A glimmer of hope

By Paddy Bettington

COVID-19 has not created problems in the UK economy; it has exacerbated the existing ones. This is the primary finding of Work in 2021, CLASS’s annual report on the realities of working life. The report goes on to describe the political decisions that have led to deepening inequalities and offers hope in the form of a new wave of trade unionism.

Combining analysis of government data, extensive interviews with workers and trade union representatives, and a survey of over 2,000 workers, the report paints a rich picture of the variegated experience of being a worker over the past year. Told through quotes, graphs, case studies and illustration, it tells the story of work and our economy.

The impact of the pandemic dwarfed that of the 2008 financial crisis. Open vacancies and hours worked initially dipped far below the levels of 2008 and have yet to recover fully. The UK’s increase in unemployment surpassed the EU and OECD averages, as well as that of Ireland and Greece.

But, as we know, the impacts have not hit everyone in the UK equally. The report shows a sectorial crisis, where at the peak of lockdown, only 4% of hospitality staff were working compared to 98% of the public administration sector. By February, this had manifested as 18% of the hospitality sector being made redundant, compared to 2% of public administration.

There is a generation crisis, meaning that last summer under-25-year-olds were three times more likely to lose their jobs as those over 35. Racial inequalities mean the increase in unemployment over 2020 was more than four times higher amongst the Indian population than the white population. And, of course, these problems combine, meaning that a black 24-year-old is nine times less likely to find work than a white adult.

These problems are not new, just magnified. Workers on zero-hours and temporary contracts waited to see if their employers would extend furlough to them. People on minimum wage were left with only 80% of the minimum wage. Artists and performers with unusual terms of employment fell through the gaps between furlough and self-employment support. The report’s interviews demonstrate that, for many workers, the economy is not built to protect them.

There was a second equally prominent strand to the interviews: the existing problems and inequalities in our economy formed a vicious cycle, worsening the health crisis itself. From only 53% of people saying they can afford to self-isolate, to 35% of under-35s being pressured to return to work when they shouldn’t have, to a care sector staffed by insecure workers with no sick pay: in many and varied ways, the political choices of the last decade have created an economy that is simply not built to cope with a crisis or to prioritise health.

But counterbalancing the grim outlook for the economy is the increase in trade unionism and worker organisation over the past year. The NEU alone gained 36,000 members and hosted a Zoom call which over 400,000 people attended.  Most major unions reported a trend of increased membership and increased engagement, and data shows that sectors with higher union densities saw fewer redundancies.

But, as well as sectors with established unions, COVID has accelerated the curve towards organising precarious workers. “The anger that was starting to permeate around zero-hours contracts,” one union rep told me, “is all starting to boil over.” Again, this organising has offered real protection for workers, often forcing employers to provide the furlough pay they had previously decided not to.

This increase in union engagement coincided with a national lockdown that made traditional organising tactics simply impossible. However, while limiting branch meetings and workplace chats, we found that the move online significantly extended the reach of unions. Perhaps most importantly, we saw that these methods of organising – Zoom calls, Facebook streams and WhatsApp groups – have brought new people to trade unionism. Whether alleviating clashes with caring duties or providing a more welcoming space, we can see that these online activities have been taken up to a greater degree by women and black workers.

In some respects, this report tells what we already know. In the UK, we can see the ever-strengthening outline of two distinct economies, where some are left exposed to the increasing volatility of both the natural world and economic shifts, while others shelter in physical and financial safety. But, it also offers a glimmer of hope. Entrenched power dynamics have been temporarily unsettled. If established union power can be married with new organising methods, there is an opportunity for workers to demand an economy built to protect us all.

Paddy Bettington is Research Officer at CLASS, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies.

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