Workers can't pay the price again

After the pandemic – workers can’t pay the price again says Sharon Graham, Executive Officer, Unite the Union

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After the financial crisis working people paid the price through cuts to jobs, pay and public services. Once stabilised, the big question of the pandemic will once again be, who pays for the crash?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some employers are already planning a similar remedy for the aftermath of Covid-19. They cannot be allowed to abdicate their responsibilities. Working people cannot simply be abandoned – the bearers of the burden of so-called ‘recovery’ – again. For as much as what is happening now, being bargained now in the first phase of the pandemic, is important, the real test will be what happens post-lockdown and in the subsequent stages of this crisis. What will happen when the bailout ends? For this reason, now more than ever before we need strong unions.

Recently, the giant auditing firm EY surveyed more than 2,900 top executives in global companies. Some 36% of respondents said they are already accelerating their investments in automation as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. A further 41% said they are considering plans to speed up automation in their business.

The tech magazine Wired has called the Covid-19 pandemic “a crisis that robots were built for”. Robots don’t get sick and they don’t make demands. GP Graders is a firm which makes machinery for automated sorting and packing of fruit. Their director, Stuart Payne, recently summed up this vision, “if this Covid-19 virus has taught us anything, it’s that it’s time to automate and take labour out of the equation. If a machine does a better job than a person, then buy the machine, it’s simple.”

The Autonomy Data Unit has analysed 273 different UK-based occupations. It showed that on average the jobs with the highest level of risk from the virus are done by people on below average pay. Some 77% of the workers in these jobs are women. The IFS also found that the low paid, young people and women are more likely to work in sectors worst hit by the lockdown. This is almost exactly the same profile of workers at highest risk from automation.

Of course, employers don’t have to “take labour out of the equation.” Before the crisis PwC estimated that artificial intelligence alone could add £232bn to the UK’s economy by 2030. At Unite we have introduced a New Technology Agreement to safeguard jobs and argue for negotiated solutions that would include better retirement policies and a shorter working week. But we need a long term strategy to deal with multiple crises. One where negotiation and not imposition lies at the centre. Because if we don’t act ‘recovery’ will mean just that.

Back to business as usual, with modifications of course – the tinsel on the tree; perhaps a pay rise for nurses, a public holiday dedicated to essential workers, or a tax rise for the highest paid? But real change? Long-term, systemic social and economic recovery that puts people first. More likely austerity, heaped on existing austerity. That is if we can’t or won’t act. So what now?

There has been much talk of a new world order emerging from the rubble, one where the ‘big’ state is back, where public services are valued and the vast excesses of neoliberalism are finally reined in. It cannot be just be talk. We cannot deliver change though sentiment. The government has a large majority, this is for now the reality and no matter how much it wants to hold onto recently won seats in the Midlands and North, it will not suddenly adopt a policy of wholesale, permanent state intervention in the markets. George W. Bush bailed out Wall Street, but it did not turn him into a Keynesian.

We need to think long-term. There will be more crises to come – whether they be economic, health or environmental. If workers are going to stop paying the price we need to build something bigger, more sustainable than a pact. We need to develop meaningful, democratic sources of power. Power than can survive short term shifts in public opinion and changes in government.

Working people are not going to get their ‘piece of the pie’ through parliament alone. We need many things, including strong collective organisation at the workplace. We need to build industrial power. It is no good being right if you can’t deliver what you need, or if you are always reliant on someone else to do it for you.

To build a real movement painstaking, unglamorous work will be required. We will need to do it across multiple areas. But do it we must, and the workplace is where we begin.

  • Sharon Graham is Executive Officer for Organising and Leverage at Unite.

This comment first appeared in Tribune Magazine on April 17

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