis, these conclusions have been proven right from people’s experience. Having originally suspended action in Royal Mail, the Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) then saw its members forced to take wildcat action to protect postal workers’ health. In early June deaths among postal workers were 3.3 times the average of the working population. Managements at a number of workplaces were reportedly pushing for people to work in unsafe conditions, breaking social distancing, and without personal protective equipment (PPE). The safest place to be was at outdoor union meetings which were socially distanced.

On transport too, bus drivers had to organise and take action to protect their health. Between March and May male bus drivers were 3.5 times more likely to die from Covid then men in other jobs. A combination of trade union campaigning and drivers’ action, such as taping up the front seats of the buses, forced management back. During the height of the pandemic the front doors of many buses stayed closed to reduce contact between driver and passengers. Reluctance from the bus companies to close the front doors stemmed from them wanting to collect fares, showing blatantly that they put profit before workers’ safety.

Pressure from transport unions has helped ensure more social distancing takes place on buses and other transport. This has protected both transport workers and passengers. Demands for PPE for transport workers and reduction in transport use have also been won by workers organising though the trade union movement. Again low passenger numbers caused financial problems for Transport for London (TfL), leading to the dispute between London mayor Sadiq Khan and the government over funding. Similarly to Starmer, little fight was offered from city hall, and Khan accepted the government’s first offer, including fare rises and attacks on discounted travel for young and old.

Thousands of education staff have flooded into the teaching unions. One virtual National Education Union (NEU) meeting reached 20,000 attendees as it became clear the government wanted early reopening of schools so parents could go back to work. This issue was not just about protecting the health of teaching staff and their families, but vulnerable families of school-aged children.

All of these examples showed the need for independent working class organisation, and a fighting socialist programme, through the pandemic. Without workers’ organisation, despite all the difficulties, many more lives could have been lost to the virus thanks to the actions of the bosses and the government.

This pandemic has also shone a spotlight on other holes in workers’ rights and the pressures on their lives. With no initiative being taken by either the trade union or Labour Party leaders, a layer of people turned to mutual aid as neighbours struggled to get food delivered and meet basic needs. As austerity started to bite since the last economic crisis, even before the pandemic, growing numbers of people were forced to turn to food banks, which on top of food donations run on at least £30 million hours’ worth of unpaid labour by volunteers.

During the pandemic, even where services were provided though the public sector, workers disclosed of nightmarish logistical operations involving the charitable sector, outsourced companies, and councils. This reflected the decade of austerity measures faced by council services, unchallenged including by Labour controlled authorities who have passed on Tory cuts.

One mutual aid group in west London attempted to source PPE for bus drivers, and hand sanitisers for GPs surgeries, in the early days of lockdown. None of the hand sanitiser people had to share was appropriate and the quantities were too small anyway. It was all extremely well meaning. But it showed the limitations of attempts to organise on an individual basis with the limited resources of working class people, compared to the strength the working class can wield when organised – to win changes to conditions, but also for the resources needed.

The trade union movement represents six million workers. Unions remain the largest membership organisations representing working class interests. And, when lockdown needed huge numbers to stay home, the pandemic highlighted the role the working class plays in making society run – and profits for big business.

Today, for many frontline and key workers, it will be hard to recall the initial idea of ‘all in it together’ unity because it has been so necessary through the pandemic to organise in defence of health, safety and jobs. Covid has not been an ‘equaliser’ as we were promised and instead has exposed the class divisions in society and the ruthlessness of the capitalist system.

At the same time it has shone a light on the weaknesses at this stage of workers’ organisations to lead the battles needed. But if ideas such as the government’s ‘unity’ mantra can be overturned in less than six months, then the weaknesses of organisation can be challenged too. Workers such as the nurses fighting for a 15% pay rise have had to organise outside of their unions at this stage, but the potential for those struggles to produce new combative union reps and leaders also exists.

The pandemic has posed and will continue to pose new tasks for the workers’ movement. There is no doubt lockdowns can have a disorientating effect, as many workers are no longer able to physically meet and discuss how to organise against attacks from management. Working from home, it’s much harder to tell whether your colleagues are also struggling or angry about their treatment. But many of the practical difficulties are also not insurmountable to a trade union movement on the front foot willing to fight and organise.

Technology can play a role, in enabling democratic discussions when it is not possible in person. But ultimately technology is just a tool. It can’t overcome the political or organisational problems faced by the working class in the struggles to defend its interests. The crisis of working class leadership and confidence to struggle can only be answered with sustained campaigning, offering workers a clear programme to fight on. There can be no substitute for democratic fighting unions, led by the best fighters of our class.

Helen Pattison