Covid-19: the battle in the workplace

Issue: 167

Mark L Thomas

A pandemic is first of all a public health crisis. But when containing the infection requires a dramatic reduction in social contact, it rapidly becomes a workplace issue. Under normal circumstances, each day millions of people are concentrated in often sizeable workplaces, interacting extensively with other workers both in the workplace and when travelling to and from work. Unless this is halted on a mass scale, then a contagious virus has free rein.1

Moreover, in a class-divided society, where a minority monopolises control of how work is organised, the impact of disease prevention measures will run along all the pre-existing fault lines and tensions of the 21st century workplace: the epidemic of management bullying; punitive sickness procedures and the callous disregard for workers’ safety; the creation of two-tier workforces through outsourcing and casualisation; the culture of intensive monitoring, testing and surveillance; the hollowing out of public services through years of austerity and privatisation; the gendered division of labour that sees women placed in the front line of the battle against Covid-19 in occupations such as healthcare and cleaning; and the structural racism that permeates the workplace and combines with the virus to produce lethal consequences.2

The response to the pandemic in the workplace has been a contested process. There have been many unseen battles to defend workers’ health and living standards. The picture has been contradictory. We have witnessed an outbreak of struggle from below inside individual workplaces, and frequently these have had some success in wresting concessions from employers. However, the overall role of the trade union bureaucracy has been to seek a negotiated collaboration with the government within a framework of “national unity”, and it has generally not sought to build on workers’ struggles in order to raise resistance to a higher level.

From “herd immunity” to lockdown

The first phase of the pandemic was marked by a criminally negligent response from Boris Johnson’s government. Basking in the euphoria of its electoral triumph before Christmas and the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, the government’s focus was on using its new authority to pursue its promise to “get Brexit done”. Although Britain saw its first cases of Covid-19 by late January, the government was complacent and failed to use the month of February to prepare. This was despite warnings from scientists and public health experts, and the alarming spread of the virus in Italy and elsewhere.3 As late as 3 March, Johnson could boast how he “shook hands with everybody” on a visit at a hospital where Covid-19 patients were being cared for. Ironically, within a month, Johnson was himself admitted to hospital after developing the disease.4

The government’s fatal recklessness was reinforced by pressures from capital to keep business running at all costs. Addressing the nation on 12 March, Johnson declared, “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” What was so shocking about this speech was that the government, it seemed, planned to do little to prevent or even limit the danger. Johnson failed to introduce measures that other European countries had begun to adopt to contain the spread of Covid-19. There was no move to close schools, ban large public gatherings or to stop all non-essential work. The government also announced that it was abandoning mass community testing and tracing.5 The following day, defending Johnson’s speech, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, talked of creating “herd immunity”, with the virus allowed to rip through society. However, within days this approach had to be abandoned after a report from scientists at Imperial College in London warned that the government’s strategy could lead to 250,000 deaths and overwhelm the NHS.6 Quite simply, the political cost for a government to be seen to allow such mass carnage was deemed too great. The government began to see an erosion of its authority and it lost some control over the process of implementing a lockdown. This made the move to shut down workplaces more disorderly and extensive than the government had intended.

Faced with government inaction and growing fear about the threat to health and life, civil society gave a lead. By 15 March, a slew of major cultural and political events had been cancelled. These included BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend Festival in Dundee, The Who’s imminent UK tour, both the Premier and EFL football leagues, Rugby Union’s Six Nations tournament, the London Book Fair, the National Education Union (NEU) annual conference and Stand Up To Racism’s national demonstrations on 21 March.7 On 16 March, Johnson “advised” that mass gatherings should not take place in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, he still insisted that schools, where hundreds of students and staff gather in close proximity for several hours on a daily basis, should not close. The following day the NEU called for schools to shut to all but the children of workers who were essential to the continued functioning of society and the fight against the pandemic.8 The next day, Johnson announced the closure of schools. Who was leading who here? It appeared that the government was being driven by pressures from below.

In workplaces, in response to government foot-dragging, there was an upsurge of battles to protect workers: to make sure the most vulnerable were sent home and that anyone self-isolating was paid either full sick pay, without any disciplinary monitoring being invoked, or simply kept on full pay. In some cases, demands went beyond this and focused on shifting the maximum number of people to working from home or even stopping non-essential work regardless of whether people could work from home or not. For example, a civil servant in a government department reports:

The coronavirus crisis began to really hit home over the weekend of 14-15 March. The reps in my office discussed the potential impact…and planned Public and Commerical Services Union (PCS) members’ meetings for the Monday lunchtime. Out of around 75 members in our office, an unprecedented 60 plus attended the meetings and raised demands including taking vulnerable people off the front line and reducing appointments to only those that were really necessary. Management agreed about the vulnerable people. But otherwise we were told it was business as usual. There was growing bitterness in the office. That night the department recorded a message identifying the vulnerable people who should immediately stay away from work. I went in the next day and started identifying who should be sent home. Because of the meetings the previous, day there was no opposition from management.9

A safety rep at a large college in Scotland described how lecturers lodged a request in mid-March to work from home if they didn’t have classes to teach. Management answered by saying that they “were not minded” to allow this. The response was a mass walkout.10 By the end of the week the college was closed.

