Over the last decade the importance of organising workers has been critical to building real workplace density. That means the union is heard and, crucially, workplaces can be strike-ready, vital to push back against the worst employers.
But how does organising respond to the global pandemic which is taking lives and tearing through the UK’s economy?
“The impact of this pandemic on the real economy has been as predictable as it is tragic,” says Unite’s executive officer Sharon Graham.
Sharon speaks from frontline experience as her organising and leverage team has played a huge part in the union-wide, enormous effort to battle to defend jobs and conditions.
With hundreds of thousands of permanent jobs lost with, it’s feared, more still to follow, the government’s ‘will we won’t we’ strategy to providing a meaningful jobs subsidy has not helped – nor have opportunistic employers seeking to ‘never let a crisis go to waste’.
In addition over the last couple of months it has become clear that we are losing our vital workplace reps. Some employers have even upped their anti-union activity. There are attacks on our shop stewards, but for the most part many have left their jobs due to the impact of the pandemic.
But, says Sharon, there is reason to be positive. “On the flip side, there have been plenty of examples of members successfully resisting the worst of the cuts,” says Sharon.
“From winning new health and safety deals, to safeguarding jobs, pay and conditions, our reps have often managed to prevent the imposition of knee jerk decisions and in doing so shown that the union can safeguard its members even in the worst of situations.”
Battling the bad bosses is sadly going to be a continuing demand on the union’s campaigning resources.
Sharon explains, “Despite the challenges we do not have to accept bad, unnecessary decisions that cost jobs or cut pay and conditions. Through the successful introduction of Unite Leverage and more recently Crisis Leverage, we have shown that it is possible for trade unions to mount serious campaigns that get results.
“Prior to the pandemic our record was 12 wins in 12 leverage campaigns, ranging from fighting illegal closures to the blacklisting of activists. We have proved that by thinking strategically we can deliver.
“And during Covid we have shown that even in the worst of circumstances we can ratchet up the pressure on employers and help mitigate the worst aspects of plans that attack our members,” she added.
There’s no doubt that Unite’s leverage team is on the front foot, working with our activists to resist the urge to ‘batten down the hatches’.
Says Sharon, “As we see attacks on our reps increase we must be ready to both put a clear ‘stake in the ground’ to defend our activists and focus on rebuilding our workplace organisation.
“As employers become more emboldened this will become even more vital. Issue-based campaigning, dealing with the ‘nuts and bolts’ issues that dominate the workplace and dictate the living standards of our members, can only be won in the long term by organised labour.”
The team is ambitious for the union, directing resources into key areas of the economy to defend members, drive up pay and conditions and build the wider economic power of Unite.
A Top 10 plan has been designed to deliver this, building strong union organisation throughout the economy, initially in the Top 10 employers in every sector then spreading further to look at key non-union areas by sector.
The aim is simple – to protect our members’ existing terms and conditions from ‘undercutting’ in all its forms. This also means rebuilding and growing our shop stewards base.
And there’s one big name business that’s in the sight of Sharon and her team.
“We will be concentrating on delivering the first stage of the Top 10 plan beginning with Amazon, which is now the largest business in the logistics sector and of critical importance in IT. This anti-union employer is now too big for us to ignore,” she says.
“With draconian surveillance techniques and a reliance on ‘casual’ labour we cannot allow such employment practices to become the norm. Tackling ‘undercutters’ such as Amazon is critical.”
Make no mistake; delivering on campaigns such as Amazon will help determine the future of our union.
Last words to Sharon. “To deliver for our members we must be effective at the workplace and despite the pandemic there is reason to be hopeful.
“We have a plan that works to deliver stronger organisation at the workplace and we have shown that we are capable of delivering effective campaigns that defend jobs, pay and conditions. Now it is time to really push. We must exit this pandemic with a clear plan to defend and grow.”
By UNITElive team
This feature first appeared in Unite Works Winter 2020/21. For members to receive a digital copy contact your regional office and ask the membership team to put you on the digimag email subscription list