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General Council Report 2021

TUC Congress 2021
Report type
Research and reports
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TUC mission statement

The TUC brings together over five and a half million working people who belong to our 48 member unions. We support trade unions to grow and thrive, and we stand up for everyone who works for a living. We campaign every day for more and better jobs, and a more equal, more prosperous country.

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Frances O'Grady © Jess Hurd/
©Jess Hurd/

Introduction - Frances O'Grady 

This year, thanks to the heroic efforts of our members in the NHS, the great majority of the adult UK population has been vaccinated against Covid-19, and there is hope on the horizon.

Throughout the crisis, union reps have stepped up to enforce safety standards, as across the UK workers kept the economy running. And, just as the TUC argued, wage subsidy schemes – that at their peak protected over eleven million livelihoods – have secured a faster economic bounce-back, with most of those furloughed now back at work.

The TUC and unions have stood strong to protect working people’s jobs, health and dignity. In turn, more working people have joined unions, with total net membership rising four years in a row.

The drive for digital organising, with online mass meetings and reps training, alongside face-to-face, is beginning to bear fruit.

And we can all share pride in union achievements this year, from protecting safety and skills, to fighting the obscenity of fire and rehire, and winning trailblazing agreements in the gig economy. ’Flexibility’ should not be a one-way street to exploitative fake self-employment, zero-hours contracts and unpaid overtime. The pandemic has unleashed a huge appetite for more positive flexibility to help balance work and family life.

While the government drags its feet on the promise of an employment bill to ‘level up’ rights, it has rushed to sign trade agreements that put jobs and public services in peril. As the host of the G7’s labour arm, the TUC argued to lift global standards for employment, environmental and data privacy rights, and to set a minimum global corporation tax. Global union solidarity has never mattered more as together we demand governments rewrite the rules that have been rigged against working people for far too long.

Instead of tying unions up in red tape, the PM should follow President Biden’s lead and recognise that stronger union rights is one of the best ways to level up at work.

There can be no complacency given the failure of global leadership to vaccinate the world equally, risking the rise of new virus variants, the growth of long Covid cases and the threat of a tough winter ahead. Rather than pull the plug on vital support for working families and our industries, UK nations and regions need ambitious government action to prevent unemployment, and speed a decent jobs-led recovery.

In advance of the COP26 climate conference, the TUC set out a bold £85bn green investment plan that would cut carbon, upskill and create over a million new jobs, and deliver a just transition for our communities. We have called for urgent investment in our public services to fill vacancies, deal with the backlog and pandemic-proof our resilience for the future. And we have launched an AI manifesto calling for new technologies that humanise – not atomise – working lives, and to share their multi-billion pound productivity gains fairly. We demand fair wages for those who can work, and decent pensions and social security for those who cannot.

While inequality did not start with Covid-19, the pandemic has made it a whole lot worse, with those on the frontline much more likely to be women, BME and migrant workers, and on low pay and insecure contracts. Our new Anti-Racism Taskforce aims to put equality at the heart of our organising, bargaining and campaign strategies, and to ensure that the TUC and unions get our own houses in order, leading by example.

Whatever our race, religion, gender, disability, sexuality or class background, everyone should be included and treated with dignity at work.

And we all deserve answers about how austerity cuts left our public services understaffed, overstretched and ill-prepared for the pandemic. We need to know who benefited from multi-million pound government contracts and why there was a catastrophic failure to fix track and trace, sick pay and PPE. And why there has been one rule for the few and quite another for everybody else.

So, the TUC has campaigned for an urgent independent public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic. Many of our members in key worker jobs put their health and lives on the line for the rest of us. We must learn the lessons and deliver a new deal for working people, and a new direction for the UK. Let this Congress mark the beginning.

Frances O'Grady

Leading the response to Covid-19
Tube worker

1.1 Introduction

When the pandemic hit, working people stepped up. Through the second and third lockdowns and as restrictions began to ease, our key workers kept the country going. The TUC argued throughout for decent economic support to protect jobs and stop businesses going to the wall. We stood up for safety at work, and highlighted the impact of the pandemic on Black workers, on women and parents, and on disabled workers. We supported the vaccine rollout and continued to argue for decent sick pay for everyone. As the pandemic recedes, we will argue for a safe reopening of the economy, and a full public inquiry that delivers change on the movement’s policy agenda, accountability for the government’s mishandling of the response, and closure for families who have lost loved ones.