A council worker in north west England reports:

As a union branch, we raised concerns about the threat of the virus in mid-February. The standard response was they were waiting for guidance from Public Health England. In March, after Johnson declared that many would die as part of a herd immunity policy, we passed an emergency motion through our branch the next day. When Johnson made his U-turn on the evening of 16 March, it took the council by surprise. Despite the new guidance coming out from government about vulnerable groups and social distancing, the council continued to organise staff meetings in order to tell staff that it was business as usual. The council refused to let vulnerable staff work from home, so we issued guidance to all union members. All places that could not maintain distancing should close. All staff, except those in refuse services, children’s residential services and emergency social work, should work from home. If staff thought it was unsafe, we organised immediate union meetings and then informed managers that staff were removing themselves from potentially dangerous situations. Some of the biggest arguments were in children’s services. Union members decided whether staff needed to work from the office and, if so, what contact with client groups can be done virtually, what Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is required if face to face visits are deemed necessary. These issues have been a part of constant argument and friction between union members and senior management. And for the refuse workers, management also pretty much conceded to all our demands on safe working.11

A bank worker reports:

In the big centres, the union pushed the bank into moving staff to work from home, and the bank did this very quickly. The numbers working from home have increased tenfold. But in the high street branches, staff were unhappy and felt not enough was being done to protect them. This has improved but nothing like as quickly as the move to home working. In general though, whatever the union has pushed for, the bank has conceded. Often it has conceded so quickly that the union has had no time to organise around it. To give an example, I had annual leave on a Friday. Returning to my emails on Monday, I saw that a rep had emailed to complain on the Friday that his section were not working from home. By the Monday this had already been sorted. But individual managers do break with what has been agreed. Whenever the union is aware of this, it is escalated and the bank correct it. The union asked for all absences related to Covid-19 to be removed from sickness absence procedures—agreed; the union asked for a halt to all redundancies during the Covid-19 period—agreed.12

PCS members in the Department for Work and Pensions also pushed for and won a demand to discontinue some face to face interviews. As a PCS rep from Oxfordshire told Socialist Worker: “In my office, about 50 percent of workers have gone home. And they are on full pay, not sick pay. We have forced management to enforce the advice from the government.” On the London Underground, the RMT union successfully insisted that cleaners, who work for contractors rather than directly for Transport for London, continue to receive full pay if they needed to stay at home to self-isolate.13

There were also more visible walkouts. Postal workers in south west London walked out over the lack of sanitisers; refuse workers in parts of Glasgow held a sit-in over the lack of sanitisers and hot water at their depots. At London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), support staff forced managers to close the site by threatening to walk out after a student was diagnosed with the virus. A group of cleaning and catering staff employed by outsourcing giant ISS at Lewisham hospital in south east London walked out in mid-March over unpaid wages, with one cleaner bitterly complaining: “It has been disgusting, the way they treat us. We are working with coronavirus in the hospital and not getting paid for it”.14 Workers across ten libraries in the London borough of Lambeth walked out citing section 44 of the 1996 Employment Rights Act, which allows workers to refuse to attend an unsafe workplace—the local council’s “gold command” had insisted that the libraries remain open despite those in neighbouring boroughs closing.15 Refuse workers in Bexley walked out and won full sick pay for any worker forced to self-isolate or take time off due to coronavirus.16 On the Wirral in Merseyside refuse workers also walked out after managers continued to insist on three workers riding in the cab of their refuse vehicles.17 There were further walkouts by postal workers at delivery offices in Bridgwater in Somerset and in Southwark over unsafe working conditions.18 Staff in library hubs in Tower Hamlets in east London forced their closure after managers ignored health advice.19 Hundreds of warehouse workers in Barnsley in South Yorkshire employed by fashion retailer ASOS walked out at the end of March over unsafe conditions.20

Such walkouts were only the most visible expression of the battles taking place in numerous workplaces. Overall the impression is of a sudden upsurge in workplace fights, especially where a rep or another activist pulled together a meeting, formulated demands and put them to management. In report after report, the picture is one of management retreats, especially in the early phases of the pandemic and the lockdown. The accelerating pandemic and the government’s U-turns put employers on the back foot, making them more vulnerable to pressure. This became obvious as various business villains were forced to fall back. Mike Ashley of Sports Direct declared that he would keep his stores open on the grounds that sports clothing should be classed as “essential”, only to face a huge public backlash that forced the closure of all Sports Direct stores; Wetherspoon’s CEO Tim Martin announced he would not pay his staff after he was forced to close his pubs and he too was forced to backtrack.21 The desire of businesses to avoid reputational damage by being seen to protect workers’ health gave more leverage to groups of workers to push for more control over the lockdown process.

