TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady gave a powerful opening speech this morning (September 14) of the first day of the first online-only Congress in the union confederation’s 152 year history.
O’Grady noted that the trade union movement was facing it’s own #MeToo moment.
“Women demand dignity and justice and our movement must pass the test,” she said. “Because true trade unionism is about common purpose between all working people, here in Britain, and around the world. Treating each other with respect. Looking after each other. Winning better working lives.
“And, if there is one lesson we have learned from this terrible pandemic: It’s that there is such a thing as society,” O’Grady continued. “We’ve shopped for our neighbours. Kept each other safe. Saved jobs and livelihoods.
“It takes a whole community to beat a pandemic. It can’t just be done from Westminster corridors or company boardrooms. We all have to play our part.”
O’Grady lambasted the Boris Johnson-led government for its failings amid the pandemic.
“Ministers struggle to imagine lives that are unlike their own,” she said. “Like when the Prime Minister ordered a return to work, without a proper plan for public transport.
“And precious little thought about working mums and dads, and childcare — instead, a useless app, a mutant algorithm, and a half-baked test and trace system: less ‘moonshot’ and more moonshine.”
O’Grady explained the role that unions played in securing the furlough scheme, where the government pays 80 per cent of people’s wages for those who cannot work. In exchange, employers must agree to keep furloughed workers on their pay rolls.
The scheme has been a great success, but the TUC general secretary went on to warn that if the government doesn’t extend the furlough scheme beyond the end of October, “we face a tsunami of job losses”.
“This isn’t about obsolete jobs or zombie firms,” she said. “These jobs are on the line for one reason only. The global pandemic. And they do have a future.
“Once this pandemic is under control people will still want to fly on holiday; and go to gigs and shows; and, if we are to earn our way in the world, Britain will still need steel and manufacturing,” she added. “The pandemic isn’t scheduled to end in October so neither should state support for jobs.”
O’Grady went on to outline what the TUC believes should serve as the successor to the furlough scheme – one that would entail short-time working until the economy picks up again and demand returns.
“Chancellor must learn the lessons of the job retention scheme, and keep on supporting jobs. So my message to the Chancellor is this – we worked together once before; we are ready to work with you again,” he said. “If you are serious about stopping the catastrophe of mass unemployment, Rishi Sunak, then stand by working families – don’t walk away.”
Turning to workplace safety, she said far too many workplaces are not safe to return to amid the pandemic.
“When we asked low-paid workers what the boss has done to reduce risk one in four said – nothing. Zero,” O’Grady noted. “That tells us a lot about the pursuit of profit over safety.
“So, thank you prime minister, but we don’t need a pep talk about returning to work. From the start, whether on the shop floor or from the kitchen table, millions have worked hard through this crisis.
“Instead, we need this government to get tough on workplace safety — and deliver decent sick pay,” she added.
O’Grady went on to call for the minimum wage to be hiked – especially given that so many minimum wage workers are key workers, who have demonstrated how vital their work and have risked their lives to keep the country going.
Concluding her speech, O’Grady had a special message for these key workers.
“[To] staff in shops, energy, utilities, fire fighters and prison staff, bus drivers and railway workers, delivery drivers and posties, refuse collectors and civil servants, teachers and support staff. Our wonderful members in the NHS and social care, – thank you for your sacrifice and for your service.
“This country must make a promise, to you and to all working people, there must be no return to business as usual,” she said. “We demand a new deal for working people – and we will not rest until we win.”
You can tune into TUC Congress 2020 live here.
By Hajera Blagg