More trade unionists are organising in their workplaces to protect people from coronavirus.
Boris Johnson announced on Monday that people should avoid “non-essential” contact and travel. He also said that anyone living in a household with a symptom of the virus should self-isolate for 14 days.
This has left many workers fearful about losing pay or even their jobs.
In London, Tube workers have organised to ensure that any cleaner sent home to self-isolate will receive full pay.
RMT union industrial rep Philip Rowan told Socialist Worker, “Cleaners are at the forefront of the battle to keep all passengers and staff as safe as possible. It was vitally important they get the exact same security as all other London Underground workers.
“However, they should also be directly employed by Transport for London all the time with full sick pay, paid holidays and free travel, as other staff have.”
PCS union members working in the civil service across the country have also organised to protect staff and the people they work with.
Staff in vulnerable groups across the civil service have been sent home on indefinite paid leave. And PCS activists in the Department for Work and Pensions have also won a demand not to continue some face to face interviews.
One PCS rep from Oxfordshire told Socialist Worker, “In my office, about 50 percent of workers have gone home. And they are on full pay, not sick pay.
“We have forced management to enforce the advice from the government.”
The rep said that the crisis is also raising new ideas for people.
“It’s been so easy to argue about how society should be organised differently, for the benefit of the many and protecting the weakest,” she said. “If I wasn’t scared, I’d be excited.”
“People are looking at what we can do that would be useful for society rather than what we are employed to do. We don’t want to be sanctioning people, looking for fraud.
“I’m arguing that we should be redeployed wherever we can to do useful work, whether that’s cleaning care homes, hospitals or delivering food.
“People are talking about how society could be organised differently.”
On Wednesday it was announced that schools in Wales and Scotland will close this week. But Johnson on Monday had said schools would remain open, despite rising numbers of staff self-isolating.
The NEU union said this week that it would advise its members to stop going to school from Monday “at the latest”.
In a south London school, around 40 workers met on Tuesday to discuss the virus and their response. Workers came from the NEU, GMB and NASUWT unions, and also some from none.
NEU rep Michael told Socialist Worker, “The staff were full time and supply teachers, full time and supply teaching assistants and agency premises officers.
“I had earlier spoken with kitchen staff who had been assured they will be paid if our school closes. But we agreed to stay in contact in case this changed.”
The worker said, “We talked about how the government’s response has been woeful at best, and callous and cruel in reality. The government should not be paying the private sector for hospital beds but requisitioning them.
“People are losing jobs with no hope of another income.”
The meeting voted unanimously in favour of a motion drafted by teachers in south London.
The motion calls on local education authorities and school bosses to financially support parents of children who receive free school meals, and to “instruct those responsible to continue to pay agency, supply and zero-hour contract workers”.
It also pledged to protect any worker threatened with disciplinary action for refusing to work on safety grounds with action including strikes.
“We talked particularly about pay for agency workers,” said Michael. “The sense of solidarity with agency staff was palpable, as was the class response to Tory policy.
“If agency colleagues are not paid, we will reconvene and take industrial action.”
These are small scale examples, but every instance of workers organising can have a massive impact on ordinary people. Not only can make the difference between whether people are paid or not if workplaces shut down, they can give people a sense that they have some control over the situation.
Union leaders should be doing much more to encourage this. But if they fail to act, ordinary workers should take the lead.