'Fighting the corner of the low-waged and vulnerable'

Unite throws support behind Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and northern communities

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Unite has thrown its support behind Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and northern communities which face the strictest Covid-19 restrictions without an adequate financial support package to make such lockdowns work.

This week, the government unilaterally imposed a tier-3 lockdown on Greater Manchester – the highest level lockdown where many hospitality businesses are forced to close – after talks with Burnham and other Manchester leaders broke down.

The 10-day stand-off, during which the government and Burnham and others sought to reach an agreement on a financial support package for businesses and workers in Manchester, ended without a deal. It is understood that the government failed to agree to the £65m minimum package that Burnham requested, with the government refusing to budge from its £60m offer, which is reportedly still on the table.

“I don’t believe we can proceed as a country on this basis through the pandemic, by grinding communities down, through punishing financial negotiations,” Burnham said on Tuesday (October 20) after the government failed to agree a deal. “We are asking a lot of the public at this difficult time. And we need to carry them with us, not crush their spirit. We need national unity.”

Burnham noted that he is still willing to negotiate with the government, saying the ‘fight goes on’ but added, “It cannot be on the terms that the government offered because on those things I could not meet the commitments I made to people on the lowest incomes, to people who are self-employed, to the freelancers in this city, who need our support, I could not do it on those terms.”

On Wednesday (October 21) during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), Labour leader Kier Starmer accused prime minister Boris Johnson of “dividing communities” and “bargaining with people’s lives”.

The Labour party, as well as Unite, have long been highly critical of the new Jobs Support Scheme which is set to replace the furlough scheme.

For those who cannot work because their workplace has been shut down under tier-3 restrictions, the new scheme will only cover 67 per cent of people’s wages instead of 80 per cent, which Starmer argued will not be enough for the lowest paid to avoid certain destitution. 

“Their rents and their mortgage won’t be lower, their food and their heating bills won’t be lower, and that could last for months,” Starmer said. “Why can’t the prime minister and the chancellor understand this? Stop bargaining with people’s lives, stop dividing communities, and provide the support that is needed in Manchester.”

Labour has called an Opposition Day Debate later on Wednesday afternoon (October 21), when the party will demand that the government offer a fair deal to those communities living under tier-3 restrictions. Crucially, Labour will call on the government to ensure that wage support levels for those who cannot work because of restrictions are brought back to 80 per cent — just as they were in the initial furlough scheme and not the 67 per cent currently being offered.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said today (October 21) that the union full supports Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.

“Andy Burnham has been doing a fantastic job in speaking up for and defending the people he has been elected to serve,” he said.

 “Unite members will be forever grateful to him for fighting the corner of the low-waged and those in insecure employment, the vulnerable and the young, all of whom are paying the heaviest price of this dreadful virus,” McCluskey added. “They are sure to be watching the debate in the House of Commons very closely today to see who votes to stand with them and who votes to abandon them.

“We are also 100 per cent behind Andy Burnham’s calls for full furlough support to be provided to those who cannot work their usual hours as a result of the government’s Tier 3 shutdown. Why can this government not get it into its head that most people, particularly those on low wages, cannot afford to lose a single pound of their pay? To lose one third of a low wage, as this government insists, is to be forced into certain debt and despair. 

“The people and the fabric of our towns and cities are being stretched to tearing point as this government repeatedly fails to do the right thing,” McCluskey continued. “As soon as the enormity of this virus was understood, this government should have provided support on the scale and over the same length of time as that which the French and German governments have provided for their citizens. They have refused to do so and just as with Thatcher’s destruction of our industrial heartlands, the consequences of these deliberate political decisions will be felt and remembered for generations to come. 

“It is only correct therefore that mayors like Andy Burnham stand firm in the face of a Westminster government that has no problem spending billions of pounds of our money on ineffectual private sector wheezes run by their mates, yet chokes at the prospect of giving working and struggling people in the North enough to live on and businesses the resources they need to keep people in work,” he went on to say.

“The people of the North will remember who stood shoulder to shoulder with them in their hour of need, and it will be Andy Burnham’s honourable dedication to them that they will remember, in stark contrast to Boris Johnson’s government’s cold disinterest in their communities.”

By Hajera Blagg

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