From the moment the coronavirus hit our shores, Unite was on the front foot, fighting to protect your safety, your jobs and your pay. We worked day in and day out to secure the Job Retention Scheme from a reluctant government. We’ve battled ever since to keep that support going and to stop greedy bosses using Covid as a cover to slash jobs, terms and conditions.
And while we’ve been fighting to prevent millions of working people and their families being plunged into poverty, you, our members, have been on the pandemic frontline.
From our factories to our warehouses, councils to hospitals, at ports, on public transport and in hospitality, you’ve been keeping the country and our communities moving, and our people safe.
Our fantastic reps, have worked day in, day out, to see off the attacks by employers and support members going through a truly frightening time. And I want to say a massive thank you to all of you, for everything you have done.
A society today without trade unions would be a far more unequal one, and a far more dangerous one.
Our army of health and safety reps have ensured workplaces have stayed open, or have reopened, in a Covid-secure way. And they’ve exposed those that continue to put their workers’ health and lives at risk.
The role of equality reps, working alongside them on equality impact assessments, is key to tackling the deep inequalities that Covid has revealed. Black workers, women disabled people and the LGBT+ community have all been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus crisis. Women have been on the frontline, both at work and at home.
The pandemic has highlighted the endemic low pay and occupational segregation faced by many women workers. Most of our key workers are women, many earning less than £10 an hour. They kept the health care system going as the pandemic hit its peak.
Women have also faced a disproportionate burden of unpaid care during the crisis – many losing jobs as a result.
Two million low-paid workers are excluded from statutory sick pay, with 70 per cent of these being low-paid women – many Black or disabled. We know too that BAEM workers have borne the brunt of the economic impact of Covid, with their unemployment rate rising at more than twice the speed of that for other workers.
A mirror to structural racism in labour market
The pandemic really has held up a mirror to the structural racism in our labour market – and wider society.
So too has it exposed the unequal impact on disabled workers. An appalling six in 10 of all Covid-related deaths have been disabled people. Seven in 10 disabled workers were affected by the pandemic, either through a loss of income, being put on furlough or being made redundant.
And many LGBT+ members have told us of the negative impact of isolation during lockdown on their mental health. LGBT key workers also experienced a horrifying increase in levels of abuse.
Mental health epidemic
Working people have paid far more than a physical price for the pandemic, and the effects will be felt long after the country and economy emerge from the coronavirus freeze. Our own recent survey of workplace reps has confirmed the extent to which all workers are suffering a mental health epidemic.
Some 83 per cent of reps told us they were dealing with an increase in members reporting mental health problems. And I know that the personal support so many of you have been providing to members goes well beyond that we would normally expect.
But going above and beyond is what Unite does. It’s what kind of trade union we are. Most of you will know that I’m a big supporter of trade union equality reps. I believe that they can make important progress and drive forward change in our workplaces and society.
As a union we have tried to ensure that all our workplaces and branches have them, and we’ve fought hard for them to have statutory rights – the same rights as health and safety reps have – so they have the time they need to protect workers.
And I’ve been reassured that even while Labour’s leader appears to be reneging on the key policy commitments he was overwhelming elected on, our equality reps campaign is still one that the Party supports.
Just as the statutory rights of health and safety reps have had such a huge impact – not just saving tens of thousands of lives, but fundamentally changing the culture – inequality can and must be changed. And it must be our number one priority to achieve statutory legislative status for equality reps.
These equality conferences are a cornerstone of our union and of our democracy. They are one of the most important aspects of Unite’s equality work, where policy is debated and campaign strategies are set.
They are an opportunity to build participation of under-represented members in our equalities structures, in the union as a whole and in the wider labour movement.
These are challenging times as never before, but our purpose as a union remains. Preserving and improving living standards, winning job security and standing up against injustice and inequality at work.
And with every win we achieve in the face of despicable employers using fire and rehire tactics – Go North West being just the latest – I am prouder than ever of our great union. And let me be crystal clear on fire and rehire. Unite will never accept it, will do everything in our power to prevent it, and we will win.
In one area after another we continue to lead the labour movement across Britain and Ireland.
Colleagues, when I last addressed your conferences we were so full of hope that we really would see the election of a radical Labour government within months. Well, the political landscape looks a lot different now. But let’s not dwell on that here.
Because our political work, tied to our industrial mission, continues. And even without having a Labour government advancing our demands, and ministers sympathetic to our cause, we’ve achieved so much.
I’ve always insisted that we will never let partisan politics get in the way of fighting for jobs and investment. We will fight with every bone we have to make sure working people do not pay for this crisis.
Urgently need a plan for jobs
We are told that the roadmap out of lockdown will see the economy reawaken. But we urgently need a plan for jobs. Unite has one and is at the table, talking to ministers about some of the quickest ways to create employment and tackle the climate crisis.
Of course, our union, its functions and structures have also been greatly impacted by the pandemic.
One such impact has been the delay in holding reps’ elections. The union’s executive council meets next month and a decision will be taken about holding those elections.
Reps elections are fundamental to achieving greater equality within our union and in our members’ workplaces.When they are held it is more important than ever for you to encourage members to take part.
Unite must be representative of the workforce it represents, in order for us to strengthen our organisation and build back out of the pandemic.
My time as general secretary of this great union is coming to an end, but I’m so proud that our equality structures are not just lines in a rule book but are living and breathing, underpinning our democracy and all that we do.
This week marks the anniversary of the death of George Floyd, a shocking event that exposed a rotten, brutal racism in US policing.
Social justice demands that we stand with those protesting in defence of black lives, everywhere. It was around the time of George Floyd’s death that our BAEM members were first alerting us to the terrible situation unfolding, with black workers facing unequal exposure to the virus and dying in disproportionate numbers.
I said then that we had a duty to find out why this was happening and that, as we emerge from the crisis, we must ensure that the ‘new normal’ is anti-racist and tackles the roots of inequality. We continue to demand an urgent public inquiry. Next Spring is not good enough.The families must be fully consulted and their unions fully engaged.
When the reckoning comes
The UK has suffered the largest death toll in Europe and the biggest hit among developed nations, and Unite will ensure BAEM voices, and all your voices, are heard when the reckoning finally comes.
Finally, with so much concern about Covid variants and the potential impact on our ability to fully emerge from lockdown, can I remind our reps of our Get a Jab campaign and urge them to share the information with members.
Our members are not just heroically serving this country in the ways I have described, but are also involved in the production, distribution and administration of the life-saving vaccines that are now offering us a bridge to a safer world.
The sacrifices that we have all made and the appalling human loss that the people of this country have endured will be with us for years to come. But in the vaccination programme there is a genuine light on the horizon.
Our union is a union like no other and our members and reps are like no other. History teaches us that working people only prosper when trade unions are powerful, and we’ve shown ourselves to be just that throughout this crisis.
So, as we emerge from these dark times, let us go forward determined to play our full part in changing Britain and Ireland for the better. I’ve never been more proud to have been your general secretary.
By Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary