VOICE EXTRA: Union membership – questions of life and death

✭ International Workers' Memorial Day, 28 April

LESSONS OF THE CRISIS: nobody can now deny there is such a thing as the working class—that multi-millioned army of people whose daily efforts create society's wealth and provide the services that life itself depends upon. To resist exploitation and vastly improve the lives of those same millions, workers need to be organised into trade unions

International Workers’ Memorial Day, 28 April

· Every year more people are killed at work than in wars. Most don’t die of mystery ailments, or in tragic “accidents”. They die because an employer decided their safety just wasn’t that important a priority. International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) commemorates those workers.

With thousands of NHS, Care, supermarket and delivery staff literally risking their lives in the frontline of battle with the C-19 virus resulting in a mounting death toll IWMD is, this year, more significant than ever.

Revelations that there is a organised campaign in leading Tory circles such as ex-Chancellor Hammond to reopen workplaces, putting people’s health as a lesser priority than making profits simply add urgency to the purpose of IWMD.

Seldom can the slogan ‘Remember the dead fight for the living’ have been more relevant.

To mark the day, below, we carry a piece on the key role of unions and workers organisations in the fight to achieve that aim and two powerful eye witness reports from the frontline.

Ken Ferguson, Editor, Scottish Socialist Voice

by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser 

· The clash of interests between workers and employers, between those who produce the wealth or services and the big shareholders, has taken on a new intensity during the Covid-19 (C-19) crisis.

For several weeks in February/March union reps and officials had to fight tooth and nail to win agreement on basic provisions such as hand sanitizers, surgical wipes, washing facilities and also for isolation on full pay for workers either sick with the virus or particularly vulnerable.

In most workplaces even these basic protective measures were only granted by later March. The criminal lack of planning, the decimation of industry over previous decades, and narrow-minded greed by many giant employers, meant even basics like hand gels usually didn’t appear until late March.

Some employers at first resisted the call for paid leave with comments like “people would just take the piss”—showing they would rather risk people dragging themselves into work unwell, because they couldn’t afford unpaid leave or £95-a-week Statutory Sick Pay, infecting countless others.

One retail giant only conceded full sick pay after being issued with a two-hour ultimatum that the union was going to the Press with the story.

Delays by employers, reinforced and excused by delays from the government, will have caused countless avoidable deaths.

Unions confront the profiteers
The struggles by unions in the health service, care sector, for posties, bin men, transport workers and others are ongoing, and matters literally of life and death.

It was pressure from the unions that won the government Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, guaranteeing 80 per cent of wages for under-threat workers who were kept on—and subsequently won an extension of the qualifying deadline for workers covered, from 28 February to 19 March.

In some hospitality sectors, union agitation won reversal of redundancies which had been issued by ruthless profiteers (such as Stefan King’s GI Group and Coylumbridge Hotel in Aviemore—which not only sacked but evicted staff), who jumped the gun, throwing workers on the scrapheap before the government scheme was announced.

Shut down non-essential workplaces
Running in parallel to that have been battles to enforce the closure of non-essential businesses, such as building sites and non-food retail.

The government advice on this is cynically two-faced, consciously contradictory, advising non-essential workers to stay at home, but actively encouraging online sales and deliveries—as if that didn’t require armies of warehouse workers and drivers to put themselves at risk.

All to shore up the profits of big businesses for the likes of home furnishings, or JD Sports gear in the midst of a pandemic, or in the case of Burnley-based Boohoo, to sell useless, dangerous face masks as a fashion item, which they only stopped doing after Usdaw union intervened.

As recently as 16 April, the joint unions representing logistics staff in the giant DHL Couriers locked horns with one of the largest and wealthiest logistics companies in the world.

It employs 41,000 people in the UK. They have refused to grant full company sick pay to workers with symptoms who need to self-isolate or those with underlying health conditions.

Instead, they expect them to either work or survive on Statutory Sick Pay of £95.85 a week. They’ve also failed to provide proper PPE or to carry out safety and social distancing measures for those still at work.

The unions have blasted this as totally irresponsible, endangering the lives of thousands as they treat the workforce with disdain.

Strikes for safety
In many instances, workers have been compelled to stage walkouts in their own defence from the deadly virus.

In Detroit, it took mass walkouts in the auto plants to force closure, as these giant factories were poised to become hothouse breeding grounds for disease and death.

Likewise Amazon workers on Staten Island, New York, downed tools when the richest company on earth refused to even grant paid sick-leave to workers with symptoms—unless they achieved the near-impossible by getting tests—telling them at best to take unpaid leave.

The workers’ rank-and-file leader, Chris Smalls, blasted the multi-billionaire Amazon owner:

“My message is clear. I don’t give a damn about your power. You think you’re powerful? We’re the ones who have the power. Without us working, what are you going to do? You’ll have no money.

