At the start of 2020, no one could have predicted the terrible toll that Covid-19 would take on lives and livelihoods. As I write, over half a million people worldwide have lost their lives to the virus and the UK has one of the worst death rates in Europe.
Years of public service cuts left the UK poorly prepared for the pandemic, with the NHS, care homes and other vital services scrambling to access even basic PPE.
The government was slow to lockdown and slow to set up a system for test and trace. Millions were wasted on an app that never materialised and even during lockdown it transpired that there is still one rule for some, and another for everyone else.
We all owe an enormous debt to key workers – our members – who led the nation’s Covid-19 response: carers and medics who tended the elderly and the sick, shop workers who kept food on the shelves and transport workers who kept the country running, to name but a few. Their devotion to duty made us all proud. And in too many cases, these workers made the ultimate sacrifice to keep the rest of us safe.
Key workers have earned more than our thanks. Nearly four million of them, mostly women, are paid less than £10 an hour. Many are trapped in insecure work, without guaranteed hours and often denied the most basic of rights, including sick pay. In the months ahead unions will demand the respect and rewards that key workers and all working families deserve.
In such unprecedented and challenging times, the vital role of unions at work and in society – standing up for working people, demanding safe working conditions and protecting jobs and incomes – is more important than ever.
We stepped up to the plate. Unions pressed government for the historic job retention and self-employment support schemes, subsidising the wages of millions who otherwise would have been left with nothing. We put steel into the spine of government safety guidelines, winning requirements on equality, consultation with safety reps and publication of Covid-19 risk assessments so corporations could be held to account. And we won a day one right to sick pay for millions of low-paid workers.
We are also fighting for truth and justice. We have called for an independent public inquiry to investigate the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.
Coronavirus has exposed the deadly impact of systemic race inequality. Black workers are more likely to work in jobs where the risk of contracting coronavirus is greatest, on insecure contracts and low pay which means they cannot afford to take sick leave. Unions have called out the government’s woeful response and demanded urgent action to address structural racism.
As the economy slumps, we are pushing for bold action to avoid a 1930s-style depression. The despair of mass unemployment is not inevitable. We have made the case for substantial government investment in infrastructure, support to stave off company collapse and job losses, and quality job creation programmes – not least for young people – to prevent the life-scarring impact of worklessness.
Our core work continues. For millions of workers the value of union organisation has never been clearer. Organise 2020, our summer organising festival, showcased inspiring organising stories from around the UK and the world. We are backing our unions to build membership and strengthen collective agreements. And we refuse to go back to business as usual.
The challenges we still face are many. From deep inequality to the urgency of tackling climate change, to making new technologies our servant, not our master, and demanding a Brexit and other trade deals that uphold jobs, rights and public services.
So we have our work cut out. But if we’ve learned anything through this pandemic, it is that there is such a thing as society. We have won widespread support for our values of dignity, justice and solidarity and for our practical policy solutions to the problems working families face.
Now we must convert that popular support into stronger unions – the best way to protect working people and deliver fair shares. We have proved we can rise to the challenge. Now together let’s win the new deal that working people deserve.
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