Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Workers, and our unions, need to get out in front of any discussion or planning by the bosses to begin to reopen workplaces and bring workers back to work. We need to put in place clear assessments and our own criteria, overseen by union reps with the maximum degree of control for workers, for when it's safe for work to resume or for workers to return to the workplace.
If those criteria aren't met, and bosses insist on resuming work anyway, we need to organise to obstruct that, and refuse to work if necessary.
Specific demands will vary from workplace to workplace, but there will be some common themes:
Distancing measures in place to reorganise workspaces to ensure workers can maintain 2m distance from each other while working. If this is physically or structurally impossible with a full complement of workers, rotating work patterns, agreed and decided amongst workers themselves, should be implemented to ensure the number of workers in work does not exceed the maximum level at which it's possible to distance safely.
Cleaning regimes should be stepped up, with cleaners guaranteed full PPE to protect their safety. This should include regular cleaning, with antiviral solutions, of all workspaces and shared equipment. Any shared equipment not absolutely essential for the functioning of the workplace should be mothballed.
Employers should provide hand-sanitisers and gloves to all workers. For work tasks where maintaining distancing is impossible (e.g., emergency maintenance or engineering work that requires working in pairs or teams, in closer proximity), face masks and shields should also be provided. Handwashing stations should be set up, readily accessible to all workers, additional to whatever existing toilet facilities are present in the workplace.
Workers in higher risk categories, due to age or underlying health conditions, should be shielded as much as possible while public health guidance is that social distancing measures remain in place. Any worker in a vulnerable category should be given special paid leave to remain at home.
More challenges are presented by industries that involve customer service, such as transport and retail. On London Underground, bosses are attempting to impose emergency timetables that would increase the train service beyond the minimum levels to which it has been reduced. This would require a contingent increase in shifts for station staff, service controllers, and others, which have been significantly reduced to eliminate non-essential work.
Unions have so far resisted this imposition, arguing there is no operational need to increase the service while lockdown continues, and that any ramping back up the service must be planned and agreed with unions in advance, rather than simply imposed. If LU presses ahead with imposition, unions are reminding members of their legal rights to refuse unsafe work.
Meanwhile, union safety reps are formulating demands to place on the company as part of workers' own assessment criteria for any increase in the service and staffing levels. Many supermarkets have implemented distanced queuing systems, which could be explored for train and Tube stations. Other demands might include the installation of handwashing stations outside all stations, with passengers required to wash their hands before entering.
Clearly, this relies on consent and common sense from the passengers to work and wouldn't necessarily be entirely enforceable. Within stations, unions should demand that staff work from behind physical barriers – whether from the station control room, former ticket offices, or “Gate Line Assistant Points” - wherever possible, to minimise contact with passengers.
The key principle in all situations should be workers' control. Unions must fight for the maximum degree of workplace-level control over any back-to-work plans or plans for service increases.
Only when workers are satisfied that everything possible has been done to maximise safety and minimise risk should we agree to return to work.