Kingston Hospital staff fighting for sick pay, February 2019. Source: Counterfire Kingston Hospital staff fighting for sick pay, February 2019. Source: Counterfire

Unions have won us rights in our working place in the past, they can do so again, says Jane Clayton

The pace and level of change over the past 3 months is on a different scale to anything most of us have witnessed in our lifetimes.

The government’s mixed messaging, its herd immunity by stealth and plans to lift the lockdown prematurely has left the public confused about the conditions needed for a safe exit from lockdown, and vulnerable to the second wave of infection and deaths.

One thing is for sure, as can already be seen in workplaces and sectors across the board, management and the government appear ready to sacrifice the livelihoods – and lives – of workers to save their profits.

As an individual, it is hard to stand up to them. If we organize and act collectively, we are in a much stronger position.

Trade unions are the basic defence organisations for working people. Trade unions negotiate with employers on workers’ terms and conditions, campaign for health and safety in the workplace, campaign for equality and political change, act collectively to defend and advance the rights and living conditions of working people.

Unions have already made an important difference during the crisis. The teaching unions played an important part in forcing the government to close schools at the beginning of the crisis. Now they are campaigning to stop the government opening them up before it is safe. The NEU has led the way in resisting the current attacks on us all, via clear and strong organising in their sector. Their Five Tests for a safe lockdown exit are a great example.

Other unions have been campaigning for safer conditions on transport, on construction sites, and crucially for health and careworkers.

Thousands of people have been joining unions as a result. To be really effective, unions need the maximum number of members in the workplace.

If you are looking to join a union, here’s a quick guide on the first steps you should take:

1The first thing you should do is to find out if there is any union organisation at your workplace. It is obviously best to join the same union as other people in your section or workplace.

2The second thing is to find out if there are any union representatives you can contact.

  • If you know any reps, contact them right now. They will be able to point you in the right direction to join and to let you know how to get involved in the branch.
  • If not, are there any union posters on noticeboards, or a designated union noticeboard with information? Ask trusted colleagues if there is a recognised trade union.
  • If you find that there are members from a particular union at work, find the union online and contact their industrial department. They will then direct you to the local branch officials.
  • If you aren’t sure what unions (if any) are present in your workplace, then go to the TUC website and click on the “Find a Union” button. Find out which unions cover your sector and get in contact with them as soon as possible. Explain your position, give details of your role, basic terms and conditions, and workplace to find out what your options are.

3The third thing is to join as soon as you can. The national union will tell you if there is a branch connected to your workplace. Even if it seems as if there are no other union members at work, it is still worth joining.

The union can give you advice on workers’ rights, health and safety and legal questions. Maybe once you have joined you can get others interested. Your union will give you advice about how to get others involved. Even if you are currently unemployed, or in an atypical position (self-employed, niche/isolated role, etc), a union will support you.

4The fourth thing, once you have joined, you can get involved in activist chat groups and get the union’s free training – in rep work, casework, and health and safety.

We have rights, but we have to work collectively to enforce and advance them. There really is no time like the present to get involved.

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