The lockdown did not go as far as many trade union activists were pushing for, that is, the halting of all non-essential work. However, it did go further than the government had intended. The Financial Times notes:

Britain went into lockdown on 23 March to try to halt the spread of coronavirus, but ministers never intended to close quite so much of the British economy. While certain industries such as hospitality, “non-essential” retail and sport were largely banned…most other businesses were supposed to stay open, but many did not… Some employers said they closed their businesses during the lockdown not because of government prohibition but rather due to “societal pressure” as people had not understood why they were still open.22

National unity, the unions and Labour

While many workplaces saw local reps lead battles, the tops of the unions were being drawn into the orbit of the government through the language of “national unity”. There was pressure on unions to not only drop existing strikes but also to avoid attacks on the government. The government was helped by the repositioning of the Labour Party, which from early April was under new management with the election of Keir Starmer to replace outgoing leader Corbyn. Starmer moved quickly to signal that Labour would prioritise support for the government in its handling of the pandemic in the “national interest” and be much more muted over its criticism of the government. In his victory speech, Starmer declared:

In times like this, we need good government—a government that saves lives and protects our country. It’s a huge responsibility and whether we voted for this government or not, we all rely on it to get this right. That’s why, in the national interest, the Labour Party will play its full part. Under my leadership we will engage constructively with the government. Not opposition for opposition’s sake. Not scoring party political points or making impossible demands. But with the courage to support where that’s the right thing to do.23

Although Starmer claimed this did not preclude challenging the government on specific issues, any such criticism would now be subordinated to a supportive approach. Labour would above all be a “responsible opposition”.24 This was Starmer broadcasting his appeal to the ruling class that Labour could be trusted.

Labour has always been a contradictory combination of two impulses. It accepts capitalism and thus is loyal to its interests and institutions, but it also seeks to give limited expression to working class discontent and desire for changes within the capitalist system. If Corbyn’s leadership gave more voice to the latter impulse without breaking from this contradictory overall approach, then Starmer was shifting the party back towards open loyalty to the British ruling class under the guise of protecting the “national interest”.25 Indeed, one of Starmer’s first major interventions as Labour leader was to call for the government to publish an “exit strategy”, suggesting that schools should be among the first workplaces to reopen. Despite being hedged with caveats, this aligned Starmer with ruling class voices that argued that the lockdown was too damaging to the interests of capital and that the profit machine needed to be restarted sooner rather than later.26

There were additional incentives for union leaders to mute criticism and limit agitation. Union leaders, who are used to being treated with barely concealed contempt in the corridors of power, suddenly found a much warmer welcome from the government. The sight of the odious Tory minister Michael Gove praising unions as “our partners” at a daily government briefing underlined the change of rhetoric. However, the union leaders also needed something to show for any new “partnership” approach. This role was filled by the “furlough” scheme (officially, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme) that was announced by chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak. This agreed to pay 80 percent of wages (capped at £2,500 per month) for workers temporarily laid off.27

According to figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the proportion of workers furloughed was greatest in accommodation (hotels) and food services (restaurants and takeaways), with 80 percent furlough rates. These sectors were closely followed by the arts, entertainment and recreation industry, which had 68 percent of employees placed on furlough. Overall, 27 percent of all employees were furloughed.28 By early May, the BBC was reporting that 7.5 million workers, predominantly from the private sector, were in effect being paid directly by the state.29 Union leaders were enthusiastic about the scheme. Trades Union Council (TUC) general secretary Frances O’Grady called it a “breakthrough” and said that Sunak had shown “real leadership”. Unite union leader Len McCluskey described it “bold and very necessary”. The Economist noted:

Trade unions suddenly have new relevance and influence… The unions were recruited to help put together the Jobs Retention Scheme, which guarantees workers 80 percent of their pay. The movement has not been so close to power since union leaders sat in smoke-filled rooms with ministers in the 1970s… Thanks to swift and satisfactory negotiations over the Jobs Retention Scheme, Rishi Sunak, unusually for a Tory chancellor, wins plaudits from the union movement. “He’s very intelligent, he’s switched on, he’s not ideologically driven,” says Steve Turner, an assistant general secretary at Unite.30

Nevertheless, the furlough scheme had serious limitations. Money was not paid directly to workers but to bosses. Moreover, a swathe of employers simply made workers redundant rather than applying for the scheme. There was also no compulsion on employers to pay the remaining 20 percent of wages, and this has had a disproportionate impact on the lowest paid (although lower transport costs helped offset the difference for some workers). However, the biggest problem was that the scheme was effectively a bailout for business, allowing it to hold onto labour for the future without paying wages, or at least with a much reduced bill.

