Class struggle in the Age of Covid — Conference document

Submitted by Zac Muddle on 24 April, 2021 - 3:23 Author: Workers' Liberty conference, April 2021
Coronavirus marching

Although it is to be hoped that vaccination programmes are successful in substantially suppressing the virus, it is likely to be many years before Covid fades into the background to such an extent that anything resembling a pre-Covid “normality” returns.

Working-class struggle against the hegemony of market logic and the profit motive, to assert the interests of social and ecological need, is imperative.

We fight for the labour movement to take up demands implied by the pandemic, such as:

  • Full sickness and isolation pay for all workers, regardless of contractual status - a demand we will continue to pursue through the Safe & Equal campaign
  • Social ownership of social care
  • Social ownership of food retail and distribution networks
  • Worker status and guaranteed employment rights for couriers and other “gig economy” app workers
  • Taxation of the rich and business, to socialise the increased wealth and profits that many e.g. tech, online retail, medical supplies, pharma, and other businesses have accrued during the pandemic
  • Government furlough schemes guaranteeing full pay for any future lockdowns
  • Abolition of “No Recourse to Public Funds” for migrants; equal rights for migrants and asylum seekers
  • Increased provision of domestic violence services such as refuges

We also fight for the labour movement to take up demands for “pandemic-proofing” society, as globalisation and climate crises make future pandemics likely. These demands include:

  • Massive increase in funding for the NHS, including a programme of increased infrastructural and staffing capacity
  • Social ownership of medical supplies and pharmaceutical production, distribution and research
  • Elimination of homelessness and overcrowded accommodation via a massive programme of social housing construction and requisitioning of surplus privately-owned housing
  • Abolition of immigration detention and substantial reduction in carceral sentences 

The pandemic has also highlighted the threat to life and safety posed by structural inequality and oppression in society, especially racism. The wave of protests around the Black Lives Matter movement began to take up some of these issues: London protests in particular highlighted the death of Belly Mujinga, a railway worker who died of Covid after being spat on by a member of the public in her frontline role.

Black and Asian workers have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, due to the higher concentration of these workers in lower-paying, “frontline” jobs, which are likelier to have worse sick pay arrangements; and in poorer housing. Widespread outsourcing of types of work in which Black, Asian, and migrant workers are highly concentrated also represents a form of racial discrimination, as well as an infection control risk, as it concentrates workers more likely to be exposed to the virus in jobs whose pay and conditions means they are least able to afford to take time off for isolation and sickness.

We fight for unions to take up oppression and inequality as immediate issues to struggle around in the workplace, for example by demanding gender/racial pay gap audits and taking action to demand equality.

The pandemic has provided a stark reminder of the fundamental structural reality of capitalism: that workers’ labour makes society run. The profound social significance and importance of several previously undervalued forms of work, often highly gendered, such as cleaning and caring, has been clearly highlighted, leading to a greater awareness of the poor and unequal conditions these workers often face. These dynamics have the potential to sharpen militancy amongst these workers, and to boost support for their struggles.

Covid will have multiple ongoing impacts on how work and workplaces are organised, and the way individual workers work.

The most obvious change has been in the number of people working from home. It is likely high levels of homeworking will continue for some time to come.

From the bosses’ point of view, homeworking saves costs on offices and may enable more flexibility in how many people to employ and on what contracts. And there is evidence that it results in a rise in productivity. Despite better means for the surveillance of remote online workers, there remain problems of control and organisation, even though Zoom, etc., may make face-to-face meetings less necessary.

As lockdown restrictions ease, many workers will likely split the week between homeworking and working from a workplace. This makes it possible for fewer workers to be in a workplace at one time, while maintaining staffing levels throughout by means of staggered shifts in order to physically distance.

From the workers’ point of view, homeworking saves the time and cost of commuting, makes it easier to balance work with home demands such as childcare, often benefits disabled workers, and may enable a more flexible choice of when to work.

There are however serious problems with homeworking. There are dangers of isolation, socially and from workmates who can help or provide support with the job or discuss work issues. Some evidence shows that homework in the pandemic has led to increase in work beyond agreed hours. The blurring of boundaries between work and home makes it easier to be expected to be available at any time, and for women to be expected to perform domestic labour alongside working. Plus, not every home provides a suitable space for work due to space, facilities, or who else is at home.

Homeworking also means that the cost of additional heat, electricity, WiFi, etc., are transferred to the worker, which can be a significant cost. There is a risk of increased surveillance and micromanagement of workers. These should be issues for workplace campaigns.

