'Radical rethink necessary'

Unite policy conference delegates highlight impact of Covid crisis on working people

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The impact of the Covid crisis on working people dominated the debate on the second day of Unite’s policy conference on Tuesday (October 19).

A series of motions and composites were heard on a range of issues related to the pandemic, including home working, a Covid-19 public inquiry, a post-Covid recovery and the impact of the virus on BAEM and disabled workers, among other concerns.

Unite delegate Jim Kelly (pictured above) moved a motion on a radical post-Covid recovery, where he highlighted how employers are attempting to take advantage of the crisis — just as they did in 2008 during the financial crisis — to attack their workers. The growing use of fire and rehire contracts during the pandemic was is a prime example of this, he said.

Jim paid tribute to all the ‘ordinary workers’ whose courage, he said, helped save lives. He told of the struggles faced by many workers who lost their jobs and incomes.

Speaking on the experience of taxi workers, he said, “Within three weeks we went form earning good money to literally earning nothing.”

Unite delegate Joanne Harris seconded the motion, noting how as a bus driver, she has witnessed first-hand the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black and Asian Ethnic Minority (BAEM) workers, since the overwhelming majority of bus workers who died from the virus were from BAEM communities.

She said it was vital that Unite fight back against bad employers by continuing to build on its strike fund.

“We must face challenges ahead with strength and determination,” she said.

Unite delegate Alison Treacher (pictured below) moved a related motion on the pandemic, which called for Unite to draw up a radical action plan to address attacks on workers since the Covid crisis began.

Alison drew from her experience as a care worker, noting how more than 1,500 care workers have died after contracting the virus – a totally preventable tragedy had the government and employers taken action to protect them.

She noted that the ‘broken’ social care system needed to be overhauled, adding that a “radical rethink was necessary”.

Referring to Thursday evening clapping during the first lockdown, Alison said, “Sympathy will not win us better pay terms and conditions, only solidarity and collective action will.

“We the working class care for each other,” she added, “Each according to their ability and everyone according to their need.”

Unite delegate Paul Rounding led the call for a full public inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic after he moved a motion on the Covid crisis.

He noted that the inquiry must ensure that “the full facts are made known on why earlier intervention was not taken when the transmissibility of the virus was known” and that it must “have the power to recommend civil and criminal prosecutions of those in public office who are proven to have failed in their duty of care to protect UK citizens”.

Unite delegate Tim Woodason seconded the motion, noting that an inquiry is only the start of a plan to ensure that ordinary working people “do not pay for a crisis that was not of their own making”.

Many delegates spoke of how the pandemic had touched them personally, with Unite delegate Brian Davies of the East Midlands telling of his anguish at not being able to visit his wife in hospital before she passed away last year.

Unite delegate Taj Salam told conference about his brother’s death from Covid, and also noted the suffering of not being able to be with a family member in their final moments.

Meanwhile, Unite delegate and bus driver Wayne Cespedes explained how he worked at the first London bus garage where a bus driver died from Covid, and how as a rep he spoke with and comforted the member’s grieving family.

Unite delegate Paul Ainsworth recounted how he spent nine days in hospital with Covid and how if it weren’t for NHS staff, he would not be here today.

Conference stood united in its resolve to hold the government to account for its failings during the pandemic; to fight for an economic recovery that puts working people first; and to ensure that essential workers get the protection – and fair pay and conditions – they deserve.

Conference also vowed to honour the memory of lives lost during the pandemic and to push for a system that addresses the systemic inequalities that the Covid pandemic has so sharply exposed.

All motions and composites in the coronavirus crisis debate were carried.

By Hajera Blagg

Pics by Mark Thomas

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