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May Day in lockdown doesn’t stop workers showing strength and solidarity

The coronavirus is exposing the deep structural flaws that exist in our society – and trade unions have never been more relevant, argues MARK SERWOTKA

THIS year’s May Day takes place against the backdrop of a global pandemic and an unprecedented lockdown.  

PCS, along with the entire trade union movement, has been working flat out to make sure workers are safe and that, where possible, they are facilitated to work from home, reducing the risk that they contract Covid-19. 

Intense negotiations over the past month have produced some positive results, with 80 per cent of civil servants at home due to pressure from the union. 

However, it has become clear, following a few departments trying to force people back to work, that the government strategy is to move away from lockdown and fail to prioritise workers’ right to life and health. 

It must be made crystal clear that no worker should be sacrificed on the altar of the economy. 

And as we try to find a vaccine, the government should continue to underwrite businesses and workers’ wages while investing in adequate health and safety measures in the workplace. 

Covid-19 has tragically affected our own union, with several members dying, serving the public bravely as key workers.  

After considerable pressure from PCS, government departments have invested heavily in equipment, facilitating thousands of civil servants to work from home, providing a first-class service to the public, including implementing universal credit and the job retention scheme. 

We have also forced private contractors to pay 100 per cent of furloughed outsourced workers’ wages. 

It has also laid bare the priorities of ministers and Civil Service department heads who have endangered our members and those in the health service by not providing adequate PPE and insisting we go to work when it is not safe.  

As someone who is in the most vulnerable category and who owes my life to the NHS and its staff following my successful heart transplant, it makes me sick to my stomach that ministers have failed to secure adequate stocks of PPE for the health service.  

Frankly, it is a national scandal that the Westminster government after seeing the virus sweep across Europe failed to act.  

And now with the revelations in the Panorama programme earlier this week, where ministers were accused of deliberately downgrading the seriousness of the virus due to a lack of PPE stocks, leading to many health workers having to wear bin liners for protection, the government has lost any benefit of the doubt it had at the start of the crisis.  

It adds insult to injury to see politicians who are responsible for this and austerity proudly take part in the weekly clap for key workers. 

These are the same Tory MPs who in 2017 clapped and cheered when they defeated a Bill to give NHS nurses a pay rise. We should never forget their rank hypocrisy. 

As we prepare for the possibility of being forced back to work, my union is opposed to members being forced to return.  

In the Passport Office we recently forced a halt to staff being made to go back into work for two weeks and insisted health and safety inspections be properly carried out.  

We will also consult the civil servants being forced back to their offices and see if they wish to take some form of collective action. 

PCS will support its members in whatever they decide to do.  

The coronavirus is exposing the deep structural flaws that exist in our society. Trade unions have never been more relevant as a force to deal with this and what we must bear in mind is that as we look past the pandemic, things cannot and will not go back to the way they were before Covid-19.   

Across the world, big business and their friends in government will attempt to seize the opportunity to make more profit at our expense.  

Trade unionists and socialists must be equally dogged in our determination to see a different kind of world.  

And on this May Day we should reaffirm our commitment to using every tool at our disposal to build a new kind of society and an internationalist world, working together for the common good of all humanity.  

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of PCS.

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