As Covid-19 spread and the UK government started to take lock-down action in March 2020 the speed of the economic shutdown was worrying for all. Even more so for those whose employers thought they could get away with treating their workers badly, as those working for a Britannia hotel in the Highlands of Scotland quickly found out.
On March 19 management issued a letter to staff, “taking the latest government advice” informing them of their instant dismissal and requirement to vacate their accommodation “immediately”.
Locals gathered round to ensure no one was homeless. Within days, after widespread national condemnation, the hotel chain claimed “administrative error”. This hotel highlighted the risks faced by many low-paid workers across the country. The wide public response: profit before people was not an option.
Government schemes to support individuals and businesses followed as a result of trade unions stepping in. Collectively the TUC, Unite and three other unions provided ideas and negotiated innovative solutions with a UK government ideologically opposed to public intervention and support of workers.
Steve Turner, Unite assistant general secretary with responsibility for relations with government during the crisis says, “Our aims include helping to save jobs, the economy, industries, keep people safe and avoid personal debt spiralling.
“We’ve achieved a lot with this government. The schemes are not perfect but we continue to work to fix that at government level. We do this as Unite reps are working hard across the country to protect the millions of people who are keeping the country running. Those workers should be able do that in the safest way possible.”
Very early on in the crisis Unite Scotland, as Scotland’s leading construction trade union, made repeated calls for non-essential construction sites to be shut, and remain shut. Unite had received many reports of workers using public transport to turn up to work at non-essential sites, under threat of losing wages if they stayed safe at home.
Discussions were held with the Scottish government where Unite provided evidence on the continuance of social distancing breaches and non-essential construction. Within a week of the initial pressure from Unite the Scottish government issued stronger guidance that, unless they were supporting crucial work during the pandemic, all construction projects should cease immediately. Essential work could only continue in compliance with social distancing, safety and welfare guidelines.
Finding an “inconsistent approach to Covid-19 across local authorities” that put workers and the general public at risk, on April 1, Scottish unions issued a joint statement that resulted in an immediate response from Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA); new guidance on PPE from the Scottish government on home care and social care workers followed the next day; and a few days later, national guidance came in a joint statement from COSLA and Scottish trade unions, including Unite “on the use of PPE in the context of Covid-19.”
In Scottish hospitality, 1,500 casual Marriot hotel workers are now on the coronavirus job retention scheme after a campaign organised by its casual staff at 60 hotels. Many organising for the first time with the help of Unite Hospitality ran a virtual campaign.
Emma a member from Glasgow said, “It was very disappointing to hear that casual workers were being treated differently to the contracted staff … Huge thanks to our union and my colleagues for helping us achieve this.”
‘Everyone rallied round’
Trade union values are being developed in communities too. Unite learning rep, Nathan Graham had an idea for a buddy system in his village. Very quickly following a leaflet drop, 500 of a population of 2,000 signed up to a Facebook group, which meant the majority of the village was represented. The unity in the village confirmed when a volunteer buddied with an octogenarian asked for a few people to make him a birthday card. Nathan says “Everyone rallied round. He ended up with a big bundle of cards made by many of the kids in the village. It was fantastic.”
In the workplace early and innovative crisis solutions from Unite Scotland include: agreeing different health and safety working practices with First Bus and council refuse workers, and calling for the Scottish government to buy PPE from abroad. Such actions have resulted in thousands of people signing up to Unite during the crisis.
A new member from NHS Lothian explains, “The primary reason for joining was because of rising concerns around PPE. If it’s just me reasoning with the manager, I wouldn’t feel like I had much authority. Being part of the union [Unite] gives me a sense of authority, my being part of the union can help fix it.”
Unite Scotland are not just working with the immediate issues. The Offshore Co-ordinating Group which involves Unite, GMB, RMT, Nautilus International, Balpa and Prospect trade unions launched a campaign to protect jobs, the future of the sector “and to ensure just transition to a carbon neutral state.”
In industries from Shetland to Motherwell via Grangemouth, Unite reps have also intervened to achieve the reinstatement of employment under the UK government’s Job Retention Scheme for those facing redundancy, often furloughed on full pay instead. At many employers who play a vital part in Scottish industry, such as Westrock Packaging, senior Unite shop-steward Jim Fisher says they are, “working together … observing Covid-19 government safety guidance … implementing additional safety initiatives.”
The work continues – not least Unite Scotland is calling for clarification on support for taxi drivers; calling out poor health and safety practices and protecting jobs. As Pat Rafferty, Unite Scottish Secretary said, “Unite Scotland has been working tirelessly to protect jobs and to protect people.
“Our officers and reps have helped save thousands of jobs through furloughing’ as many employers’ first reaction was to lay people off. We have secured benchmark deals in all sectors of the economy including oil and gas, transport, manufacturing and hospitality for example.
“We also led the successful campaign to ensure that in Scotland all non-essentials work was closed down and where essential works took place government advice was being strictly adhered to. However, more needs to be done to ensure that personal protective equipment gets into the hands of essential workers and we will continue the fight to ensure all workers doing essential tasks get the protection they deserve.”
During this crisis, UK trade union reps and staff have gone above and beyond to achieve quick results for members and the wider population. The public reaction to the terrible treatment of low-paid workers at a Highland hotel was not a one off.
Nathan says, “What’s happening shows there could be a silver-lining. People have slowed down, are saying ‘hello’ to each other across the street. The human response shows the state doesn’t have operate selfishly in the way it has been.”
Solidarity across the UK is now embedded in communities, individual workplaces and the announcements of devolved and central governments. The crisis is proving that being in a trade union and “doing the right thing” benefits all. Standing together works – even if we have to stay two meters apart for now.
By Morag Livingstone