Working from home makes union organisation more difficult. Unions may not have direct access to the workers and, in the same way as with postal ballots, their being at home will remove the workers from the feeling of workplace collectivity and decision making. The labour movement will need to make changes in how homeworkers are met and communicated with, with more use of online communication, social media, and online meetings. Recruitment to unions, particularly in unorganised workplaces, will be much more difficult without the ability to stand at the door of workplaces at shift changes, approach workers at their desks, etc.

Broadly, our aim should be to ensure that homeworking benefits the worker more than the employer. Most basic to that is the individual worker’s right to choose, pandemic conditions allowing, whether to work from home, and how to divide time between home and workplace, and unions’ right to bargain over and ultimately control the location of work. Unions need to demand the right of reps to contact workers, including those not yet in the union, using company communication systems, for the purpose of official union duties and recruitment; and additional time during the working day to carry out such communication, which will necessarily take longer on a one-to-one basis.

Throughout the pandemic, the threat of the overwhelming and potential collapse of the NHS forced governments into lockdowns and huge state spending, providing scaffolding for the economy by saving jobs and businesses in closure periods. Current evidence says that the UK will suffer the worst health outcomes and deepest cuts out of any comparable country. This will be exacerbated by the effects of Brexit. High government borrowing and public spending are supported by much of the ruling class who support “wartime” Keynesian budget measures. 

We do not know how long these “wartime” measures will last. State borrowing benefitted from historically low interest rates, there can be no guarantee these can be maintained, and the resulting government debts are historically unprecedented in peacetime. At the time of writing the government is planning to cut Universal Credit by withdrawing the previous £20 a week increase, as well as ending the self-employment income support scheme and furlough at the close of the financial year. 

This will further impoverish much of our class. The New Economics Foundation says the percentage of people getting less than the Minimum Income Standard is set to grow from 30% in September to 34% in April 2021. The percentage of people on less than 75% of the MIS will grow from 16% to 19%. While there may be a recovery bounce period fuelled by pent up demand and spending in some sectors, this will be overshadowed by the scale of bankruptcies and closures, especially in the retail and service sectors. Nearly 180,000 retail jobs were lost in the UK in 2020. The hospitality sector was the third-largest employer-industry in the UK in 2019. The industry was forecast to generate one-in-six net new jobs in 2020, but instead some 20% of the sector's 3.2 million jobs had gone. 

These are unorganised sectors with very low union density, any fightback will likely start from voluntarist efforts from small groups in the sector. The 2009 wave of occupations in Britain and Ireland (including Waterford Crystal, Thomas Cook, Visteon, and Vestas) saw occupations used mainly as a bargaining chip to win improved severance terms, rather than to take control of production or save jobs. Nevertheless, the wave shows that militant forms of action can be built even from a low base. The brief workplace occupation by Debenhams workers in Ireland in September 2020 is a glimpse of what may be possible now.  

Lockdowns and reductions in production and trade right around the globe are weakening the oligopolies and threatening whole industries such as steel, automobile, energy, and aviation. This would not only lead to a wave of mass redundancies but likely long term, structural unemployment. We demand public ownership and conversion to green socially useful production. Many employers are looking to make workers pay for the crisis with cuts to terms and conditions, including increasing use of “fire and rehire” schemes aimed at levelling down workers’ conditions. This tactic has already been used by Tower Hamlets Council, British Airways, Heathrow Airport, and British Gas - provoking resistance in each case. We will advocate, via our press and in unions where we are active, a nationally-coordinated campaign across the labour movement against “fire and rehire”.

We will agitate across unions where we are active for a serious and coordinated fightback against the public sector pay freeze, as well as for every union to take action over the issue in the areas where it organises. That coordination should extend across sectors and industries that are part-privatised, such as the railway. Learning the lessons of the 2011 pensions campaign, this action should be designed to win rather than consisting of incidental protest strikes.
 

Our basic orientation in the months and weeks ahead is to:

  • Indict capitalism for its shortcomings in dealing with the pandemic; and explaining how a socialist system would tackle it more effectively
  • Agitate for working class resistance to job cuts and attacks on terms and conditions, through strikes and occupations. Although, against the backdrop of a low ebb of struggle, workplace occupations may seem impossibly radical, an attitude of “fighting to win” requires that, wherever we can, we raise the necessity for such tactics. Token strikes, after an employer has already announced layoffs or closures, are unlikely to be effective. Sit-down strikes, which take control of sections of the workplace, have a much greater chance of success. Short of, or as preludes to, occupations, we advocate sustained and escalating campaigns of strikes, which maximise disruption and pressure on employers.
  • Advocate and where possible initiate workers’ plans for the climate crisis. We want labour movement bodies to collaborate on developing plans for climate adaptation and mitigation and then demand the resources to enact these plans. The following all point in the direction of workers' plans.
  • Demand that bosses open the books. Workers have no less right than capitalists to know the financial “secrets” of their employer, of their branch of industry, or of the national economy. 
  • Demand a shorter working week with no loss of pay, and investment in public services as an answer to the looming unemployment crisis.
  • Continue to demand democratic social ownership of banking and finance.
  • Demand full employment, supported by a massive programme of public works, rolled out as the pandemic eases, in socially necessary sectors, such as housing and social care, and the public ownership of  all public services, ending contracting-out and returning health, social care, education, public transport, post, telecommunications and other sectors to public ownership.
  • Emphasise working-class environmental demands: for a worker-led transition to a zero-carbon econom y, adapting to the impacts of climate crises, re purposing and converting high-emissions industries, and guaranteeing livelihoods/retraining for workers in industries where conversion is not possible.

 

Local government

Although higher compared to settlements from previous Tory governments, the council funding settlement for 2021-22 is radically insufficient. Council tax will increase in real terms again, taking it to 60% of council income. The government isn't cutting council funding, but is increasing regressive council tax while holding down progressive taxation. There has been a shift from central grants to local funding through tax. Councils will be able to raise council tax, and in addition the adult social care precept. There will be more burden on local tax bases.

We note that the Coronavirus Act allowed for “easements'' to the Care Act, allowing councils to not carry out their previous statutory obligations to assess and meet the needs of sick and disabled people and their carers, and that eight councils - including Labour councils - took advantage of this provision. However, under pressure from disabled people's organisations, the government has now repealed this section of the Coronavirus Act. Spurred on by this victory, there are likely to be further mobilisations against other discriminatory policies by groups of disabled people, carers and people experiencing mental health problems. We will seek these out and support them.

    This will affect councils unevenly depending on local economies and balance of tax bases. Revenue lost due to Covid-19 will be unevenly distributed as will losses due to fall in property prices. Local government cannot be sustained in the medium term on current funding arrangements but in the short term the impacts will be far more acute in some areas than others. That means that national industrial action is unlikely and branch-by-branch fightbacks will be more important as the cuts will be felt differently in different areas. 

    The Poplar Rates Rebellion anniversary gives us an opportunity to raise the choice facing Labour councils to either  administer or fight central government cuts. We know that local government funding considered in isolation from its impact on services is not an exciting issue for most people, so campaigns are more likely to come around particular services or groups of service users. Where people mobilise around such campaigns, people then become interested in local government finance, as shown by the wide support for the Poplarist demand to “equalise the rates”. We will look for opportunities to develop campaigns and intervene where they exist.

     

    Health

    Rightly, the issue of pay could be a key flashpoint of struggle in the health sector in 2021. The 2021/22 remit proposed for the NHS Pay Review Body by Matt Hancock in a letter of December 2020, with its emphasis on restraint and “affordability”, would result in a real-terms pay cut for NHS workers. Hancock asked the Pay Review Body to report by early May, meaning the 2021/22 pay settlement won’t be announced until a month after NHS workers should have received the first payment.

    The 15% pay campaign, a predominantly rank-and-file initiative, could be vital for pushing health unions into serious action. Our comrades working in the NHS will work to build local cross-union committees around a fight on pay wherever possible.

    A massive campaign to increase staffing levels and capacity via increased funding is also needed. Currently approximately one in 11 clinical posts are vacant (see here). In England, around 140,000 patients have been waiting more than a year for surgeries – a hundredfold increase on the previous figures. 

    The grave toll the pandemic took in the care sector throws into sharp relief the need for a struggle to bring social care into meaningful public ownership, as part of the NHS. The dispute by care home workers at the Sage care home in north London for parity with NHS staff shows what is possible at the level of individual workplaces, but even a greatly expanded number of such disputes will need a labour-movement-wide political campaign for public ownership to realise its political potential.

    There have been important struggles by outsourced workers in the health sector, with UVW campaigns at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, west London, and Great Ormond Street Hospital in central London succeeding in winning direct NHS employment for previously outsourced workers. We will help support and spread such struggles wherever possibly, and fight within the TUC unions for them to take a similarly active approach to empowering outsourced workers’ struggles.

     

    Education

    The focus of schools has been on Covid-19 measures for the financial year 2020-2021, but schools funding is and will be a serious problem in many areas. In 2021-22, total Schools Block funding will be £38.8bn, representing a cash increase of £1.4bn on allocations for 2020-21, or 3.1% on a per pupil basis – just over one per cent after allowing for inflation. This will not be enough to plug the funding gap caused by years of cuts in education. Many schools are running deficits and still “owe” cuts from previous budget years. In addition, most schools have overspent due to the cost of Covid-19 measures and there is no guarantee that the government will cover these costs despite previous pledges.