The government had no interest in taking even part ownership stakes in firms, let alone full nationalisation, but it was now providing businesses with £14 billion a month. There is nothing to stop firms launching a mass shake out of jobs as the furlough scheme is withdrawn. Similarly, the government is free to impose a renewed round of austerity to pay for its crisis measures once the immediate emergency has passed, just as it did after bailing out in the banking system during the 2007 financial crash. The belief that “Boris Johnson had been forced to act like a socialist”, as one national union podcast put it, and that this presaged a permanent move away from neoliberalism meant learning no lessons from the past decade. Yet, in exchange for the furlough scheme, unions clearly felt under pressure to dampen down militancy and resistance from below—the very thing that could act as a barrier to the restoration of business as usual after the pandemic.

One source of discomfort for the union leaders was that the pandemic made postal ballots much less relevant. Postal balloting is the usual mechanism for allowing a limited expression of discontent, without too great a likelihood of it escaping the control of the union bureaucracy. The balloting process is slow and cumbersome. It demands a mandatory week’s notification of a ballot, a minimum of two to three weeks to conduct a ballot and then another mandatory two weeks’ notice of any action. A minimum 50 percent turnout is also necessary for industrial action to go ahead. This process was simply too slow to deal with immediate, burning safety issues that posed a threat to life in workplaces. Thus, workers who did walk out did so overwhelmingly without a ballot. This does not mean ballots were impossible, especially for less immediate issues such as redundancy plans and proposed attacks on terms and conditions. For example, Unite announced a ballot of over 200 furloughed workers who were threatened with job losses at Tradeteam’s depot in Sheffield.31 However, nervous unions often avoided openly encouraging workers to challenge managers over immediate concerns. From their point of view, at best this risked disrupting their attempts to negotiate with employers or the government. At worst, it risked employers turning to the courts to pursue claims that the union leadership had colluded in “unofficial” action, which might open them up to financial penalties. An aura of “don’t take independent action, we are sorting things out for you” could be found to emanate from even more left-wing parts of union bureaucracies. This included sections of the leadership of, for example, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and PCS.

As a consequence of this attitude, many national unions shut down democratic spaces. Unison did not hold a national executive meeting until late May. Its regional councils, which could have allowed branch leaderships to share experiences, were not held. All this could have been done online via video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom, but it wasn’t. This led to centralisation of the unions at the top, thus weakening the pressures on them from members who wanted more action in defence of both safety and living standards. It signalled to more conservative union branches that they too did not need to find ways of holding meetings online and continuing to function. This was all the more frustrating because union branches that did hold online meetings reported attendances way beyond the usual numbers. As one Unison member reports:

The national union has been dreadful. No meetings whatsoever. This has been passed down to regional level where again there are no meetings for lay activists, despite the need being much greater than before. My branch has been one of several in the region that have passed motions calling for a Regional Council meeting. The response was that it’s not in the union rules to call a virtual one. The union’s Local Government Service Group has not met so far, despite doing a survey of what technology people have for virtual meetings. The union’s National Joint Council did have a virtual meeting over our pay offer. But the national union generally seems quite happy to run without lay democracy. They don’t think Zoom is safe and use the fact that some activists in the NHS are too busy to meet.32

Such a description could be applied in one degree or another to a number of other unions. To some extent the caution at the top of many unions, and the background of low levels of struggle, explains why Britain has seen fewer overall walkouts than countries such as Italy, France and even the United States.

However, two further points must be made. Firstly, not all union leaders responded in the same way. The leadership of the NEU has been more combative. Joint general secretary Kevin Courtney posted on an unofficial union Facebook page as battles were taking place over getting vulnerable staff sent home or limiting schools to essential staffing levels:

If your head says they have to be in, tell them no. Tell them it’s your union’s advice. Tell them you will work from home. Tell them we will see them in court. Tell them if they mess you about there will be trouble.33

He added: “This is your union’s advice: follow it, fight for it.” This was a green light for reps to challenge uncooperative school heads. The NEU was also much more willing to engage with members, and held a number of mass online national meetings for reps. One such meeting saw 20,000 NEU members participate in the wake of Johnson’s announcement in early May of plans for the widespread reopening of schools. NEU branches also reporting mass turnouts at local meetings in the days that followed.

Secondly, union leaders were still under pressure to give expression to the bitterness and anger that periodically bubbled up from below. Despite shutting down lay structures of their unions and focussing on meetings with ministers, they could still sometimes be forced to take some, albeit limited, action at times. As we shall see, national unity between unions and the government could fracture at key junctures.

The new landscape of work

Within a couple of weeks the world of work in British society was transformed. The sheer scale of withdrawal from the workplace was enormous. Although there are no figures for the exact number of people who stopped going into a workplace, there are two sources that give some indication.

