Lockdown woke up the sleeping giant in our jobs: the strength of the union

Two months ago Biyu, a worker at a food factory, received just £150 before she was laid off owing to lockdown. Her life and that of dozens of others at the site have been thrown into chaos. Many are now dependent on food banks. “They’re saying they won’t furlough anyone, because then those needed to keep working won’t want to. So they’ve laid off instead of working out rotas,” says their union organiser. Those who kept their low-paid, zero-hours jobs have said social distancing in the factory is impossible, and that they have no PPE.

On the London underground, TfL is facing similar issues around reduced demand, and workers are also concerned about safety. But their story is vastly different. “Passenger numbers are down; there’s less of us needed. So our first demand was to reduce shifts. We got that. Then [management] wanted ‘visibility’: for us to sit in the boxes near the barriers. But they’re not cleaned, and the cleaners have got enough to do. We’re refusing, and they’ve backed down,” Jay, who works for TfL, told me.

Where Biyu is scared, Jay is confident. The RMT rail union bulletins have explained section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which gives workers the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions, making it clear that anyone refusing to work on those grounds who sees push-back from management will be supported by legal representation. “If the managers kick off,” Jay says, “all I have to do is speak to a rep.”

His workforce has a long history of strong unionisation. Biyu and her colleagues are in the early days of organising their workplace with the GMB (which represents workers across all sectors). Their union is still not recognised: management has no obligation to engage with members in the workplace or officers outside it. But at least the food factory employees are now building collectively to fight for pay and protection. It is difficult to imagine what those without unions can do. For most people, even quoting section 44 puts them at risk of dismissal. Refusing to work or protesting about pay is almost unthinkable if you are on your own.

Lockdown has made clear how vital unions are, and this is significant. In recent years the story told about them has not been a happy one, focusing on their haemorrhage of power and members: from more than 13 million in 1979 to 6.2 million today. Members who stay, union critics say, are trapped in toothless institutions bound by state-imposed legislation and self-imposed bureaucracy.

Now those apparently toothless unions have started to bite. The TUC began lockdown by negotiating state support for millions of workers through the furlough scheme and, vitally, union power appears to be waking up in workplaces across the UK. The National Education Union (NEU) reports that its membership grew by 7,500 over one weekend, and traffic on the TUC’s joining page is up 300%. Public support for union demands is also growing: 400,000 people have signed the NEU’s petition against the unsafe opening of schools.

But online outrage won’t be enough to sustain power. The union movement now has a once-in-a-generation chance to reverse decline and write itself a happier story, but to do so, it must look carefully at what has changed in the past months. The key ingredients – of clever online organising, working across unions, mass and dynamic worker involvement, and a willingness to refuse to work unless demands are met – were missing at scale before now, aside from notable exceptions, such as the Unison Birmingham care-workers strike, the Glasgow Equal Pay campaign, and the radical effectiveness of IWGB and UVW.

It is to those examples and others that the movement must now look. It has always been stronger than anyone gives it credit for, but now it has all it needs to become even more powerful. With the furlough scheme winding down and a new wave of austerity all but certain, workers and officials must build on this surge in activity, organising in innovative ways, expanding into new workplaces and working together. Biyu and her colleagues will win if they fight together; the rest of us will too.