Covid-19 crisis: Protect the right to strike!

Lewisham Hospital cleaners
Lewisham Hospital cleaners

By Daniel Randall, London Underground worker and RMT activist

Already in the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen examples of workers taking industrial action, often to improve workplace safety. Outsourced cleaners, caterers, and porters at Lewisham Hospital walked out to demand the payment unpaid wages. Workers in Lambeth libraries took action to demand the closure of their workplaces. Postal workers in Bridgend struck, after bosses refuse to revise shift patterns and staffing levels to ensure safe distancing in the workplace.

We’ve also seen numerous examples of bosses exploiting the crisis to attack workers’ terms and conditions and screw down costs – including Virgin asking workers to take unpaid leave; Sodexo dismissing workers at the Institute of Education; pub chain Wetherspoons refusing to pay staff; and cinema firms Picturehouse and Cineworld laying off workers.

Despite appeals to a spirit of national unity, the bosses are clearly not suspending the class struggle. Workers’ rights to take action, to defend our own conditions and stand up for workplace and public safety, must be defended and extended.

We’re also hearing some reports that Civica (formerly ERS), the independent scrutineer unions use for postal ballots for industrial action, has informed unions they cannot guarantee the counting of ballots, due to the pandemic. Civica workers deserve the same protections and provisions as all other workers. But if postal ballots, the means by which unions are legally obligated to conduct votes for industrial action, according to anti-union legislation, can’t be counted, then an alternative method of balloting must be sanctioned. Otherwise, it will be impossible for workers to strike legally. The right to strike, already tenuous in Britain, will have been attacked yet further.

It may not be organisationally possible for many workers to undertake official industrial action in the current context. But the right to do so must be protected. And any workers who do take action, to protect and improve conditions and safety, must be supported – whether their action is official or unofficial.

Of course, whether or not an independent scrutineer was available, the bureaucratic and administrative hurdles workers must jump over to strike legally mean official strikes to pursue pandemic-related demands would simply take too long. From declaring an official dispute, to notifying the employer of a ballot (seven days), to conducting the ballot (usually two weeks or more), to notifying the employer of any action (14 days)… official, legal industrial action does not allow workers to respond quickly to any situation. That’s why our movement must renew its demands for the abolition of all anti-union legislation, and its replacement with a full right to strike – when and how we, as workers, decide.

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