By Nick Clark
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2698

We need action, not dodgy deals, from union leaders over virus

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Issue 2698
Unite union leader Len McCluskey
Unite union leader Len McCluskey (Pic: Garry Knight/Flickr)

Action by workers has shown the type of ­resistance that’s possible against bosses who force them to work in unsafe conditions during the coronavirus outbreak.

Some 500 workers at a warehouse near Barnsley, South Yorkshire, walked out last Saturday. The strikers said bosses at online clothes shop Asos were forcing them to work too close together.

They claimed they were taken to work on crowded buses and that there was not enough hand sanitiser.

They also said they had to work just three feet, or roughly a metre, apart from each other.

Government guidelines say people should only travel for essential work, and should stay two metres apart.

One worker said, “The bosses said online shopping should be encouraged. But it’s almost impossible to socially distance. There’s a minimum of 500 people there.

“I’m sat three feet from somebody. There’s somebody else three feet away from me in another direction.”

Another worker said bosses had stopped their pay while they stayed off in isolation because they live with someone considered at “high risk”.

Meanwhile around 1,000 workers at a poultry factory in Portadown, Northern Ireland, struck on Wednesday of last week. They walked out for 15 minutes complaining that they were forced to work too close together.

Many workers in Britain face similar conditions.

Gary Smith works at a major Royal Mail sorting office and distribution hub.

He said some workers have refused to come to work on the crowded minibuses laid on by bosses. He added that conditions in the mail centre were also unsafe.

“There’s not enough personal protective equipment such as hand sanitiser,” he told Socialist Worker.


“And some of the ­sorting machines require three people to operate standing next to each other.”

Dave Ward, general secretary of the CWU union, said he would back any Royal Mail worker who refused to work over safety.

Yet in a union where ­workers are known for striking unofficially, Ward said, “I want to make it clear that we are not calling for unofficial action.”

He said this was because the union faced a “balancing act” between acting to protect workers’ safety and to “protect the industry and sustain the businesses that they work in”.

Ward added that union leaders he’d spoken to on a TUC union federation conference call took the same attitude.

Union leaders have congratulated themselves that working in partnership with the government and the bosses has given them some influence.

Unite union leader Len McCluskey gave an interview to the Sunday Times newspaper last week. He said he hoped the crisis would put an end to trade unions being seen “as the enemy within”.

Yet while union leaders celebrate their deals with the Tories, bosses get away with forcing people to work unsafely—with no challenge from union leaders.

Labour backs the Tories

The Labour Party has also shied away from challenging the Tories and the bosses over coronavirus.

In a recent article for the Labourlist website, leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey pointed to some problems workers face as a result of the lockdown.

“Millions who are sick, self-isolating or who have seen work dry up now face immediate hardship and uncertainty over their jobs, homes and incomes,” she wrote.

Yet she stopped short of demanding government action against bosses—such as shutting down companies that force people to work and guaranteeing workers’ pay.

Overall Labour has backed the Tory government’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak, only offering mild criticisms about aspects of its policies.

Its call for “action” during the crisis has focused on organising self-help groups to distribute food and support to people in isolation.

But with no challenge to the Tories, this “community” spirit risks being co-opted by the government—and letting it off the hook.


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