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As We Enter 2022, the Work to Create Real Change is More Important Than Ever

We are at the end of what has once again been another incredibly difficult year for people across the globe.

It has been another year of attempting to cope with the peaks and troughs of a global pandemic, with second and third-waves of Covid that have significantly outpaced the initial wave of March 2020. Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives, lost family and friends, lost livelihoods, opportunities, and more. And though we in the United Kingdom have been lucky to have had widespread accessibility to vaccines, countless countries continue to suffer from acute shortages at the hands of governments - including our own - who insist on hoarding the treatment for themselves. 

In our report Work in 2021, CLASS found over half of working people in the UK said they could not afford to self-isolate due to the abysmal rates of Statutory Sick Pay, if they were entitled to it at all. Indeed, one set of government polling indicated that only 17% of people with COVID symptoms were coming forward for a test, only 1 in 4 were complying with isolation rules after testing positive and 15% continued to go to work as normal. CLASS concluded that the combination of low wages, the impossibility of saving, insecure housing, precarious work and the second lowest SSP rate in the EU all fed into a situation where workers were consistently forced to make difficult decisions between public safety and their own immediate security. Our research also showed the ways in which the economy is heavily weighted against people of colour and young people. If you are both black and under 25, for instance, you are nine times less likely to find work than white adults.

COVID-19 has illuminated the insecurity and inequality that fundamentally underpins our labour market, and while the Conservative government has had the best part of a year to enact genuine reform which would help us cope with the pandemic in the long term, such as increasing funding for the NHS; raising the wages of public sector workers; providing genuine financial support to businesses and raising rates of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), we are once again seeing  quick fixes which are too little, too late and simply paper over the cracks in our broken system. 

Despite this, this past October, Boris Johnson proudly announced the UK was a “high wage economy” in his Conservative Party Conference speech. In reality, as we slowly emerge from the pandemic, we are hurtling towards an economy in which insecure, low-paid and short-term work is the norm. Indeed, though ONS figures suggest we are approaching a full recovery, this metric excludes the self-employed, with the total number of workforce jobs still 2% below pre-Covid levels and unemployment still 15% higher. Meanwhile, in August, relative to the same period in 2019, 3.9 per cent more people had a zero-hours contract and of these, 37% reported working fewer hours than usual. 

Yet, in spite of the tragedies of the year, there have also been many victories, won predominantly through the power of organising that has continued to flourish even despite - and perhaps because of - the impacts of the pandemic. This year has once again demonstrated the enduring power of collective action, with millions of people turning to trade unions to improve their working conditions and safeguard their rights and livelihoods. CLASS found that there was a strong correlation between the number of people in a sector who belong to a trade union and the likelihood of being made redundant during the pandemic. Industries with the highest union density had the lowest rate of redundancies, and vice versa. Most importantly, this year has shown that we are all inextricably connected, both socially and economically. 

Throughout this year, undoubtedly the most difficult since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was unions who improved and maintained the health and safety standards for their members, winning PPE and social distancing conditions for workplaces. An outbreak of COVID-19 at the DVLA office in Swansea prompted the Public and Commercial Services Union to ballot members on industrial action, eventually leading the organisation to remove over 300 desks to allow for social distancing, increase COVID testing and relax performance targets to prioritise safety.

In her first 100 days, Sharon Graham, Unite the Union’s General Secretary has overseen 46 disputes, winning 26 of them and securing £25 Million in pay deals for workers including those HGV drivers, beer delivery drivers, warehouse staff, painters and decorators and more. Meanwhile, GMB secured a watershed recognition deal with Uber, the first between a union and a gig economy transport service. With GMB’s backing, we also saw a landmark ruling in the fight for equal pay and the biggest ever in the UK private sector, as supermarket chain ASDA’s appeal in relation to an equal pay case, brought forward by 40,000 shop floor workers, was dismissed by the Supreme Court. 

In the run-up to COP26, we saw thousands of cleansing workers strike in Glasgow over pay, resulting in a pay offer to council trade unions of a one-year 5.89% increase for the lowest-paid council staff. And just a few weeks ago, with the United Voices of the World Union (UVW), restaurant workers at Harrods won a 25% pay increase, with some chefs in line for £5,000 extra in annual pay. 

From 2022, we can look forward to the nationalisation of Scotland’s railways, a move which will deliver significant benefits for Scotland’s rail workers and create a more sustainable and affordable rail network. Meanwhile, with the help of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) BT workers will see a pay increase from next year, along with increased job security, fairer pay structures, more opportunities for upskilling, and an increased role for the CWU in the company’s future actions. 

Much has been achieved this year, but as we enter 2022, the work to create real change is more important than ever. After over a decade of funding cuts due to austerity policies, and almost two years of high pressure work against the backdrop of a global pandemic, NHS staff are still yet to see a real-terms pay rise. Meanwhile, the government has launched a fresh attack on trade unions, with business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng tabling anti-union legislation, which would impose a levy on trade unions and allow five-figure fines for breaching complex trade union laws. 2021 has laid bare the cracks in our working lives and our economic system, but it has also illuminated the unshakeable power of trade unionism, and it is that which will carry us well in the new year and beyond, as we forge a post-pandemic future which has workers’ rights at its heart.