1.2 Economic and labour market measures

Protecting jobs and livelihoods

Responding to the General Council statement on the economy, alongside composite 2 and resolution 8, the TUC has fought to protect jobs and livelihoods throughout the pandemic.

We pushed for the coronavirus job retention scheme (JRS) and the self-employment income support scheme (SEISS), with the general secretary meeting the Chancellor on a number of occasions. In October 2020, the government announced that it would introduce a short-time working scheme to replace the JRS following a TUC campaign to prevent a cliff-edge removal of financial support. As the pandemic worsened, though, under pressure from the TUC the government announced the continuation of the JRS and SEISS until March 2021.

As March 2021 approached, the TUC campaigned anew for the extension of both the JRS and SEISS. The government announced the schemes would continue until September 2021, with employer contributions starting in July, and a less generous SEISS grant. There was limited progress on including more self-employed people. In the summer, the TUC warned that the failure to delay employer contributions or extend the scheme after the extension of restrictions to 19 July posed a serious risk to jobs.

Throughout, the TUC has called for improvements to the schemes, including protection for minimum wage workers and inclusion of those missed out by the SEISS.

We have published a monthly jobs and recession monitor to highlight the need for action on unemployment, focusing on the disproportionate impact of job losses on Black and minority ethnic and young workers.

We have also campaigned to support livelihoods. The need for decent sick pay has never been clearer. In February, we published a report analysing the failings of the new self-isolation payment, gaining widespread media coverage. Additional funding for the self-isolation payment was announced in the budget, but further analysis in June found the cash was still not reaching workers who needed it. Research commissioned from the Fabian Society showed that better sick pay is affordable.

The flaws of universal credit have been further exposed over the past year. The TUC published a report on the devastating impact of the five-week wait for the benefit, and a separate report on the pressures on families.


We started a new working group with unions on how to replace universal credit with a decent social security system, and joined other organisations in campaigning to keep the temporary £20 weekly uplift. In line with resolutions 36 and 37, we have looked to highlight the specific impact of the pandemic on maritime workers, including the need for more enforcement of their right to a national minimum wage.

Delivering the jobs of the future through a new industrial strategy

We made the case for a new industrial strategy to deliver decent jobs. We published proposals for how UK procurement and state aid policy could be reformed to support strategic industries, including steel. And, after the announcement of a Brexit deal, we set out a 10-point plan to support jobs, including investment in manufacturing. In June, we published analysis showing how green investment plans in the UK fell short of those in all other G7 countries except Japan.

We used a report on Amazon’s mistreatment of its workforce to make the case for a new retail industrial strategy, in line with resolution 8, and have called for additional support for the retail sector to help deal with the pandemic.

We condemned the government’s decision to disband the Industrial Strategy Council in January. This was another sign of the government’s unwillingness to engage unions in strategic decisions – and it has continued to resist our calls for a tripartite national recovery council.

Building back better with a new deal for workers

The TUC has continued to put the call for a new deal for working people at the forefront of its campaigning work, in line with resolution 58. We have demonstrated the devastating impact of insecure work during the pandemic, with research showing that workers in insecure occupations face higher mortality rates. We showed how zero-hours contracts embed structural racism in the labour market, and demanded a ban. We published an action plan to toughen up labour market enforcement. And we highlighted the new frontiers of worker exploitation, publishing research and a manifesto on the responsible use of artificial intelligence.

We condemned the government’s failure to bring forward an Employment Bill to take action on insecure work, and engaged extensively with the Labour Party to promote proposals for a new deal.

1.3 Safe working

Workplace health and safety has continued to be a critical area of work. While many have been able work from home, in line with government guidance, many working people have continued to attend workplaces, with thousands of key workers facing an increased risk of exposure to Covid-19.

The TUC has supported safety reps to hold employers to account in how they carry out and share risk assessments and ensure Covid-19 safety at work. While many employers have worked with safety reps to agree safe working systems, many reps have told us about unsafe practices, including the complete absence of any risk assessment in some workplaces.

