‘May Day is our day’

With many workers ‘one pay cheque away from destitution’ Unite GS LenMcCluskey believes today’s heroes must be at the heart of tomorrow’s society

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As I write this, over 100 NHS and social care workers, as well as dozens of bus workers, and who knows how many workers in other parts of the economy, have lost their lives to Covid-19. The UK is on course to have one of the worst death tolls in the world, and it is becoming clear that key workers, women, the vulnerable and ethnic minorities are being hit particularly hard.

Covid-19 may not respect borders but it is not an equal opportunities pandemic. Your position in society matters. Coronavirus is a class issue.

As we mark May Day 2020 shuttered away, not on the streets as we would want to be, in full voice and with our banners held high, we owe it to our people to mark this time.

May Day is our day, a reminder of the struggle for the eight hour working day, the growth of the workers’ movement and a statement of pride in all it has achieved over generations. By rights it should be a public holiday in the UK irrespective of what day of the week it falls on, just as it is around the world.

This year on May Day we need to say loudly that that there will be no going back to business as usual. Jobs are being lost, and our employment and social landscapes are being recast. The old adage will hold true for this crisis as in any other – capitalism never lets a crisis go to waste. We can bet our bottom dollar that the opportunistic employers are already readying themselves to take advantage. Just look at British Airways, needlessly and callously dumping 12,000 loyal workers on the dole queue while trying to cut terms and conditions for those who remain, wrecking not just its own workforce’s lives but the viability of the entire UK aviation sector.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus around the world has laid bare the frailty of the late stage capitalism, and how its warped priorities have real life human consequences. So it will be down to us, the trade union and labour movement to unite now around the fairer future that we demand.

Families and communities across the UK will feel the loss of loved ones, incomes and industry in the wake of this pandemic for years to come. It is the job of our movement to say that we are determined to come through this with lessons learned, cards marked and the pledge of a more just world.

The country stood in silence on Tuesday, in honour of those who went to work and never came home. We remembered those key workers who lost their lives caring and supporting us. For the first time, a UK prime minister observed international workers’ memorial day. History made, no doubt, and his gesture of remembrance was appreciated.

But it is time to go further. Let’s agree on this May Day that people deserve more than gestures; that now is the time for a new deal for our country’s workers.

No new austerity

Underpinning this new deal – long championed by my friend and union ally, CWU general secretary Dave Ward – has to be an agreement that there will be no new austerity. It didn’t work the first time round. In fact, asset-stripping, underfunding and understaffing our public services left them in a weaker position to combat this pandemic. Austerity policies took from those who were most in need and left communities across this country struggling. It is a failed orthodoxy and should be consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Long-term, comprehensive investment to repair and grow our economy has to be the way forward. This can be investment ‘with strings’, used to speed up the delivery of the green industrial revolution promoted by our movement.

Now is the time to say to companies that the taxpayer will stand behind them as they implement the new technology and manufacturing needed to meet our climate change obligations. And it is also the time for the government to deliver on that joined-up industrial strategy long sought by Britain’s workers. There is an urgent need to direct investment to our regions and fast-track this country to a future of better infrastructure, one in which we create jobs in house-building, in renewables, and in improving our broken public transport system along the way.

We can be sure that competitor economies, like Germany, won’t hold back. Governments in other major economies will be working with businesses and unions on the mechanisms to grow their economy and avert a recession. They will see the likelihood that a new economic model will emerge from this crisis, and act accordingly. The UK’s workers deserve the same.

This is also a time to tackle the chronic job and income insecurity in this country. It is a scandal that in-work poverty pushes millions to foodbanks in 21st century Britain.

One pay cheque away from destitution

Millions more working people are one pay cheque away from destitution. Around seven million workers have no contract of employment, certainly not one that guarantees holiday, sick pay and basic rights. As this crisis has exposed, abject insecurity has become the norm for a fifth of the working population and our so-called safety net is more holes than net.

Once again, while workers in other nations can expect living rates of benefits and sick pay to support them in tough times, the UK’s workers are pushed towards penury. In this new deal, from Universal Credit to statutory sick pay, financial support for our people in tough times must be there from day one and at a level that ensures needs are met. Britain’s workers deserve that security.

Our prime minister is thought to love a comparison with Churchill, but there is a lesson in history for him. Historians are fond of saying that Churchill won the war but Attlee won the peace because he read the mood of the nation correctly. The people had gone through enough and they wanted a better nation.

What I say to our prime minister on May Day is: read the mood. There can be no going back. People across this country now see whose work really keeps Britain going, and they will demand that work is respected. Handing out gongs and medals to those who struggled for weeks without masks while they fought to keep infected people alive will not cut it.

Every one of us owes the people who have protected our country, who have kept us safe and fed during this lockdown, who have cared for our loved ones and who will continue to face immense challenges in the coming weeks. We owe a debt of honour. The list of measures we can introduce to repay it is clear: an end to zero hours contracts and a real living wage; day-one sick pay for all and a raise in the rate; an end to the disgrace that is making nurses pay to learn on the job; an end to bogus self-employment; investment to repair and improve our public services; investment in our regions and affording them the autonomy they need to strengthen their economies.

We have been making the case for many of these policies for the past decade. But these are not normal times, and even surprising corners of the business and political community are admitting that real change is needed. We need to build this country back better and fairer than it was before this crisis. There must be a ‘new’ normal – one in which work is respected and rewarded, in which public services are funded, in which the vulnerable are cared for and a social contract is written for all our people.

May Day is our day. We may not be on the streets but we are not silent. Listen closely. That sound you hear, that’s Britain’s working people – stirring, determined and coming for justice.

This article first appeared in Tribune

By Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary

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