Rebooting and rebuilding unions’ fighting capacity

Pat Rafferty sees much opportunity to strengthen union organisation amid the challenges of COVID.

The last year has been one of the most challenging for us as we have had to confront a threat to our way of life, and a direct threat to human life. Many of us have struggled with not being able to meet loved ones, to comfort friends and family who have contracted COVID and, in the worst of all cases, losing someone we love to this horrible disease. The simple things we took for granted in life like sitting in a café or having a beer in the local pub and going for that summer holiday, seem a distant memory to many of us.

Perhaps, one of the most pressing issues we have faced as individuals and as families is the mental health toll that the pandemic has taken on us through the fear of a losing jobs, having pay cut, being furloughed or even just working from home give it can be an extremely lonely and anxious experience. So, it’s vital for as long as the restrictions continue that we think strategically about how we can reach workers in their homes and how we can create forums and structures that make people feel part of a working community – a collective.

Even, when the restrictions are lifted, for many people forms of home working are in all likelihood here to stay. For many people, working at home has become the new ‘normal’. Figures show that the number of people exclusively working from home in January 2020 was around 5.7% then jumped to 43.1% in April 2020. It is now around 24%. Therefore, going forward, UNITE is planning for the eventuality that many employers – and some members – will seek to continue homeworking, either fully or as part of a ‘blended working’ approach.

While preparing for this type of blended working, we must in concert develop collective bargaining strategies for homeworking, in particular, looking at how we organise and bargain around this. UNITE is at the forefront of developing a ‘Homeworking Framework Agreement’ to enable workers that choose to, to be given the opportunity to continue working from home with the protections that should come with that.

Unite has also introduced a one-day homeworking course which includes online workshops looking at homeworking agreements, health and safety and equalities as well as the advantages and disadvantages of homeworking. For some, this may mean more autonomy and control over work schedules and less stress; less commuter time, increased environmental benefits and virtual platforms facilitating greater involvement, accessibility and inclusiveness.

For others, safety concerns particularly ergonomics, social isolation, energy bills and the blurring of lines between home and work life may cause greater stress as well as the potential for increased employer surveillance and unrealistic targets. Equality and other issues such as an increase in domestic violence, or specific impacts on particular groups such as workers living with a disability, or childcare responsibilities could also bring disadvantages for some workers. This multitude of issues needs to be properly thought through in the employment contract and safety valves put in place to take cognisance of the predicted and unforeseen consequences of working from home.

We also need to ensure that we have a connected workforce because working from home has also highlighted issues such as patchy internet access across the country, and the many technical issues which can happen when working at home such as access to resolving problems with PCs, tablets, printers or laptops, and the necessary up-to-date software. Being online has never been more important. We need to ensure that workers are not penalised if any of these issues genuinely arise when working from home. All these factors must be on the bargaining table, including whether workers get compensated for their internet connection and energy bills. This also requires a change in mindset from unions in order to adapt to different forms of working and a different bargaining agenda.

At UNITE, we have been trying to change this mindset through our extremely successful social media streams and we have thousands of regular visitors to these forums. The introduction of Regional Digital Assistants in 2019 has enhanced our communications capacity to reach beyond our membership; driving our ‘good news’ stories, which are often ignored by the mainstream media, to a wider audience. It is important to spread the positive impact unions have on the lives of workers and their families, especially when this does not usually capture the attention of news editors.

We have also adapted by running electronic consultative ballots and regular surveys, both bringing positive results. Our constitutional committees are meeting more regularly on online platforms and engagement is more inclusive. We have seen numbers attending virtual meetings on the whole increase. Of course, our movement thrives on face-to-face debates and discussions so we have continued this by way of virtual discussion forums which have been very successful. We are keen to maintain this in conjunction with physical meetings so that they significantly help us engage more with our members.

It’s clear that the future of work is changing before our very eyes following the onset of the pandemic. It’s important that we plan for the opportunities this will create for unions and be aware of the challenges this will create for workers at home and in workplaces. All of this must shape our organising and political strategies, and we need to ensure that this is captured within the collective bargaining framework and employment rights agenda post-COVID.

Pat Rafferty is UNITE Scotland regional secretary