The Covid-19 pandemic is the latest crisis to expose western economic and social orthodoxies as wholly inadequate for meeting modern global challenges which also include climate change, poverty, war and the mass displacement of people. In the UK, massive state intervention has been necessary, not least to ameliorate some of the effects of 40 years of austerity which intensified following the 2008 global financial crash. Our population has been exposed, not just to a deadly virus, but also to the importance of key – previously undervalued – workers (producers) and the impotence of markets.
The government’s initial laissez-fair response which sought to develop a Darwinian “herd immunity” has been forced to evolve quickly, take heed of progressive voices such as the TUC and now includes measures to underwrite the incomes of tens of millions of people – not out of benevolence but in order to maintain consumer demand and the stability of financial institutions in the short-term.
When organs of monopoly capital such as the Financial Times begin speculating about a post-pandemic economy requiring “radical reform” in which “public services [are] investments rather than liabilities…[when we must] look for ways to make labour markets less insecure” and “redistribution” is necessary, it becomes obvious that conditions are ripe for fundamental change. Things probably will never be the same again but our movement needs to be clear that minor reforms do not represent the sum total of our ambitions – even if, in the early days of an anticipated backlash or intensified class conflict, they appear to represent a welcome alternative to the default prospect of a period of much longer and much harsher austerity.
Aims for a post-pandemic consensus
Many workplaces, from hospitals to warehouses, supermarkets to schools and mail depots to care homes are unable any longer to be managed through a system of strict command and control. Workplace pluralism has broken out and is now recognised as necessary to optimise organisational efficiency and safety which is essential for the effectiveness of the public response to a national crisis and represents an opportunity for a renaissance of trade union activity.
Taking the existing provisions of the TUC Campaign Plan, Charter for a new deal for working people and considering the spirit behind the motions submitted to the postponed 2020 Annual Conference of the TUC North West, the Executive Group has considered the appropriate immediate tasks. These assume that the TUC and affiliated unions will form a functional part of the interventions required from civic society if we are to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic with a renewed relevance and appetite to deliver progress for the people we represent:
A stronger voice at work
The producers in the economy have assumed a new significance and found renewed respect throughout the public health crisis. Medical and social care professions, shop and distribution workers, engineers and other workers in the fields of education, communications, sanitation and transport; public sector employees engaged in welfare, justice, housing, social work and beyond; and thousands of other jobs and vocations which were previously undervalued at best or exploited, and even demonised at worst, but are now held in higher regard by society at large. Their workplace voice is being heard more clearly and with more confidence than at any time since the peak of collective bargaining influence in the mid-1970s with examples including the demands for personal protective equipment in hospitals, the practical and academic arrangements for schools to remain open for those who need them but closed for the majority of students and the social distancing regimes which are now routine in factories, depots, warehouses and shops.
Going forward, a recalibrated industrial balance tipped in our favour is essential; backed up with a range of new and legally enforceable, collective workplace rights to secure effective mechanisms for regulating relations between workers and employers of any size. International Labour Organisation conventions and publications such as the Institute of Employment Rights’ Guide to a Progressive Industrial Relations Bill provide a template for such an initiative to be progressed by the TUC and supportive organisations, consistent with existing policy and in conjunction with affiliates.
Employment, security and flexible working
The lockdown announced on 23 March has exposed a range of inefficiencies in traditional ways of working and forced a reconsideration of how technology can assist workers rather than be used to replace them. Video conferencing and digital communications have become commonplace and have replaced physical meetings – saving time, stress and significant levels of pollution from unnecessary travel on congested transport networks.
The process of “furloughing” (Job Retention Scheme), introduced in no small part as a product of TUC lobbying, challenges a whole plethora of assumptions about the role of the state and its relationship with industry, incomes policy, the markets and maintenance of some sort of temporary order in the wider economy. Moreover, the scandal of precarious employment, bogus self-employment and casualisation more generally, now needs to force a fundamental re-think about job security – not least because as many as 11 million workers are expected to fall between the gaps in the government’s emergency provisions.
Globalisation and global markets have proven unable to provide an adequate response to the crisis, as exemplified by the absence of a domestic manufacturing sector capable of responding as quickly and effectively as required, for example, to produce medical ventilators, clinical gowns, masks and other types of PPE. With UK business investment and productivity continuing to decline and global debt to GDP at historic levels, the recovery from the crisis requires significant state intervention, specifically in respect of long-term domestic industrial development, research, skills and job creation, including new Green Jobs, towards a policy of full employment.
Flexible working and home-working have proven effective in ways that employers might not have previously thought possible and, with a few exceptions, unions have been able to secure pragmatic agreements on the use of discipline, capability, performance management, redundancy consultation and other Human Resource Management initiatives during the crisis. This reorientation needs to be secured after the crisis subsides with a transformation of management techniques and practices which are leveraged by confident workers with a better understanding of industrial relations.