    The latest round of funding announcements continues to reflect the government’s commitment to ‘level-up’ funding - directing funding towards schools that have previously been funded at a lower rate. These schools will, on average, have fewer pupils that attract additional funding through the National Funding Formula (NFF) – pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, pupils with low prior attainment, pupils with English as an additional language. The Teacher Pay Grant, which will be used for the final time in 2020-21, has been linked to pupil numbers, not to the costs facing schools. This ignores the fact that schools operating in more challenging circumstances tend to employ more teachers and so will face higher costs from increased salaries. In 2021-22 this will be incorporated into core schools funding. Pupils eligible for free school meals in primary schools will receive increases of 0.6 per cent in comparison to 1.1 per cent for non-FSM pupils, after controlling for inflation. There are similar differences when we examine other characteristics. In primary schools, funding for White-British pupils will increase at over twice the rate of non-White British pupils, and non-EAL pupils will receive increases that are three times the rate of EAL pupils. Much like local government cuts, this will fall unevenly.

    This is perhaps even more important now than it was a year ago. There is emerging evidence of the disproportionate effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on different groups, with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds being less likely to have access to a set-up that is conducive to distance learning and, on average, spending less time on home learning than their more affluent peers. Even before the extraordinary circumstances that schools have faced in 2020 there was emerging evidence that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers was at risk of widening. The crisis is likely to have increased that risk and the challenge of narrowing the gap just got harder.

    Through action around the pandemic, the NEU has recruited new members and reps and so has a better base from which to fight upcoming anti cuts campaigns. The success in forcing a government U-turn through the threatened Section-44 withdrawal will have built confidence at workplace level.  Their public facing School Cuts campaign was successful in bringing school cuts to the public attention but has lain dormant for some time and will need relaunching.
    In Higher Education, the coming year is likely to see continuing struggles against redundancies and cuts. At multiple institutions, management have used the pandemic as an opportunity to drive forward aggressive restructuring programmes, focusing on so-called “employability” and targeting arts and humanities in particular.
    This is on top of craven acceptance of the government line on return to campus during Covid-19, even when their own experts were warning of the dangers. There has been some success in pushback, e.g. after a positive ballot result at Heriot Watt, but there is also a risk of fatigue among activists. There has also been an uptick in student struggle, especially around the issue of rent and housing.

     

    Transport

    Under an emergency deal agreed in October, the government effectively took over operating the railway from the private Train Operating Companies, whose fare revenues had been drastically reduced during the pandemic. With transport services being radically scaled back (at the time of writing, January 2021, the expectation was that national rail services might be reduced by up to 50%), it is plausible that transport employers may seek to make job cuts.

    As the pandemic eases there will be opportunities for renewed campaigning for genuine public ownership of transport, as the Tory government is likely to want to support private companies to resume operations.

    In Transport for London, an “independent review” commissioned by the TfL Board and Mayor Sadiq Khan has called strongly for reforms to the TfL staff pension scheme, which could involve reducing employer contributions, and/or closing the scheme to new starters. The review does not rule out the need for cuts to staffing levels or services such as Night Tube in the future.

    We organise within transport unions for a fighting strategy that makes resistance to all cuts its starting point, not the now-common stance of seeking no compulsory redundancies from the outset. Where pandemic conditions make the resumption of certain services, e.g., Night Tube, unviable, we fight for job and salary guarantees for affected workers.

    An additional struggle in the transport sector will be over anti-strike legislation, with the Tories maintaining their 2019 manifesto commitment to bring forward new legislation to impose “minimum service requirements” during transport strikes. An uptick in transport workers’ struggle may lead to the acceleration of these plans, and struggles in education and healthcare - already “essential services” subject to the double threshold under the 2016 Trade Union Act - may lead to calls for “minimum service requirements'' to be expanded to those sectors.

     

    Civil service

    Struggles for Covid-safe workplaces continue in a number of civil service departments, including DWP, Ministry of Justice, and the DVLA. Outsourced workers’ struggles are a distinct subset within this, with outsourced staff at departments such as BEIS balloting for action to resist being forced into work even though the office buildings they “service” are practically empty.
    At the time of writing, the PCS National Executive Committee was due to discuss prospects for a national campaign over civil service pay. The potential of a department-specific offer in the HMRC threatens to divide the civil service workforce; we oppose department-specific offers and advocate a national pay fight across the whole sector.

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