The first source is Google, which provides “mobility” reports based on location data from smart phones. Google suggests that by 29 March, six days after the official lockdown had been announced by Johnson, the number of “workplace visits” had fallen by 55 percent. It then fell even further and there were 68 percent fewer workplace visits than the norm by 17 April. The drop was even greater in some conurbations such as Cardiff (73 percent), Bristol (74 percent), Edinburgh (79 percent), Glasgow (74 percent) and Greater London (75 percent).34

The second source is surveys of those in employment by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). For the week of 24 April to 3 May, the ONS reports that 36 percent of those it surveyed said they had only worked from home. Another 31 percent of those in employment had neither worked from home or at a workplace due to being on leave, off sick, on furlough or simply because they had been allowed to stay at home but the employer had been unable to organise any work for them to do.35 This amounts to a total of 67 percent of those in employment not attending a workplace. Of course, some of those may have worked from home before the lockdown.36 Nevertheless, overall this roughly correlates with the Google data. Taken together, this suggests that out of a total UK workforce of 33 million, perhaps as many as 18-20 million people stopped going into their workplace. These are far greater numbers than those furloughed by employers.

A connected development was an ideological revaluation of whose work is really necessary. As society moved into lockdown, it was clear that some people were still needed to go in to work to undertake tasks either essential to containment of the pandemic (for example, health workers) or to the immediate functioning of society. As part of its partial closure of schools, the government produced a list of “critical workers” whose children would still be able to access them. As well as health workers, this included workers in transport, elderly care, post, sanitation and food production, distribution and retail. Of course, teachers, nursery staff and school support staff were also listed.37 Moreover, though it may not have been obvious to the government, it was also clear to most that the work of cleaning staff was indispensable if those working in any of these occupations were to be kept safe.38 Oddly, advertising executives, private equity managers and huge swathes of middle class professionals were missing from the list. The work of routine manual and white-collar jobs, often denigrated or overlooked, badly paid and even classed as “unskilled”, was suddenly recognised as indispensable. There was an upending of the usual ideological hierarchies of class society, which privilege the contribution of managerial grades and justify the rewards that go with such positions. In addition, as the Marxist economist Michael Roberts observes, the absence of millions of other workers from the workplace and the consequent plummeting of economic output highlighted something else: that it is the daily labour of millions of workers that produces the wealth of society.39

Fear and anger on the front line

The NHS’s 1.5 million staff have stood on the front line in the pandemic. The legacy of staff shortages, fragmented and privatised supply chains and the running down of stockpiles of PPE left those staff deeply exposed. The dearth of PPE and lack of mass testing capacity created anger and bitterness towards the government. Oxford University academics Janine Aron and John Muellbauer sought to explain why England had fared much worse than its European counterparts. They concluded:

Generally, there was a collective failure in preparedness across the public health system, especially for testing capability and adequate supplies and distribution of PPE for health workers.40

To add insult to injury, Tory health secretary Matt Hancock told NHS staff not to “overuse” the limited supplies of PPE that did exist.41 A small network of NHS workers around the Health Worker Covid-19 Activists group initiated a day of action on 16 April in the wake of Hancock’s provocation. Though limited in scale it was an important first step in showing that it was possible to protest inside the NHS, despite enormous pressures from NHS employers not to do so. Moreover, it was a signal to the wider trade union movement that offline action, even if largely symbolic, was still possible.

The Unison union, which had done little to encourage its health branches to organise protests or industrial action, felt forced to call for a minute’s silence on 28 April, which is Workers’ Memorial Day. The Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives also backed this call. Workers’ Memorial Day is an annual trade union event that focuses on the fight for health and safety at work. Usually it is a low-key occasion, except within the construction unions, but it took on a new significance as the scale of deaths among NHS, care and transport workers became apparent. Unison’s call reflected the fraying of the consensus at the top as class realities created pressure on the union leaderships to give some expression, however limited, to the anger below. Unison also appealed to the government to back the minute’s silence in order to refold the event back into the narrative of national unity. Nevertheless, as the TUC and other unions took up the call, it created a bigger space for the most militant elements to organise protests and union meetings that raised demands for adequate PPE and mass testing. Socialist Worker’s round up of action on the day points to small but widespread protests:

In Wigan, health and social care workers at the council walked out of their office and held a rally with union banners in the town centre. They were joined by members of the RMT…Unite…and Wigan Trades Council… Outside Salford hospital, members of Unison’s local government and health branches and the trades council staged a minute’s silence… Around 70 people, mainly health workers, protested outside North Manchester General Hospital… Other protests took place at Trafford General Hospital and Prestwich Hospital… At University College Hospital in central London, Unison members marked the minute’s silence with placards demanding PPE for all… At the Whittington Hospital in Islington, north London, the trades council and local Covid action committee held a socially distanced protest…supported by members of the Unison and GMB unions at the hospital and the RMT… There was also a protest outside Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Greenwich, where an outsourced cleaner has been suspended for refusing to work without protective equipment. And in Tower Hamlets, east London, around 20 community health workers came out holding banners demanding PPE. At Warneford hospital in Oxford, a joint union meeting and minute’s silence saw around 60 workers demanding action on PPE… Activists from a number of unions gathered outside St George’s Hospital in south London…and around 20 workers, waving GMB union flags and placards, were outside the ambulance station in Greenwich in south east London. Health workers and supporters also gathered outside Glasgow Royal Infirmary, some with signs demanding proper PPE… And cleaners at the Ministry of Justice in central London walked out to protest over the lack of PPE in their workplace.42

