Lesley Riddoch: Unions thriving amid national crisis

Much has been made of the way life has become more individualised during the Covid crisis with more bikes and electric cars and fewer bus or train trips.

But the collective urge is just as strong – just totally under reported.

Official figures for the pandemic aren’t due until next May but trade unions are reporting a flood of new members. According to Unison’s Scotland manager Peter Hunter, more than 10,000 have joined this year, most during lockdown, a 149 per cent increase. Traffic on the TUC’s Join a Union website page was up sixfold compared with May 2019 and female union membership is 3.69 million, a record high.

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So what’s happening?

Until now, many analysts assumed workers on low pay and precarious, zero-hour contracts wouldn’t consider spending £12-15 a month on union membership. But as Mr Hunter puts it: “The folk joining trade unions now are not returning miners or steel workers, they are workers who’ve never been in a union before.” Indeed Unison’s influx of care workers is up 202%.

Specific union and government actions have played a part. The unions were recruited to help create the Jobs Retention Scheme that guarantees workers 80 per cent of their pay. According to The Economist magazine, “The movement has not been so close to power since union leaders sat in smoke-filled rooms with ministers in the 1970s.”

On the other hand, Boris Johnson’s insistence that all English schools reopen in early June helped the National Education Union’s gain 20,000 members, while the profile of the shopworkers’ union, Usdaw, has been boosted by its campaign for protective screens at checkouts. Most key workers in the public sector already have comprehensive sick pay arrangements and private sector workers who have tested Covid-positive won full sick pay rights in late May. Before that, though, many staff in private care homes did fear pay cuts if they self-isolated or signed off sick.

Certainly, as news spread about successful union interventions, the urge to join has grown. A recent STUC-commissioned survey found non-union members are twice as likely to believe their job is at risk compared with union members.

But according to Mr Hunter, the rise in membership is almost entirely down to the instinct for self- and mutual protection, the same thing that kickstarted the union movement a hundred years ago. “For some folk, news of lockdown prompted panic buying,” he said. “For many workers it prompted joining a union. The surge in members is more to do with the wisdom of workers than clever marketing or recruiting by us.’

In fact, union membership has been rising for three years: 91,000 people joined unions in 2019 (15,000 of them in Scotland) with the highest proportion of women since 1995. So Covid is merely reinforcing a trend. Society believes the shift to precarious, low paid, casual work has gone too far and the return to unions is one result. But it’s not a move back to the “good old days”.

New, bespoke, small unions have moved in where existing unions are weak. The Cleaner’s Union (CAIWU), for example, won the London living wage for outsourced cleaners at a Nike Town store, the Independent Workers’ Union won a 25 per cent pay rise for bike couriers and the Bakers’ Union (BFAWU) won a pay rise for McDonald workers before forcing a U-turn from Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin over furlough payments.

What does this mean for the future? Perhaps more activist-oriented trade unions with younger, female faces. Unison Scotland are consciously recruiting and training young women to be virtual activists because the idea of shop stewards organising workplace meetings isn’t practical. So unions are training individuals to protect themselves and pass on information. STUC acting general secretary Rozanne Foyer said: “Young workers on precarious zero-hour contracts have been forming WhatsApp groups and holding Zoom conferences with union organisers. There’s been a huge demand in folk wanting to do health and safety and shop steward courses online and our Covid safety seminars are attracting over 300 union reps a week.”

Mr Hunter said: “I thought the Equal Pay campaign was hard work. But that was a walk in the park compared to this. Unions are working 15-hour days and seven-day weeks to keep abreast of the practical problems encountered by members as key work continues and society unlocks. But we know Covid isn’t an employer invented grievance. They are just responding to the crisis like ourselves.”

That’s why union leaders aren’t flagging up the rise in membership, private battles fought and won or the twice-weekly meetings with senior civil servants and Scottish Government ministers. And of course, there’s caution. The net total of union membership may yet fall as members on furlough are made redundant.

Yet within workforces, word of mouth is spreading union advice on how to use PPE, how to speak to managers and how to call a halt when procedures look unsafe. “No PPE, no work,” is a union stance that’s quietly prompted many rethinks by council, NHS and private workforce managers and has already saved countless lives.

So the received wisdom about Margaret Thatcher destroying unions and the gig economy eroding the collective instincts of workers is being proved wrong. The union instinct is being reborn by the collective response of workers to this crisis.

But it’s also changing the bureaucratic nature of some union procedures. For folk who are furloughed and safe, time is moving slowly. But for folk in the pandemic frontline, time is flashing past, life is accelerated and exchanges of information must be speedy, informal and easy.

As Mr Hunter puts it: “Union membership now means conversations all the time. There’s an overwhelming commitment to the collective good of fellow workers. We now know bad jobs kill and fair work saves lives.”

Whatever happens next to the union movement, that’s not a bad slogan for our post-Covid world.

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