“We have the power. We make money for you. Never forget that. We are starting a revolution and people around the country support us.”

Scottish union struggles
Glasgow binmen occupied the Polmadie canteen before they were granted proper washing facilities.

Sixteen young workers in the PURE beauty salon, in Glasgow’s Silverburn shopping centre, staged heroic battles when they were issued the ultimatum to either sign up for zero hours contracts or resign.

They countered with demands of either keeping their existing contracts or full redundancy pay, joined the GMB union, went public in the media with their case—and won.

PURE—whose CEO won Employer of the Year!!—caved in, paying 100 per cent pay in March and 80 per cent thereafter, with no changes to the contracts of these young fighters, who dubbed themselves The Silverburn Suffragettes!

Posties in Alloa and elsewhere went on strike demanding social distancing and hygiene facilities—carefully keeping a two-metre distance on the picket lines!

When the Scottish Government’s Chief Nursing Officer made outrageous changes to guidelines for care workers, telling them to only wear masks when dealing with proven C-19 cases, it took ferocious lobbying by the STUC, Unison, GMB and Unite to win clarity, with new directives to have masks to wear at all times.

Of course having adequate supplies of suitable protective equipment is an entirely different question, still not provided by the Scottish Government despite ongoing pressure from the unions, despite tragic deaths in care homes scything through Scotland like a plague, accounting for at least a third of all C-19 deaths.

Unorganised workers worse off
However, workers without a union have been infinitely worse treated. Waitrose staff were told they will have to pay back up to two weeks of time taken off to self-isolate, including those with underlying health issues, or those shielding vulnerable family members.

As a Waitrose whistle-blower aptly summarised it, “partners my arse”!

A major, recent academic survey of call centres across a range of sectors in Scotland found a third of workers still working are non-essential; two-thirds had no social distancing; over half worked face-to-face in close proximity with others; and three-quarters of them don’t even have hand sanitisers.

This sector is typified by cramped, open-plan offices, with shared head-sets and hot-desking—perfect breeding grounds for the virus.

In a recent survey of workers by the STUC—involving both those in and not in a union—the case for being organised could not be starker.

Workers not in a union, in workplaces without union bargaining recognition, are twice as worried that their job is at risk; almost twice as worried about paying bills; and twice as likely to feel uninformed by their employers on what is happening during this horrendously worrying, lethal pandemic.

Lessons: unions a matter of life and death
Two of the multiple lessons of this unprecedented crisis are quite straightforward.

Firstly, after decades of being told otherwise, nobody can now deny there is such a thing as the working class—that multi-millioned army of people whose daily efforts create society’s wealth and provide the services that life itself depends upon.

Secondly, in order to resist exploitation and vastly improve the lives of those same millions, workers need to be organised into trade unions.

On 28 April, the trade unions are calling for a minute’s silence to mark International Workers’ Memorial Day.

This is an opportunity to not only mourn those lost in the current virus, and the tragically vast numbers killed at work over the years, but also to reassert our collective efforts to fight like hell for the health, safety and lives of the living.

To demand a society that puts workers’ lives before profit. Where possible, this should include visible displays of the union collectively gathered together in workplaces, as well as online displays, making demands for PPE and other immediate measures.

Likewise, May Day—this year at least in a virtual format—is an occasion to celebrate international working class solidarity and call upon the millions not yet organised to join the union and fight for a future where workers collectively own and control the wealth we collectively produce.

Being in a union and helping to fashion it into a fighting force is literally a matter of life and death in many instances.

Voices from the frontline

Shirley, a staff nurse

My ward cares for the elderly. We have not seen C-19 cases so far, at least that we know of, yet.

The ward has been shut down to outsiders which causes difficulties since we’re caring for the elderly, but at least it is helping to protect them, because of course they are vulnerable.

The biggest problems for us are the lack of protective equipment and the confusing mixed messages about what we are meant to wear.

At first, we were told we didn’t need to wear any at all, even though we are receiving patients from other hospitals.

We still have transfers into the Ward. We also hear the tests which have been conducted are not accurate, there are false positives and false negatives.

Patients being transferred in have only started to be tested in the last week. Before that there were no tests at all. Also, it’s only now the patients leaving our hospital are being tested.

Prior to that, a lot of the people who were medically discharged went home or went to care homes could have been carrying C-19 without symptoms, because we had no way of telling. No tests were conducted.

At first, we were told we only need to wear PPE if patients had symptoms, but that is already far too late, because they have already been shedding the virus for one or two weeks.

Then the guidance changed, but it still wasn’t clear whether we’re supposed to change masks after each patient or after each session. And what do they mean by a ‘session’? Is it per drug round? Is it for X number of patients? Is it for the whole shift?

