Celebrating strong trade unions

On Covid-19 May Day, Unite GS Len McCluskey writes why we need unions now more than ever

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I’ve always been proud to march on May Day alongside friends, our members and fellow workers.

We march with the confidence that we have in our movement. A confidence that is undiminished in this crisis.

International Workers’ Day brings workers together across the world, in celebration of our day.

But this year is different. It will be an extraordinary May Day, devoid of marches in Britain or around the world. Our beautiful banners and flags won’t fill our streets, or our voices fill the air.

Yet as trade unionists and internationalists, we have many ways to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other during this global pandemic.

We can still celebrate the contribution of our class to our national and international wellbeing, something that has never been clearer as front-line workers strive so hard to keep their countries moving — clean, clothed, fed, educated, safe and cared for in these unprecedented times.

Many are risking their lives in the process, often in the face of the additional adversity of US economic sanctions and attempts by some regimes to use the pandemic to test the limits of civil rights and attack democracy.

Of course, May Day is also a celebration of strong trade unions, which have demonstrated during this crisis, perhaps as never before, why they are so needed.

We know that without us, workplaces would be dangerous, deadly and largely devoid of decent jobs.

Unions have made all our working lives safer and fairer and we’re not about to either relinquish the rights we’ve won or stop fighting for those we still demand.

It should not take a pandemic for a Tory government to value working people or to recognise the need for investment in our NHS and other public services.

And neither should it take an economic crisis for ministers to recognise that trade unions, far from being the enemy within, require a seat at the table to help find solutions to complex issues.

No Tory government has engaged seriously with us since Thatcher effectively banned contact.

But with millions facing unemployment and an economy on the brink of ruin, ministers did reach out this time.

At first, they didn’t really know what they wanted from us, but they recognised they were in serious trouble and needed us.

And what soon developed was intense daily meetings between unions, ministers and civil servants in BEIS, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and No 10, from which the job retention scheme and other pay protection agreements emerged.

Our work with government didn’t end with securing the furlough scheme, or with persuading a reluctant Treasury to extend it.

We knew that too hasty a withdrawal of government assistance would inevitably force viable companies to the wall, and already we’re preparing for the same arguments before the extension runs out.

We used our relationships with leading manufacturers and industry bodies to help establish the Ventilator Challenge and worked with firms the length and breadth of the country to co-ordinate the mass manufacturing drive needed to provide the safety kit our front-line staff must have to stay safe.

And eventually our demands for the appointment of a minister for PPE to address the chronic shortages of the vital safety materials urgently needed by NHS and social care workers, in particular, were heeded.

There is so much more being done. We’ve not hesitated to call out employers putting their workers, and the public, at risk or who are using coronavirus as an excuse to lay people off. We are determined to protect our members’ safety, jobs and wages.

And now we’re working with industry bodies and companies to find safe and secure ways back to work in certain industries, including automotive and construction.

We’re sharing best practice across a wide range of sectors and are determined that no worker feels unsupported in making that return.

Trade unions and working people in Britain have endured over 40 years of relentless attacks. Yet in what has felt like an endless lockdown journey we’ve achieved many victories that we can and must hold on to.

We cannot allow this government to return to business as usual — that’s what got us here.

The “new normal” must mean the labour movement keeps our seat at the table with a real plan for changing our economy for the good and for a long-term New Deal for Workers — the campaign we launched with the CWU, GMB and other sister unions.

The pandemic surely demonstrates, too, the importance of a new normal in international economic co-operation and health planning. A virus anywhere is a virus everywhere.

A start for paying back our workers with more than admiration and gratitude would be to make May Day in Britain a public holiday, as it is elsewhere.

But what they need more than anything is the fair share they deserve. Decent pay and secure, safe work.

May Day is our day. We are proud to proclaim our movement as the greatest force for fairness and we will ensure that workers everywhere are able to look forward to a better future when this crisis is over.

This comment first appeared in the Morning Star

By Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary   

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