My union branch, Lambeth Unison, organises three main groups of workers — workers for Lambeth council, support staff in schools in Lambeth, and workers in Elis Laundry. We also have some members in smaller private sector workplaces.
Our first step, and early on, was to win full pay for all workers in the council following public health advice, or staying home for childcare because of school and nursery closures, early on. For absolutely all workers in council workplaces, including agency workers and zero-hours workers.
The next battle was in the libraries. On 20 March the library workers walked out, citing Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which entitles workers to distance themselves if they see a “serious and imminent danger” in the workplace. The council quickly backed down and closed the libraries, and has agreed not to reopen them until we have an agreement to do that safely.
We’ve been campaigning for full pay for workers in the laundry to follow public health advice. That is much more difficult, because we have no union recognition there. Also, many of the workers there do not have internet access.
We’ve set up WhatsApp groups and telephone trees, printed posters, and done a petition. Both the local left-wing Labour MP, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, and (in fact, more quickly) the (right-wing) Labour councillors, have backed this petition.
We have pressed the council on expansion of domestic violence services during the epidemic, and help for the homeless. The council is mass-renting hotel and hostel rooms, and has set up a team to house the homeless.
Only a minority of council workers are now in the workplace rather than working from home or self-isolating. For those still at work, management and union are each doing their own risk assessment for each workplace.
Generally, in the council offices, there’s no big problem about adequate social distancing. The biggest issue has been with council workers who visit care homes. The workers want PPE.
We’ve found some social workers wanting to withdraw from visits to vulnerable families. The union has argued against withdrawing.