We have demanded that government increases the resources for regulation and enforcement of workplace safety, and challenged the senior leadership of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), both directly and in parliament. The deputy general secretary appeared at a Work and Pensions Select Committee hearing, raising concerns about the quality of contracted-out spot-checks, which have effectively replaced many inspections, and the failure to prosecute any employers for workplace safety violations.

The employee representatives on the HSE board challenged the HSE’s decision to classify Covid-19 as ‘significant’ but not ‘serious’ in its enforcement management model (EMM). There have so far been more than 14,000 working-age Covid-19-related fatalities, alongside massive underreporting of worker fatalities through Riddor, the system for reporting workplace injuries and diseases. We believe the designation of Covid-19 as merely ‘significant’ in the EMM has led to inspectors having fewer enforcement options at their disposal – and that the HSE leadership has not prioritised regulation, enforcement and the prosecution of non-compliant employers.

We have continued to engage with government to provide good, clear guidance to enable employers to deliver Covid-secure workplaces. While unions have secured some excellent sectoral and workplace agreements on standards to protect workers’ health and safety, the guidance produced by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), in consultation with the TUC and unions, has provided a useful benchmark for unions to hold other employers to account. We wrote to the business secretary to urge him to reconsider his decision not to consult with unions and employers before revising this guidance in advance of the economy unlocking on 19 July.

Unions are increasingly grappling with the legacy of coronavirus, in particular the issue of long Covid. As well as working to ensure long Covid is recognised as a disability within the scope of the Equalities Act, the TUC and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) have called for Covid-19 to be regarded as a proscribed industrial injury.

A social graphic from the #LetsVaccinateBritain campaign
A social graphic from the #LetsVaccinateBritain campaign

The TUC has encouraged all working people to get vaccinated. In early 2021, we joined the Daily Mirror and the Labour Party in the #LetsVaccinateBritain campaign, urging employers to give workers time off for vaccine appointments. The TUC’s position is that no worker should be required to be vaccinated against coronavirus as a condition of their job, as we set out in our response to the Cabinet Office consultation on mandatory vaccinations for social care workers.

1.4 Public services

Key workers across the economy kept Britain going during the pandemic. From retail and distribution, to public transport and logistics, to public services such as health, social care, local government and fire and emergency services as identified in resolution 1, the contribution of working people has been clear – and appreciated by a grateful public.

Bus driver
Like many other key worker groups, bus drivers have suffered a disproportionately high number of deaths during the pandemic © PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

But that appreciation has not been demonstrated in how key workers are treated. Key workers who have continued to attend workplaces throughout the pandemic have contracted Covid-19 at higher rates. Key worker occupations have had higher numbers of deaths. Throughout, employers and the government have too often failed to put in place necessary safety protections. Those most in need of PPE have been denied access to it and those on the most precarious contracts have endured the poorest safety management. This has had a profoundly unequal impact.

The TUC has worked with unions to lobby government and employers to deliver safe working for key workers, and to make specific interventions in those sectors where the pandemic has had the biggest impact.

In public transport, the TUC supported unions to secure a consistent and effective approach to safe working in our rail and bus networks. We worked with Department for Transport (DfT) ministers and officials to mitigate the impact of the severe decline in passenger numbers, including on Eurostar where unions have pressed the case for UK government support for an essential international corridor.

Aviation has been one of the sectors severely impacted by the government’s response to the pandemic. We have brought unions together to influence DfT and Treasury decisions. Collectively, we worked with employers and industry bodies to seek a coherent, industry-wide support package, and to press the government to provide a more consistent process for the safe reopening of international travel. Aviation is likely to continue to lag behind other sectors in any economic recovery, and we will continue to press government for the tailored support it needs.

Unions have been instrumental in ensuring that school workplaces are as safe as they can be, balancing pressure for schools to be open to as many pupils as possible with the safety of school staff, pupils and their families. In 2021, school staff continued to provide in-school teaching and support for the children of key workers, while also running online teaching and support for children learning from home.

Public inquiry

The prime minister has announced that an independent public inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic will commence in spring 2022. We welcomed the announcement but, given the average length of a public inquiry, it is unlikely that a final report will be published before the next general election.

