Regional Convenor Wendy Nichols welcomes praise for UNISON members for their courage during the crisis, but now she says they need tangible improvements in pay and conditions.
These past nine months have been the most unsettling and frightening period most of us will have experienced. The trauma of dealing with coronavirus will be with us all for a long time. We may have our own personal fears, for loved ones who are shielding, for our elderly relatives in care homes, for our children’s futures, for colleagues in the thick of it, or we may have suffered personal tragedies. The impact of this pandemic has magnified the fragility of our health and our economy.
Covid-19, just like other major global catastrophes, has redefined the true worth of “service” workers. When you are sick or dying with Covid, when you can’t go to the shops for food, when you want your kids to feel safe at school, when you lose your job, it’s not the company directors, or the hedge fund managers or the bankers you turn to, it’s UNISON members and other service workers. And, whether or not we have a further wave of this dreaded virus, it’s those workers who will continue to get us through it.
Elsewhere in this edition of Active! we document the experiences of an ICU nurse in Leeds General Infirmary and a Barnsley care home worker. These harrowing accounts are typical of the stories told by so many of our members on the front-line, battling to keep people alive.
I am so proud of our members in all the public services. They have demonstrated their dedication and commitment to keeping communities safe and well, keeping gas, electricity and water supplied, providing safety and security whether for students or the vulnerable. They’ve kept going, despite the personal risks, many on low pay, many not knowing whether they will have a job at the end of it.
In councils across Yorkshire & Humberside, many of our members have been organising and helping with food distribution to the vulnerable and to those who are shielding, keeping the streets safe and clean, finding shelter for the homeless and dealing with the fall-out as more people are pushed into poverty. From social worker, to street-sweeper, UNISON members are keeping society together.
The Government’s response has been nothing short of criminal, whether in lockdown measures or in the spectacular failure of emergency planning and the provision of proper PPE.
For ministers, clapping for carers was something that looked good on TV. Or thanking key workers was just more warm words.
They were never going to put money where their mouths are. Publicly, they pledged to do “whatever it takes”, but cash has been dished out on unusable PPE, to private companies for failed testing and tracking systems, but not where it is most needed. The Tory Government’s tribute to nurses, for example, was to send warnings to them every day that unless they pay £120 registration fee, they won’t be allowed to practise. This, when we needed every single health care worker.
In the debate on schools re-opening to all pupils, again the Government chaotically announced its decision with no plans in place, yet again putting public sector workers at risk. Nearly 60 per cent of schools staff are support workers, many UNISON members, whether a teaching assistant, an administrator, school meals worker or a cleaner. Of course children should be in school, learning and socialising with their friends, but with a plan in place to keep them, their parents and staff safe. UNISON has been working with headteachers in the region to make sure proper safety measures are in place, that cleaners and other staff have the right PPE.
Some employers have not covered themselves with glory in the way they treat their staff. Managers at Sheffield University, for example, threatened to fire and rehire 8,000 non- academic staff on worse terms and conditions, but UNISON forced senior managers to withdraw the threat. And workers in St. Anne’s charity care homes in Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield and Kirklees faced the threat of slashed pay and conditions.
UNISON itself has been fantastic in the way that it has supported members and the community throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so. Advice, support and guidance is constantly updated on the website. Our officers have been in action supporting members locally, and nationally demanding proper protection for workers and arguing the case for sick pay for those who had to self-isolate.
Our Charity, There For You, has had a record number of calls for help as members themselves struggle to make ends meet. And many of our branches, including my own, donated money to local food banks. We’ve had a considerable growth in membership with a net increase of 2,500 in the region.
Whatever happens next, we can’t go back to the way we were. We can’t allow the Government to get away with expecting our members to pay the cost of Covid. There cannot be another damaging round of austerity. We want the plaudits for our public sector workers, who put themselves in harm’s way during this crisis, turned into tangible improvements in pay and conditions. The road-sweeper, the refuse collector, the cleaner, the bus driver, the delivery driver, the shelf-stacker and all the other unsung heroes – they all deserve our thanks – but they also deserve a decent standard of living.
Originally printed in the Winter 2020 edition of UNISON ACTIVE!, the magazine for members in the Yorkshire & Humberside Region.