The initial epicentre of the pandemic was London, and transport workers there found themselves lacking protective equipment and being very exposed. At the start of May, Transport for London reported that at least 37 of the capital’s transport workers, including 28 bus drivers, had died from coronavirus. The New York Times ran a moving report capturing the fear felt by many bus drivers:

The buses are needed to keep essential workers moving…and their drivers have spent the weeks since the outbreak plying their usual routes. Now, more than two dozen of those drivers are dead as a result of the virus and some say they fear for their lives… “I think we all feel the fact that it could be any one of us,” said Lorraine, 62, who drives a route in South London… While conditions have improved in recent days, she said, the past several weeks had worn on her. “To be quite honest, I’ve felt real fear,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve felt such fear in all my life that I could die.” Last week, new protective measures were rolled out citywide requiring passengers to enter and exit buses at the middle or back doors where possible and to sit in those sections well away from the drivers. Passengers don’t have to pay, for now, to avoid coming close to drivers. But unions representing bus drivers, as well as the families of the victims, say the measures do not go far enough… Lorraine said that in the middle of last month, she woke to the news day after day that another of her fellow drivers had died…and she suddenly found herself scared to go to work. “And then I thought, if I get Covid-19, I live here by myself, and if I get it and they take me to hospital I am not going to see my children, or my grandchildren,” she said. So she began writing them letters, offering words of comfort if the worst were to happen. In a video she made about driver deaths, Lorraine said, “I am put at risk,” adding, while crying, “I am frightened that I am going to die”.43

Again, Unite found itself under pressures to respond. It successfully demanded that doors on London buses next to the driver be closed for passengers, and it called for a minute’s silence for London bus workers who had died. Overall though, Unite, which mainly represents workers in the private sector, felt a tension between “protecting members’ health and pay” and “protecting jobs”. The latter was seen to require keeping business afloat and profitable. Thus, for example, there was no push from the top of the union to ensure that all non-essential building sites were shut. Instead, this demand had to be taken up by rank and file construction activists gathered around the Shut the Sites campaign.

Postal workers also found themselves classed as an essential service. This created tensions and some resistance. In addition to the walkouts by postal workers referred to earlier, reports from Socialist Worker and local media tell of a string of other walkouts by postal workers. Action broke out in Medway, Hedge End, Chatham, Warrington, Didcot, Greenock, East Oxford, Bury St Edmunds and Stoke in England, plus Alloa, Lochgelly and Edinburgh in Scotland. There was also a walkout at the Parcelforce site in Swansea in Wales. These sometimes lasted just a few hours. Disputes often focussed on lack of PPE and sanitising gel, managers’ failure to implement social distancing rules and pressure to continue delivery of junk mail. In other cases the immediate trigger was a worker testing positive for coronavirus and managers then taking inadequate cleaning measures. The CWU, which represents postal workers, had not moved to call strikes after it had overwhelmingly won a national strike ballot in mid-March, and Royal Mail managers often simply continued business as usual. The pandemic led to rising workloads as online orders rocketed, but there were fewer staff because up to 20 percent of staff were self-isolating at any one time.

The CWU leadership came under contradictory pressures. As general secretary Dave Ward worded it, the union leadership sought to both defend members’ safety and to “sustain the business”. This meant ensuring that Royal Mail remained profitable in order to protect jobs. Tying workers’ interests to the profitability of their employer blunts opposition to attacks that are designed to squeeze more out the workforce. A better and more radical demand would have been renationalisation, so that the postal services run as a public service rather than a commercial operation. Nonetheless, the pressure from below showed itself as tensions inside the offices rose and Ward told members, “have you got the right PPE in place, glove, sanitisers and is social distancing strictly enforced in your office? If no, you should not be working and we will back you.” The union, nervous about being taken to court, stressed that such action would not amount to unofficial strikes. Instead they would be refusals to remain in workplaces while they were deemed unsafe, which is a legal right granted under health and safety provisions.