In line with composite 1, the TUC will seek to ensure that the government is subject to robust public scrutiny through a timely and independent inquiry that covers the right ground, is informed by the evidence and holds ministers to account. Most importantly, we want the inquiry to achieve policy change on safety at work, strong public services and a proper social security safety net, alongside action to address inequalities. And we hope that it will provide answers to those who have lost loved ones.

We have established a working group of unions to plan and coordinate activity and to ensure that trade union voices are heard during the inquiry, while recognising the significant resources issues that will arise.

We will continue to press for an accelerated timescale, fast-track process and the early appointment of a chair and panel. We will also seek a proper consultation on the terms of reference, to ensure that the inquiry covers the key issues for trade unions and our members.

Unequal impacts

In line with composite 8 and the General Council statement on the unequal impact of coronavirus...

...the TUC has highlighted how the pandemic, and the government’s response to it, has had a disproportionate impact on a number of groups of workers, deepening existing social and economic inequalities.

During the pandemic, women have borne the brunt of care for children, friends and family, as schools, childcare and support services closed down. Women have also faced a higher risk of losing their jobs and seeing their incomes reduced. But women’s needs have been consistently overlooked by the government.

The TUC has highlighted the devastating impact of disruption to schooling and childcare on maternal employment. We called for immediate changes to the parental leave system, urgent investment in the childcare sector, a day one right to flexible working and for ministers to introduce a right to furlough for those with caring responsibilities. Throughout, we have worked with allies who have enabled us to reach new audiences, such as the influencer and campaigner MotherPukka. Ahead of the autumn budget, the TUC proposed a family stimulus package to boost universal credit and double child benefit. We also exposed the workplace discrimination against new and expectant mothers during the pandemic, and the overlapping disadvantage Black and minority ethnic (BME) women face.

Workers from BME backgrounds have been disproportionately impacted by coronavirus and the government’s response to it. Government policies for dealing with the pandemic did not take account of the economic position of BME people, nor of the structural inequalities that shape the lived experience of people from BME backgrounds and the role that these inequalities play at work. The TUC has consistently highlighted the impact of the pandemic on BME workers, speaking specifically about the higher death rates among BME communities and the differential impact on BME workers in insecure work. This work has informed the programme of the Anti-Racism Taskforce.

© PjrTravel/Alamy Stock Photo
TUC research revealed that one in three disabled workers had been treated unfairly during the pandemic © PjrTravel/Alamy Stock Photo

Covid-19 has also had a disproportionate effect on disabled people. Government data has revealed that six in ten of all deaths involving Covid-19 were disabled people. The TUC has carried out research into the experiences of disabled workers during the pandemic, which found that one in three had been treated unfairly. We are campaigning for mandatory disability pay gap reporting, stronger enforcement of the existing rights to reasonable adjustments, and stronger legislation. Our research evidence has been used by ITV’s Coronation Street to inform a storyline about a disabled worker’s experience during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, the TUC has highlighted the impact of homophobia on key workers, and the ways that lockdowns have particularly disadvantaged LGBT+ workers. Many have been unable to access support services, and some may have been trapped in unsupportive or abusive households.

1.7 Organising and learning

Despite the pandemic, union membership has continued to grow. Officers and reps have found new ways to engage workers, and issues around pay and safety at work have offered compelling reasons to join a union. The TUC has revamped our Join a Union tool, making it more user-friendly and increasing monthly users to more than 5,000.

Megaphone petition

Responding to composite 9, we have also sought to mobilise workers around a common agenda. We held a pre-budget rally, with speakers from across the movement calling for fair pay, decent work and stronger rights. Meanwhile, our Megaphone petition site has been used by more than 400,000 workers to push for change.

The TUC has also initiated a ‘new normal’ project to help unions plan for life after the pandemic. This project is helping unions to think through changes to all aspects of their operations, including organising and campaigning, the work of branches, and meetings and conferences.

We have continued to ensure union reps can access training and support, helping to reduce disruption to affiliates’ education programmes. We have supported tutors to deliver education online, introducing new microlearning modules for reps – primarily on issues related to the pandemic.

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