Call for maximum action to stop the coronavirus

We need our unions to protect us

by Jonathan Neale

I have been a union member all my life, and a shop steward in several jobs. But I’m worried now. Some of our union leaders are about to make a very serious mistake.

On Monday, April 27, Heather Stewart in the Guardian reported that “ministers have held a series of high-level meetings with trades unions and business leaders amid fears that millions of people will be too fearful to return to work as pressure intensifies on the government for the government to publish a path out of the national lockdown.”

The Guardian says that “both sides of industry have been drafted into seven sector-by-sector meetings chaired by the business secretary, Alok Sharma, in recent days, after concerns arose in Whitehall that many employees may be reluctant to return to the workplace, even when the government gives the green light.”

The paper is saying that most British people think it would be dangerous to lift the lockdown now. But our union leaders are sitting in high-level committees with business leaders and government officials working out how they can all get us back to work anyway.

I have no problem with union leaders negotiating with the Tories and the employers. Nor with sitting on joint bodies. That is part of their job. Encouraging people back to work who are quite rightly scared for their lives if they return is not part of their job.

The lockdown started on March 23. That day 102 people died of Covid in UK hospitals. This Tuesday, 586 died in hospital. The government says 26,000 have died. The Financial Times says the true figure is more like 45,000. If we lift the lockdown now, we start the second wave from a point where the daily death rate is more than five times as high as it was when we locked down.

If any of our union leaders are indeed doing what the Guardian says, they should stop. They have a track record they could improve. They could have done a lot more to protect the bus drivers, construction workers, hospital workers and all the rest. This is their chance to do better for us. An early return to work under present conditions will lead to a slaughter.

Apparently, the unions plan to work with management to ensure that people are safe at work. The union reps will be enforcing health and safety, making sure workers keep their distance, and forcing management to follow the rules.

If you think that will happen, you do not have much experience of negotiating health and safety with management. You have little idea of what manual workers actually do all day long. And you never take public transport at rush hour.

Environmentalists talk about fighting pollution upstream or downstream. Upstream is when you stop the factory pumping poison into the river. Downstream is you test the river water downstream, try to rub the poison off the swans, issue press releases, tell people not to drink the water, and sue the company for damages after the people die.

Upstream works better.

All our unions face a choice now. They can campaign to keep the lockdown in place until PPE, testing, tracing, isolation and care for everyone is in place. Or they can support lifting the lockdown because, they say, that would be good for British industry. And because some union leaders have always wanted to be taken seriously and politely at Whitehall and by industry executives. It makes them feel important.

There is a basic mistake here. Many union leaders assume that their job is helping the employers in their industry. It is not. The job of our unions is protecting all working people.

We, the union members, can turn this around. We, the people, with the weight of our opinion made the government change course and lock down. What we feel and say matters.

It is time for thousands of members to ask every union leader in person on social media if they support lifting the lockdown. I don’t want them to stop negotiating. I just want each of them to say clearly and publicly that the government should hold the lockdown until the death rate is way down and we have everything we need in place.

Good shop stewards and brave members will fight in many workplaces if we have to. But that is downstream. It will be infinitely safer if we can hold the lockdown. This matters most for shop stewards and regional officials. What if you help smooth the path back to work, and one of your workmates dies? You will live with that a long time.

I wrote an article in The Ecologist two weeks ago about what we would need for a safe lifting of the lockdown.

We still have none of the things we would need for a safe lockdown. There are no plans for mass testing or mass tracing any time soon. The World Health Organisation says every government should trace, test and isolate.
Hancock and the British government never even mention isolation. Yet the WHO expects the NHS to isolate and care for everyone who tests positive. In fact, the government now tells anyone with Covid to go home, where you will give it to your family, your grandparents and your flatmates. When they lift the lockdown, they do not plan to provide people who have caught the coronavirus with safe isolation and proper care. Instead, they will continue to send us home to infect the people we love. Or leave us in the care home.

Already, many people will die because their cancer, heart and other treatments have been postponed. If there is a second wave of Covid, many more of those people will die.

The chancellor clearly wants to lift the lockdown quickly, without safety in place. So do the big corporations. Keir Starmer seems to want that as well. A media barrage is beginning for lifting the lockdown. This barrage will gather force.

We were lied to at the start of the epidemic. There is a telling detail in the Guardian story. When the government closed the schools, they said essential workers could still send their children to school. The government expected 20% of children would go to school. Only 1% of children attended school. Almost all the essential workers decided to keep their children at home to protect them. They knew they were being lied to.

We are being lied to again. Don’t let our unions be part of that. There’s an old union saying: An injury to one is an injury to all.