When I became Interim Regional Convenor at the end of last year, I did not expect that just a few months later we would be faced by a global pandemic- the consequences of which are colossal for our whole union. Coronavirus has made the turbulence of the last few years pale into insignificance by comparison.
Make no mistake, UNISON members are on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19. I could not be prouder to represent public service workers throughout the North West who are delivering care, cleaning our hospitals and care homes, keeping ambulances running, collecting our rubbish, answering emergency calls, keeping patients fed, caring for key workers’ children and doing other valuable work. And as I pointed out at the Skills for Strength convention just before lockdown- the truth is: our members have never been “low-skilled” workers, they have always been key workers. And when this is all over, we must make sure they are rewarded accordingly for risking their lives and doing the most important jobs in society.
I’m proud too, of how our branches are responding to this crisis. With our members on the coalface of this emergency, and constantly changing Government guidance, branches have been swamped with enquiries from members who desperately need our support to keep themselves safe and continue to provide for their families. Thank you for everything you are doing to support public sector workers at this difficult time. We have compiled (and are regularly updating) a Coronavirus guidance page which includes all the latest UNISON/TUC/Thompsons/ACAS guidance on Coronavirus. If you are in need of support and these resources do not answer your query, please email NWcovidemail@example.com. All enquiries regarding the Coronavirus situation, including requests for advice on individual situations, collective matters, or regarding employers’ responses and implementation processes should be sent to this address.
In spite of the weekly applause for key workers, many of our members are being treated appallingly by their employers during the ongoing pandemic. Wirral and Warrington UNISON branches have been working hard to campaign against two school academy chains who are pushing forward plans to make our members redundant, despite expecting those very same staff to work over Easter caring for key worker’s children. This is a sobering reminder of the problems created by academisation within the education sector. Any contact with your MP to express your concerns about the treatment of our members working in schools would be much appreciated.
Meanwhile, Lancashire UNISON have launched a survey of their members to understand what issues they are facing at work. They received hundreds of responses in just a few hours and are now using this information to organise locally and identify new activists. This vital organising work is being undertaken by many branches across the region.
We have also launched the excellent Care Workers vs COVID-19 campaign. The campaign began by surveying care workers across the North West. In just over a week, our survey was completed by over 2,600 care workers. The results paint a grim picture of social care during the COVID-19 outbreak. There is a chronic lack of personal protective equipment; workers fear having to live off £94 per week if they are forced onto Statutory Sick Pay through illness or self-isolation; and many care workers see over 15 service-users each day and are worried about spreading COVID-19 to the vulnerable people they care for. Unless there is serious intervention, the social care system risks collapse. The survey has now been analysed by academics at the University of Kent Law School and their full report can be found here.
In response to the issues facing care workers, we have launched a public petition calling on local authorities to adopt our campaign demands and ensure minimum standards and protection for care workers. So far, over 5500 people have signed the petition. We have also written to all the councils in the North West that commission social care services asking them to commit to and enforce the campaign demands. We are delighted that Halton Council has become the first local authority to sign up to the Care Workers vs COVID-19 Campaign pledges, with several others in the pipeline. We fully appreciate those branches who have already raised their concerns with their respective council members.
Meanwhile, Salford City UNISON have won a fantastic campaign to ensure that Salford Council guaranteed full sick pay for care workers if they become sick or need to self-isolate. And UNISON Wirral have secured the real Living Wage (£9.30) for all care workers for the next 6 months, and hopefully beyond. These are huge victories for one of the most exploited workforces in the public sector.
Meanwhile, many North West MPs and councillors have expressed their support for the campaign. We aim to turn this into concrete commitments by local authorities to protect care workers and those they care for.
This will help us to support them to campaign in their local area. If you are in touch with care workers in your local area, please invite them to join the Care Workers vs COVID-19 Facebook group which is being used to organise care workers remotely during the lockdown period: https://www.facebook.com/groups/214013143031410
COVID-19 has brought with it a significant surge in membership recruitment across the union. In the NW, the rate of new members in the second half of March was 42% above that of the same period last year. In the first weeks of the pandemic many of the new members came from schools. In recent weeks the new members have been predominantly from health and social care with a disproportionately high number from the private sector. The membership surge makes retention work all the more important to ensure that this growth is not short lived.
New members are joining UNISON because they are facing unprecedented challenges in their working lives. We must redouble our efforts to create a strong and well organised union- we can come out of this pandemic a bigger, stronger and more dynamic union than when it began. Let’s work together to organise members to build the formidable workplace unions they so sorely need at this time.