When my great uncle died at work in the mines in 1933, he left behind three children and a family to feed. The employer paid out a paltry sum and that was that. But for those left behind, the failure of the boss to provide the most basic safety standards had a devastating impact that haunted our family for years to come.
The disposability of a life by my uncle’s employer. Bought and paid for. No-one was held to account.
Almost 100 years later and we can fast forward to 2022. Have things got that much better? Sure, we have better health and safety legislation, official bodies and inspectors, but the cold truth remains – workers continue to pay the highest price for a lack of protection at work. And power remains overwhelmingly in the hands of the employer.
During the height of the pandemic, and for the first time, many ordinary people became part of the national story – ‘key workers’ in the eyes of the media. They were lauded with empty gestures, from pot clapping to flag waving and sent out to bat for the team. But, in many ways, workers became part of an experiment.
Remember, this was at a time when no-one knew whether vaccines would be effective and no-one knew the real impact of contracting COVID 19. But out they went. Many died as a result. Let us not forget that in London alone, 60 bus drivers died.
Meanwhile, some in the movement, longing to be ‘back at the table’ with government, started to dream of a new age of partnership. Of course, this was never realistic and built on nothing more than expedience. Despite many great examples to the contrary, on the ground, too often we failed to act.
Today, for the doctors, nurses, bus drivers, supermarket assistants, refuse collectors, postal workers and the dozens of other occupations forced to take risks, the days of praise are now a distant memory.
Because, as is ever the case, workers have found that signals made by nervous politicians in the midst of crisis, are never worth a fig. The Government have failed to deliver an effective response to the cost of living emergency and predictably have endorsed the status quo. In the main, short term tactics and rank opportunism have continued to hold court on Parliament green.
So workers have faced a double whammy. First, many have paid the price for the pandemic with their lives or health and now those that remain are paying with declining living standards. In the worst cost of living crisis for decades, one thing remains true: the workers always pay the price.
NHS staff face real terms pay cuts as a result of pathetic pay ‘rewards’ and rising inflation, with many others in the same predicament – fighting to just stand still. Whilst all of this is going on, the Labour opposition are nowhere to be seen. Party-gate is the frenzy and whilst it is a sad sign of the times that a sitting Prime Minister can break the law and get away with it, there are very few politicians on the opposition benches prepared to pick up the baton for the workers. Hoping for Boris to fail is a road to nowhere for workers.
So, once again the politicians have failed on the key issues of the day. They are trapped on the hamster wheel of orthodoxy and offering nothing more than a minor tinkering around the edges of the problems we face. It’s now time for the rebirth of trade unionism. It is now time to build solid foundations and popular support for collective action. This means getting organised. Is it any coincidence that many of the sectors with the worst health and safety records are poorly organised?
Above all we need confidence. We need to remember that we don’t have to take what we are given. It’s time to face the real challenge of our time. Rebuilding our collective power to force change, not waiting helpless and relying on someone to do it for us. We must now rebuild our own institutions and our own power. It’s time to abandon the hope that this or that leader can save us, that the providence of individuals can answer our problems. We need to replace protest demos with activism and to cherish our shop stewards and our reps over political ‘heroes’.
It is time to build a real movement. Not one based on historical whimsy and wishful thinking. But a movement empowered from above and governed from below. A movement where the role of leadership is to act as a catalyst for rebirth. And a movement focussed on what can be done, not fearful of what might happen if we dare do things differently.
Because this must be our legacy for those that died at work and this is how we will fight for the living. By getting organised and building power in our workplaces and communities.
By Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary
- This comment first appeared in the Morning Star on April 28.