Trade union activists from across the south of England came together for a Socialist Party meeting on Zoom on 18 April.
Members of the Fire Brigades Union, RMT transport union, PCS civil servants’ union, public sector union Unison and general union Unite were among the reps attending, from the health service, social care, and from the private, public and independent sectors. All speakers spoke in a personal capacity.
Hugo Pierre, Unison national executive committee, and Jared Wood, RMT national executive committee, opened the meeting and spoke about the battle on the frontline of public services for appropriate PPE, immediate testing and full pay for workers.
The lack of an effective response from government, and the shortage of equipment and PPE, was linked directly to the years of austerity, cuts and privatisation carried out by successive governments.
Fragmentation and privatisation of health and social care services has made a difficult situation a thousand times worse – in terms of funding, distribution of equipment and so on.
Both speakers stressed the importance of the trade unions remaining independent during the crisis, defending members, and organising around health and safety, and issues such as pay, terms and conditions.
Jared explained that many good trade unionists, even some left wingers, had been carried along by the ‘we’re all in this together’ mood and were expressing the need to work with employers and the government in the national interest.
Unfortunately, as both speakers explained, the Tories’ ‘national interest’ is protecting the economy and business rather than the workers and those who use services.
Both Hugo and Jared gave chilling examples of workers in their trade unions being told to work in unacceptable and unsafe conditions – without PPE, without social distancing – and outlined some of the great examples of where workers had made a stand, such as the postal workers and library workers who walked out over health and safety, Covid-19-related issues.
The meeting was sombre and included a number of workers giving their own testimonies as to what it has been like working during the coronavirus pandemic. Steve, Unison health service group rep, talked of the fight for PPE in his hospital and the fight for a fair pay award for health staff.
Agnieszka, also a Unison health rep, told of her personal fight with the virus, and how lack of PPE probably led to her contracting Covid-19. She explained that lower-graded staff seem to be treated as second class citizens when it comes to being supplied with PPE. She is now terrified of returning to work once she has fully recovered.
Maggie, an NHS radiographer, told the meeting how the years of cuts have come home to roost. Bed and equipment shortages meaning that, in particular, elderly people are being sent back to care homes, as there is no capacity in the NHS to treat them.
Declan, a bus driver in the RMT, explained how he and his fellow union members have had to fight every step of the way for appropriate safety measures to be taken on the buses, including the supply of PPE. He also spoke of the dozens of transport workers who have died already from Covid-19.
Joy and Callum from Hampshire County Unison talked about the situation within social care, and the need for a viable socialist alternative to the blind market strategy of capitalism.
Everyone who spoke made it clear that we need to hold our union leaders to account. Many expressed the need to link practical solutions to real-life problems with the need for socialist solutions. We are not all in this together – frontline workers are holding the line without the money, resources and safety measures they need. At some point these workers are going to say no, and our unions must be there to support them and lead them.