This guidance literally changed from shift to shift, probably because we weren’t seen as a high risk area, despite patients being moved to us without being tested, into an environment where patients are extremely vulnerable.

But if we only change surgical masks each ‘session’ you could be carrying the virus from one patient to the next.

Guidance as of 19 April was a new mask after each patient. But it’s still ordinary surgical masks to protect the patients, which is fair enough, but they don’t protection us as staff.

We’ve had the fit tests for FFP3 masks, but we’ve not received any yet.

There is also no clarity when they are deemed necessary to wear—certainly not now. We have no gowns or full-length gloves, just ordinary gloves and plastic aprons. That’s because our Ward has been deemed to not be a high risk area.

They use the traffic-light system—red, amber and green—for confirmed C-19 cases, suspected cases or C-19-free.

But it’s not good enough to just declare we are free of the virus and therefore not get the equipment when staff are still out and about, shopping, perhaps delivering to vulnerable friends, and also patients have been transferred from other hospitals who could be infected.

I don’t blame the hospital or the Ward. This comes from higher up. I don’t think we’re being looked after even by the Scottish Government, who make the appearance of being very professional at their daily briefings, but still don’t deliver the equipment we need or the testing we need.

The situation in care homes is scandalous. Without proper PPE it’s spreading like wildfire.

But these are private businesses, making money. Nobody has moved on this, neither the UK nor the Scottish Government are looking out for us.

They’re still not covering all the bases, not sending the PPE out when and where it’s needed.

I remember the outcry when care homes in Spain were abandoned because so many staff were sick, and vulnerable people were literally left to die.

I’m worried that we’re not very far behind that situation right now in Scotland’s care homes.

When people clap on a Thursday night they want to show their appreciation, so I’ve got nothing against them. But at the same time, I find it a bit patronising.

It would be better if we got the equipment we need and decent pay, and if people would vote for parties who would give us that.

It’s on a par with all the charity fundraising efforts. I don’t want to take away anything from Captain Tom and others who are wanting to say thank you and do their best.

But really it should be the government that provides the funds—which we already pay for and if necessary should be taxed more for—not charity.

Clapping for us is nice and it’s appreciated but it doesn’t really help get equipment and the pay required. That’s what the ballot box is for and the government is using it as a distraction from their own failures.


Mary, a home care worker

I’m a bank worker in a care home which means I only get work when they need me. Most workers in our place are young and have that kind of contract. At the minute it’s being run by bank staff because a lot of the permanent staff are off.

The only protective equipment we have is aprons and gloves. We have no masks or visors. We’ve got hand sanitisers, but they’re only on the walls, not in our pocket where we are working.

Bank staff have not even got proper uniform, like overalls. We just have leggings and a polo shirt—one polo shirt, which I’ve just worn four days in a row. You have to take your clothes home and wash them.

Ours is a care home for the elderly, mostly with dementia and all other sorts of ill health. Luckily none of the residents have got C-19 yet, but staff are off in isolation and one was in hospital with it.

People are still being sent into care homes, transferred out of hospitals. I can understand that, to free up spaces in the hospitals, but it increases the risk for both residents and staff.

Hospital patients have to go through two C-19 tests before being sent to a care home, but then they are in contact with ambulance staff and other patients in the Ward before they are transferred so they still have time pick up and carry the virus.

It only takes one former patient to come into the home with infection and it will put everyone in the building at risk.

There is no testing at all of residents or staff. The residents are being kept in their own rooms, not really getting the usual communal entertainment.

They are not taking hospital admissions from care homes at all. The residents just have to stay with us if they catch the coronavirus.

It’s sad, and with so many staff off there’s not enough of us to give the standard of care in any case. For example today there were three of us when there’s usually at least five.

The care home does have masks and visors but they are kept by the managers to have in stock in case there’s an outbreak. So rather than having the PPE to prevent it, it’s only there to deal with an outbreak of the virus.

Management are scared we’re going to run out of PPE, so we don’t get to use it. We’ve also been told it’s not an airborne virus so we don’t need masks except when somebody is coughing or spitting on you.

But of course it’s airborne, that’s why they have people in isolation and people accidentally spit all the time as they talk.

The government has started to talk about us being heroes, but we’re only on £9 an hour and in most care homes staff don’t even get a paid break. So what the government says does not really shine through.

The same applies to nurses who are the most at risk, and retail workers. Both are severely underpaid.

After this crisis is over staffing levels need to be far higher. Care is about profit because it’s mostly private homes.

We need higher wages and proper equipment to do the job, otherwise the standard of care is not being delivered.

Employers and governments are not upholding their duty of care to staff. That needs to be addressed.

Understaffing is dangerous. I have just finished my fourth 12-hour shift in a row.

When you’re dealing with 40 people with dementia, and other conditions like bipolar or mental health, you’re mentally and physically exhausted, and it also reduces your immunity to disease.

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