Welfare, tax and public services
The fragility of social care provision has been brought into even sharper focus throughout the crisis – not least in respect of the lack of coordination around the provision of Personal Protective Equipment for an enormously undervalued group of professional Carers. Though just one example of the failure of market provision, this can provide the basis for a popular campaign of nationalisation and insourcing of a wide range services which have been removed from democratic control since the post-war consensus made way for neo-liberalism in the 1970’s but which have been demonstrated to be essential for societies to thrive and in reducing inequality.
This requires a new way of thinking about who contributes to society and how those contributions are valued. Hedge-fund managers and financiers were nowhere near the top of the list of “key workers” as identified by the government but to ensure that all citizens and corporations meet their social responsibility obligations it is necessary to re-evaluate how taxes on high salaries, profits and accumulated assets can contribute to a transformational programme of societal and economic reform. Such a programme does of course require sufficient numbers of trained staff to collect tax owed and circumvent domestic and international loopholes which currently allow and facilitate large-scale tax avoidance and evasion.
Reforms of the type described can provide a solid basis for root-and-branch social security reform in the interests of families; sick, disabled or retired workers and the professional staff who care for them.
Safe, satisfying and dignified work
Many workplaces have looked and felt different during the crisis with workers organising themselves to take control of social distancing matters and assert rights to other protective measures including access to equipment. This needs to be maintained and would be assisted by the introduction of new and enhanced health and safety legislation, under a reinvigorated Health and Safety Executive with strong worker representation, which goes beyond the protections offered by the European Union and provides recognised safety reps with additional powers to control the management of risks.
Alienation is a phenomenon that has long since afflicted a range of workers and this becomes more problematic with the advent of “lean” processing, excessive monitoring and intrusive surveillance made possible by exploitative bosses’ misuse of new technologies allied with management practices which have persisted since the industrial revolution. Enhanced workplace democracy allied with investments in life-long learning, skills, training and development can provide for more rewarding careers, higher levels of job satisfaction and a better work/life balance based on a shorter working week and better holiday provision.
One of the positives to emerge from the crisis is a new sense of solidarity that is evident among workers. This needs to be grasped as a new opportunity to build sustainable links within and between communities – and between nations – which helps us to root out racism, sexism, homophobia and any other prejudice which might otherwise be in danger of being exploited by the far-right.
Building class unity and winning a new deal for working people
Our unions already contribute to joint campaigns on issues such as health, education, welfare and transport, and Trades Councils provide the vital link between the workplace and the wider working-class community including service users. Many of our affiliated unions will maintain a direct link through the political levy with the Labour Party and actively participate within it. However, for the remainder of the pandemic and in its immediate aftermath, communities will rightly expect a new social settlement which is designed, planned, implemented and monitored in a manner which promotes maximum democratic participation and sustainability at local community level. This will not prejudice our international solidarity work; indeed, the opposite is true as an effective response to a domestic, post-pandemic class conflict will provide a range of opportunities to contribute to global campaigns for justice and genuine expressions of internationalism.
Economists have estimated that UK private enterprises will require a £350bn bailout in the period following the crisis and the working-class will need to prepare for a significant battle if we are to avoid being left to pick up the bill in a similar fashion to that which followed the global banking crisis of 2008. If left unopposed, working people will have job losses, pay cuts and evictions to look forward to while the public services that remain, albeit wounded, from the last attack will be further undermined. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our working class institutions and the people who make them up have demonstrated their legitimacy and ability in running civic institutions and productive enterprises on new and better terms when transmission rates of the virus eventually subside and we emerge in to the post-pandemic period with a new outlook on society and our individual and collective roles within in it.
Conclusion and recommendations
There can be no going back to pre-pandemic societal and economic conditions. The TUC will need to make a crucial contribution to popularising the principals and demands set out above as part of a broad coalition which includes individual affiliates, civic society and progressive community-based organisations.
We will work to ensure that the TUC:
- Reaches out at regional and local level to allied organisations who share our broad aims with an invitation to come together to explore opportunities for joint working towards winning mainstream support for a new settlement for working class people won through genuine participatory democracy not necessarily limited to traditional structures
- Utilises all its resources to contribute to a programme of political education designed to support the above aims
- Encourages its Officers to seize the initiative now to broaden support for these aims through proactive media interventions, publication of articles, opinion pieces, blogs and a coordinated social media campaign
- Through its network of Trade Councils, seeks to play a leading role in the community organising necessary to prepare to win the post-pandemic social settlement in our interests
- Monitors, critiques and effectively challenges attempts to structure economic and democratic reforms in the immediate aftermath of the crisis which are contrary to the aims set out above
 Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract – Financial Times, 3 April 2020
 Net investment by UK financial institutions – ONS, March 2019
 UK productivity shows weak growth before coronavirus hit – City AM, 7 April 2020
 Global Debt-to-GDP Ratio Hit an All-Time High Last Year – Bloomberg, 13 January 2020
 Guidance for schools, childcare providers, colleges and local authorities in England on maintaining educational provision – Gov.uk, 19 March 2020