Royal Mail senior management decided to go on the offensive at the end of April and use the cover of the pandemic to further its wider agenda of attacks. It announced the suspension of Saturday deliveries—one of its longstanding objectives—threatening 20,000 jobs down the line and massive upheaval in postal workers’ lives as shift patterns were disrupted. Now the CWU announced that it would action the national strike mandate it had from the March ballot result (though no strike date was announced). It also called on members not to cooperate with the shift changes, something that would have led to widespread unofficial strikes. The government clearly took fright at the prospect of such a public breakdown of “national unity” and reassertion of working class militancy, and called the CWU and Royal Mail chief executive Rico Back into meetings with ministers. Royal Mail rapidly retreated and two weeks later Back resigned, pushed out by shareholders who had lost faith that he could deliver the attacks to boost profitability.44

Elsewhere, especially among weakly organised workers or the large army of unionised workers, conditions for those who continued to be at work could be very grim. A study of call centres by Strathclyde University professor Phil Taylor reveals that managers often paid lip service to social distancing and protection of workers’ health while presiding over crowded offices with inadequate cleaning measures. In some cases, there was even a total lack of hand sanitiser, and face to face and team meetings with supervisors continued. As one worker observed, “call centres are like petri dishes.” It is no surprise that over 90 percent of the workers in the survey feared that they would give Covid-19 to family or friends.45

Workers on short-term contracts, in temporary employment or forced into bogus self-employment by their employers also faced frightening prospects. However, newer unions such as the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) were able to channel resistance to some of the attacks on “precarious” workers by, for example, organising among groups of cycle couriers in London.46

What next?

As I write in June, a looming offensive faces workers on three fronts: a drive to force a return to the workplace regardless of safety; the threat of a huge wave of redundancies as companies go under or seek to shed labour in order to shore up profitability; and the prospect of renewed austerity as the bill for the state’s crisis measures to save business are passed onto workers as pay freezes and attacks on conditions.47 The outcome of the first battle—over a return to unsafe workplaces—will have a considerable impact on the other fronts. If there is real resistance to employers and the government pushing people back to work, then battles over job losses and austerity will take place on a much more favourable terrain.

The major flashpoint has been schools. The government’s attempt to open primary schools to the whole of some year groups, not just to the children of key workers, placed the NEU in a direct collision with government. The NEU’s “Five Tests” insisted that schools should not even consider reopening until the overall number of new Covid-19 cases and deaths substantially falls and an effective programme of mass testing and contact tracing is in place.48 A mass refusal to return to school if such conditions were not met would have to take place without a ballot as the timescale would be too short. Successful defiance of the government would therefore involve collective workplace action on a significant scale outside the legal constraints of postal ballots—marking a major departure from the pattern of British industrial relations for the past three decades.

The campaign by school unions, led by the NEU, did succeed in utterly derailing the government’s plans for wider school reopenings. A huge wave of organising and campaigning took place across England’s 17,000 primary and nursery schools—historically the less well organised sector compared to larger secondary schools.49 Numerous local councils also opposed wider reopening on 1 June, often after pressure from parents and heads. A survey by the NEU with responses from nearly 11,000 schools found that 44 percent of schools did not open more widely at all on 1 June, while another 21 percent did open more widely but on a smaller scale than the government demanded. This left just 35 percent of schools that acted on the government’s instructions.50 In at least some cases, where staff had decided to collectively oppose their school reopening but the head still insisted in doing so, their were mass refusals to attend the workplace, with examples in at least three London boroughs. In Salford, 23 support staff in Unison refused to return to school for four days.51 And alongside the rebellion by school staff, parents also refused to accept the government’s reassurances about safety provisions. A government survey reported that even on 18 June only around one third of Year 6 pupils in primary schools (10-11 year olds) were in attendance. And among the two younger age groups the government had wanted back in school on 1 June, Year 1 and Reception, the attendance figures were lower still, at just 26 percent and 29 percent respectively.52 The government admitted defeat and announced that it was abandoning plans for all primary school age groups to return to school for four weeks before the summer term ended.53 The scale of the successful resistance to the premature unsafe opening of schools, all done without a single ballot taking place, was remarkable.

Union leaders in other sectors were unwilling to turn the mood of resistance in the schools into a more generalised revolt against a return to unsafe workplaces. Unite and Unison, the two largest unions, both accept the argument, at least in private, that the economy needs to be restarted to protect jobs and living standards. Indeed, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka pointed to such arguments being aired at the TUC when he spoke at an online meeting in May. Because it seeks to bargain over the terms of exploitation, the trade union bureaucracy has found itself in a fatal bind. By accepting that what is good for the economy is also good for workers, it must also accept that, in the end, jobs must be protected through healthy profit-making.

