On Thursday 12 March, Boris Johnson spoke to the UK press flanked by his scientific advisors. Live on air he told Britain “your loved ones will die”, and that the Government had moved from ‘containment’ to ‘delay’.
He stopped short of closing schools, colleges and universities, but it was too late. LSE, Durham, Nottingham, Bristol all announced an end to teaching. By Friday, many more had followed suit. Johnson declined to stop ‘mass gatherings’, primarily large-scale sporting events. By Saturday, Premier League matches and rugby internationals were being cancelled. Johnson is not in control of events.
Across Britain a major debate is furiously raging. Is the Government doing enough? The Irish Government shut schools, why not the British? The Tories say they are relying on ‘herd immunity’ rather than lock-downs. Will this work, or is it a grim gamble at our expense? The footage of Italian sufferers treated in camp beds in sports halls and tents show what we have in store if Johnson’s gamble fails. The NHS will be overwhelmed.
Alongside the scientific debate, Johnson is discrediting himself. His behaviour is clearly motivated by business continuity rather than saving lives. A shutdown is on its way – it is just a question of when rather than if. We should argue to put life before profit and shut down now.
Meanwhile we are all learning ‘social distancing’ and washing our hands regularly. This crisis is a practical challenge to trade unionists and how we organise at work.
Control the lock-down
UCU’s NEC on Friday voted to demand the government close all colleges and universities. A range of motions were passed that outlined how to deal with issues that will emerge due to the coronavirus. All branches should arrange branch meetings as soon as possible to discuss how best to ensure that your college/university management put the interests of staff and students first.
Trade unions are the independent staff voice for health and safety at work, and the defenders of basic rights at work. The rights we enjoy on a daily basis were not granted by generous employers in the past! Rights to rest breaks, annual leave, maternity and sick leave, the right to say no and stop work in the face of unsafe practices, and the right to manage personal risks were all fought for by trade unions in the teeth of employer opposition.
Not everyone can work from home, and many jobs require workplace attendance throughout the Covid-19 emergency. Medical staff and medical researchers in universities will need to continue to work in labs and hospitals. Researchers in other disciplines, such as artificial intelligence and statistics are volunteering. And student doctors and nurses may be hastily drafted in. And none of this can happen without cleaning staff, security and transport.
Campus unions should make sure that they play a central part of the decision-making at the university and college to identify which staff should stay. Staff working in labs to improve treatment or even find a cure for Covid-19 will of course need to stay working. We should support them and ensure they have safe working conditions to do so.
But it would be untenable for employers to keep other staff at work whilst students have been sent home. Our health is at risk too.
We must be alert to emergency measures becoming long-term and permanent. We have to control the lock-down. Where staff work from home, the home (or part of it) becomes part of the workplace. Suddenly, and without consultation, we are expected to work in a workplace:
- where we pay for rent, heat, light, equipment, broadband, etc,
- which is usually not insured for this purpose,
- which may be unsafe (the equipment/office/space is not evaluated for health and safety),
- which may be shared by other members of the employee’s family, including children (especially if they are also sent home), and older relatives.
Any change of this kind tends to fall more severely on women, who frequently carry the additional burden of caring responsibilities on top of working. There are major (in)equalities implications for staff.
Working from home also allows the employers to minimise costs to themselves if staff are expected to self-isolate (as distinct from being physically unable to work).
Some workers will welcome working at home. Many have long been denied the right to work from home by ‘presenteeist’ managers who presume their staff are slacking if they are not physically in offices! But many, especially in London, already live in overcrowded home conditions.
But precisely because working from home involves a major change in contract, a change in workplace and a change in legal obligations, no employee should feel compelled to accept such a change. And even if a change is accepted at one point in time, staff must have a right to change their mind. Many employers have work-life balance policies that staff and reps can use to push back. (Go to this website: Cardinus – Health, Safety and Risk Management Specialists to find out health and safety regulations for home working.)
Defend the frontiers of control
Universities and colleges like to think of themselves as the guardians and transmitters of knowledge. But market competition for high fee paying students has turned many into teaching factories. Casualisation and workloads have skyrocketed. Getting staff to teach from home offers the prospect of a wholesale change in work practices managers can exploit. It seems certain student numbers will fall next year. We can expect managers to pass cuts on as redundancies.
Some managers will see this crisis as an opportunity to persuade staff to take their teaching on-line. Already universities are using platforms like Moodle and Blackboard to distribute classroom content to students and collect student submissions. They imagine on-line teaching that could be delivered internationally with fewer staff. The fact that to do so and make a profit is extremely difficult will not stop them from trying.
They also imagine collating a reservoir of recorded teaching content that could be used to break strikes. In many universities there have been big battles over recording lectures. Employers initially wanted to insist that Lecturecast was an opt-out system, but it was only when branches pushed back that they accepted it should be ‘opt in’. Crucially, many universities have agreements that state that recordings are archived after a year and deleted after two. Reps must continue to be vigilant.
A public crisis demands publicly-accountable science. Trade unionists should defend the necessary prioritisation of work aimed at saving lives. But we must insist that the results of research must be shared – whether these be to inform public opinion and democratic decision-making, or to ensure best medical practice to save lives.
In Italy workers have stuck to attempt to control the lock-down. Workers at the Fiat car plant in Pomigliano, near Naples, successfully took action to force their employers to shut down production. Other workers followed suit and the FIAT employers have had to shut down a number of plants.
UCU members have demonstrated over the last 14 days that we have the power through our collective strength to fight to defend our pay and conditions. We now need to use this collective power to protect our communities, families and loved ones.
As history has shown, we cannot rely on the likes of Johnson and the establishment to put working people’s interests first. Only we can do that.
For a useful overview of world trade union response to the Covid-19 virus, see LabourStart.
See Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now for an excellent detailed account about the virus and why we must act now. It has had 28 million views so far and is regarded by many scientists as the best account so far about the reach and impact of Covid-19.