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Organising in a time of Coronavirus

Anna Mowbray
Anna Mowbray
28th April 2020

A pandemic is not a normal situation that any of us are used to but people need their trade union reps now, more than ever. It’s a difficult time for members, many of whom are working in frontline roles. The most important advice is to keep safe, but members will still need support from their reps. So how can Community members and reps keep organising during this time?

Keep Talking 

The most important piece of advice we can give you is to keep talking. Keep talking to management and keep talking to your members.

If you cannot see your members face to face, use technology to reach out to them- over video conferencing or messaging apps.  You can use tools like Zoom, Skype, Jitsi, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Slack, MS teams, or private Facebook groups.

Don’t stop having union meetings- use technology where appropriate to keep everyone up to date and keep in touch with members to find out how COVID-19 is affecting them.

Negotiating 

Everyone has something to negotiate for at this time. That could be:
– new working arrangements
– making sure that the right PPE is in place
– ensuring that social distancing is being followed at your workplace
– making sure that those who don’t need to be on the premises are allowed to work from home
– reasonable adjustments
– ensuring that suitable equipment is available for those working from home
– additional support for older workers, those with underlying health conditions and pregnant workers
– if your employer is financially able, asking them to top up wages to 100% on top of the 80% paid by the government for those on furlough leave
– negotiating on behalf of those affected by school closures who are having to take unpaid leave currently to manage childcare.

Get informed 

Check your contracts, making sure that you understand exactly what rights your workers have. Make sure you look at what applies to agency workers too, as their contracts may be different to directly employed staff.  Check out Community’s Coronavirus advice pages here, which are regularly updated.

Speak to Community staff to get advice if you think your employer is breaching your contract or asking you to go against government or medical advice.

Make sure you are consulted 

Employers should be consulting with unions as they draw up plans for dealing with coronavirus.

Remember that there are legal obligations for employers to consult on matters of health and safety. Specifically, employers have a legal duty to consult Health and Safety reps and Health and Safety committees where they exist- and Health and Safety reps have the right to play an active role in risk assessments. If two or more union-appointed health and safety representatives request in writing that the employer sets up a health and safety committee, the employer must do so within 3 months. If you don’t have one, now might be a good time to set one up.

You can use these rights to support you in asking for measures to protect the health and safety of workers, such as social distancing and adequate PPE.

Organising

Anything that is a bargaining issue for you and your members can also become an organising issue. Just because you are social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t organise. If you and your members think that something is not right – approach your employer first.  If you aren’t getting the right outcome, then you can take further action.

1. Talk and listen to your members. Find out what are the most important issues to them right now.
2. Identify the issues, organise around them and find ways to make change.
3. Create communities – it’s really important right now that we are talking to each other and offering support.

Organising action at this time could include:
– Writing an open letter to management
– Creating a petition- a nice visual idea is to ask each signatory to send you a picture of themselves which you can use to show who is signing the petition. You can sign and share Community’s petition about adequate PPE for all here.
– Alternatively, if you know that your bosses are particularly concerned about their public image, then speaking to the media and calling out bad practice may be the best way to go. Don’t forget to go public with your wins as well- if you’ve agreed a positive deal at work, make sure you share the news with Community’s communications team at commsteam@community-tu.org. Sometimes the best way to put pressure on employers is to show what their competitors are doing.

In extreme cases, speak to Community staff about taking further action- particularly if you and your members are being asked to work in unsafe conditions.

Support in the Community 

One positive step you can take is to get involved in your community- joining in with our member support group to support vulnerable and elderly members.

Community is proud that our support for each other doesn’t stop when a shift ends- it extends out into the community. Retired members may be particularly vulnerable at this time, and we can support with things like delivering shopping. You can find out more about the Community Member Support Group here.

 Community is still here 

Remember, even when a rep is furloughed, they can still do rep duties and activities, so your Community reps are available to help you. If you are a rep, you can continue to support members at this time without forgoing any rights to be included under the job retention scheme.

The TUC have published an e-note with some more tips on organising right now. See it here.

Most importantly, the more of us there are, the stronger and more effective we are. Sign up your friends and family to Community today.

This blog article is written by Anna Mowbray, a Community rep in the Zurich Swindon branch.