Therefore, the reconstruction of a layer of workplace activists that is capable of acting independently of the trade union bureaucracy is a necessary task. This is difficult work due to the generally low level of struggle and confidence in the working class. Nonetheless, the shift to the right by Labour’s new leadership, the upsurge of workplace battles and the vacuum left by the trade union bureaucracy have created opportunities to make a modest start on pulling together a wider network of militants. For instance, the Health Worker Covid-19 Activists group was able to host a number of national “People Before Profit” online meetings with platforms that combined leading figures from the Labour left (including Corbyn, John McDonnell, Laura Pidcock and Richard Burgon), left-wing union leaders (such as Kevin Courtney from the NEU, Mark Serwotka from the PCS and Sarah Woolley from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union) and front-line union activists. Local Covid “action groups” also sprang up in a number of cities and in parts of London. These bring together trade unionists, Labour activists and members of the Socialist Workers Party. In combination with the increased audience for existing left networks such as UCU Left and NEU Left, these initiatives offer some space for a larger layer of activists to start to coalesce and increase their coordination and confidence. Maintaining and expanding such networks will be indispensable for the battles in the workplace, both now and in the not too distant future. Just as with the climate strikes in September 2019, the walkouts during the Covid-19 crisis and the battle over the wider opening of schools have begun to raise the possibility of acting outside the anti-union laws. These laws are a key hurdle that will need to be overcome if the working class movement is to make a qualitative leap forward at some point.

The left in Britain has been dominated by a focus on Labour and parliament for half a decade. This has ended in the defeat of the Corbyn project. The key task for revolutionary socialists is to rebuild extra-parliamentary forces and collective struggles from below in order to increase the weight of workers’ activity in the coming battles. This in turn can widen the scope for anti-capitalist politics to take root among much larger numbers of activists.

Mark L Thomas is a workplace and trade union organiser for the SWP.


1 I am grateful to those socialist trade union activists who kindly responded to my enquiries about their experiences of the pandemic in their workplaces and unions. Thanks are also due to Joseph Choonara, Pete Dwyer, Jane Hardy and Charlie Kimber for their useful comments on the first draft of this article.

2 For a discussion of the impact of epidemic on women, see UK Women’s Budget Group, 2020. The racial inequalities revealed by Covid-19 have been the subject of widespread attention—for example, see Siddique, 2020.

3 Richard Horton, editor of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, has emerged as a forceful critic of the British government’s slow response. He used an appearance on the BBC’s “Question Time” television programme to denounce the government for “wasting” February. On the depletion of the government’s emergency stockpile of protective equipment, see Davies, Pegg and Lawrence, 2020.

4 Bartlett, 2020.

5 Stewart, Proctor and Siddique, 2020.

6 Financial Times, 2020.

7 Gregory, 2020. Unbelievably the Cheltenham horse racing festival went ahead on 10-13 March, attended by 250,000, with predictable consequences—see Sabbagh, Morris and Cook, 2020.

9 Correspondence with the author.

10 Correspondence with the author.

11 Correspondence with the author.

12 Correspondence with the author.

13 Robinson, 2020a.

14 Robinson, 2020a.

15 Robinson, 2020b.

16 Socialist Worker, 2020.

17 Unite the union, 2020.

18 Clark, 2020a.

19 Bates, 2020.

20 Grove, 2020.

21 See BBC, 2020a and Andrews, 2020.

22 Parker and Giles 2020.

23 Schofield, 2020.

24 Menendez, 2020.

25 This contradiction has been at the centre of Labour’s entire history and has blunted and often destroyed periodic upsurges of radicalism within its ranks—see Cliff, Gluckstein and Kimber, 2019.

26 Cowburn, 2020.

27 BBC, 2020c.

28 Costas Dias, 2020. The IFS also reported that 0.5 percent of employees had been made redundant by early April and that new Universal Credit claims had exploded.

29 There was also a separate scheme for those registered as self-employed, many of whom are actually workers—see Inman, 2020.

30 Economist, 2020.

31 Lezard, 2020.

32 Correspondence with the author.

33 Correspondence with the author.

34 The comparison is with the period 3 January-6 February 2020. For Google’s Covid-19 community mobility reports from 29 March and 17 April, see respectively and

35 In some sectors, such as universities, there have been battles over home working, as employers attempted to dictate and micromanage workloads of lecturers and other staff. They often exhibited little regard for issues such as childcare. One UCU union activist described campaigning to challenge this as “fighting to kick management out of the home”. See Mayer, 2020.

36 Gibbs, 2020, section 5.

37 See UK Government, 2020.

38 The rich were shocked to discover the necessary role of often invisible labour when the absence of their domestic cleaners meant that they had to clean their homes themselves—see The Troublemaker, 2020.

39 Roberts, 2020.

40 Quoted in Elliott, 2020.

41 Stewart and Campbell, 2020.

42 Tengely-Evans, 2020a.

43 Specia, 2020. By 14 May, Transport for London reported that the figure for the number of deaths had risen to 42—see

44 Clark, 2020b, 2020c.

45 Tengely-Evans, 2020b. For the report itself, see Taylor, 2020.

47 British Airways has, for instance, already announced 12,000 job losses—BBC 2020b. Speculation about a new round of austerity is detailed, for example, in Wood, 2020.

49 The NEU reported that it had recruited over 1,000 new reps in this period. We can assume this has been predominantly in primary schools.

50 Gibbons, 2020.

51 Robinson, 2020c.

52 See Office for Statistics Regulation, 2020.

53 Coughlan, Sean, 2020.


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