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Unions show organising strength during global pandemic

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Around the world, unions have had many successes in protecting workers' jobs and safety in the face of the pandemic.

It is no secret that we’re living in unprecedented times. On 23rd March the British government declared a national lockdown in response to international calls from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to manage and contain Covid-19, the highly infectious disease that spread rapidly across the globe.

In a matter of weeks, the pandemic led to many deaths across the world and posed a huge risk to workers’ health, jobs and livelihoods. What became clear was that although the impact of Covid-19 was being felt across all groups, existing inequalities were being exacerbated, both by the pandemic itself and the response to the crisis that followed.

The lockdown measures implemented here in the UK closely followed the blueprints set by other, mostly European countries, who closed down parts of their economies early, due to the high number of confirmed cases and increasing death rates. This resulted in governments closing offices, shops, industries, schools, restaurants, entertainment venues and places of worship.

Trade unions also closed office doors but did not stop their organising and negotiating activity. Unions have used their collective strength and organising power to demand a seat at the table to engage in social dialogue, alongside the government and employers, in the interests of working people. This was to help mitigate the socio-economic and Health & Safety impacts for those either working on the front line or those not able to work due to temporary industry closures.
UK trade union wins during the pandemic

The TUC and its affiliates were at the forefront of economic discussions which helped shape the government’s response to the pandemic. This much needed intervention saw improvements to the government’s economic plans around maintaining job security during lockdown and beyond.

Following intensive negotiations with the TUC and unions, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced an urgent package of measures to support workers through the crisis. A Job Retention Scheme was created, and later extended to October 2020. This scheme provides 80% government wage support to employees who are temporarily laid off, avoiding mass redundancies.

This was a big win for the union movement. Many workers in galleries and museums, manufacturing and transport were furloughed on 100% wages due to agreements reached between unions and employers.

Union membership rose for the third year running, with a huge surge in membership since the start of the pandemic, particularly in TUC-affiliated unions that represent thousands of key workers.

The TUC is now calling for government action to adopt an ‘investment in growth’ approach to mitigate the looming economic crisis, which was made worse by a decade of austerity and has now been exacerbated by the global pandemic. We are calling for a new job guarantee scheme to help those who lose work, especially young workers.

Global collective agreement achievements

Against a backdrop of far right governments introducing emergency laws to restrict union activity in Hungary and Turkey, and the Brazilian government’s dangerous handling of the crisis, unions around the world have continued to achieve agreements with employers and governments to protect jobs and industry.

In Denmark, an agreement in the hospitality sector on 17 March was complemented by a commitment by the government to cover up to 90 percent of employees’ salaries in the hotel and restaurant sectors.

In Spain, the government introduced a minimum income, a benefit aimed at preventing the risk of poverty and social exclusion. The benefit will continue to be paid as long as the situation of economic vulnerability persists, and the eligibility requirements are met. Spanish unions UGT Comercio and CCOO Servicios secured an agreement for supermarket workers. This includes a reduction in working hours, an increase in the number of part-time workers, and a guarantee that every worker is equipped with masks and gloves.

In South Africa, negotiations between unions, employers and the government led to agreements around no enforcement of work under the pretence of essential services; no annual leave compulsion during shutdown, and all labour disputes were put on hold until after the shutdown. The South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) reached a national collective agreement to guarantee six weeks of full pay for 80,000 workers.

Unions in Sweden have reportedly gained more than 5,000 new members, and unions have gone on strike in France, Italy and the USA against multinational conglomerates such as Amazon, who continually abuse workers’ rights. Unions have called on governments to establish a “new normal” by establishing a new social contract, which has the potential to get the world back on a sustainable and just path.

Trade unions are more important than ever

The long-term impact of the global pandemic could be catastrophic for workers and global economies. Unions have continued to play an important role, advocating for workers’ rights, decent pay and conditions, fairness, equality, dignity and respect at work.

So, if you are not in a union, please join one now and join us from 9-11 July for Organise 2020, our free festival of ideas in union organising featuring speakers from unions and activists from the UK and around the world.

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