Today the Daily Telegraph carries a front-page advert for Britain’s embattled trade union movement. Not intentionally, you understand. But this morning’s splash – “Go back to work or risk losing your job” – is the punchiest recent illustration of the need for workers to collectively organise.
Thanks to the British government’s bungled response to the pandemic – including, of course, the initial decision to delay lockdown in a self-defeating attempt to protect the economy – many workers are reasonably concerned about the consequences of a premature dash back to offices. These workers may have noticed, for instance, that their country has been one of the world’s worst-hit – with England posting Europe’s highest rate of excess deaths in the first months of the crisis. As a result, they may be naturally sceptical of this government’s competence when it comes to controlling the pandemic and protecting their families.
For some reason, the rightwing press doesn’t regard this as a tough verdict on the pathetic performance of its good friends in government. Rather than pin the blame on No 10, the Tory papers have decided to accuse the public of failing its masters, while attempting to bully workers back into the office. It surely deserves a response.
The antidote to this brazen attempt to shift responsibility on to the individual worker is the collective solidarity of the trade unions. But it’s not an easy battle. One poll at the beginning of July suggested that 59% of respondents would blame “the public” for a second wave of coronavirus, while only 33% said the government would be responsible.
Forty years of dog-eat-dog individualism, from politicians and the press, has left a profound impact on our culture – persuading many Britons that poverty, unemployment and other social injustices are really just personal failings. If the pandemic is not under control and the economy is not coming back to life, it must be the fault of lazy workers, illegal raves and overcrowded nightspots.
But protecting workers is a popular cause: a new poll shows that 47% of people believe businesses where staff are working at home should not be encouraging them to return to the office, with 31% dissenting. Strikingly, opposition is even more overwhelming in the working-age population, with just pensioners – apparently happy to impose decisions on others that do not affect them – in support.
According to the Telegraph, the government “have sent out the message that bosses at struggling firms will find it easier to hand out P45s” to those reluctant to return. This attempt to terrorise workers is a reminder of a commonly understood fact: Britain is a country in which bosses have the whip hand. If workers try to stand up to this coercion individually, they may indeed risk their jobs. There will undoubtedly be attempts at divide and rule, with those who feel safe to return to the office encouraged to resent those who do not.
The martyred American organiser Joe Hill was right when he sang There is Power in a Union. Only the collective power of workers can be an effective counterweight to the otherwise dictatorial power of bosses. While individuals can be picked off one by one, a movement speaking on behalf of many workers cannot.
Yes, the unions were battered by the Thatcherite juggernaut in the 1980s: they never recovered from a toxic combination of mass unemployment, anti-union laws and traumatising defeats in industrial struggles, not least the miners’ strike. While a slight majority of public sector workers are unionised, in the private sector the figure is derisory – somewhere between 13% and 14%.
For many in the younger generation, unions may seem culturally alien: they have, after all, been raised in a society that pretends individuals rise and fall purely on their own account. But there are signs of hope: union membership has increased for the third year running, particularly among women. During the pandemic, the number has reportedly surged, undoubtedly fuelled by companies dragging their feet over their workers’ safety in the early phase.
There is a need to box clever here. While the government’s back-to-work campaign depends partly on a stick, the accompanying carrot – the fact that working at home can indeed be isolating, and working with colleagues has mental health benefits – must not be entirely dismissed. For some, a life of commuting is nothing to relish and is bad for their work-life balance. For others, the social interactions of a workplace are professionally and personally enriching.
If any good is to come from this national disaster, it is to re-evaluate every aspect of our society, including allowing greater flexibility for workers: a happier, less-stressed worker is more productive, if an economic case is needed to strengthen the human argument.
The age of coronavirus has exposed multiple injustices in British life, not least the total lack of protection afforded many workers. From the precarious lives of the gig economy workforce to the greater death toll among poorer workers, the consequences of stripping workers of rights and security could hardly be starker.
That workers had already endured the longest squeeze in wages for generations had everything to do with the crippling of the unions. Now, in an unprecedented postwar crisis, the unions should reassert themselves. For the good of the worker, this is an opportunity that should not be missed.