‘Unite and fight’: It’s why we’re a success story during the combined COVID and cost-of-living challenges

Pat Rafferty outlines how UNITE turned challenges into opportunities.

It’s rightly assumed – though often goes without saying like many things – but a union is nothing without its members. The last two difficult years have really brought this fact to the fore. The union reps, shop stewards, convenors and the individual members who give up their time to turn up to meetings: it’s these people who literally make a union work. We have never taken this for granted but throughout the pandemic perhaps all of us have come to value and appreciate this remarkable contribution to workplace and union democracy even more.

Unite representatives have continued to work selflessly for our members throughout the pandemic as we have all had to adjust to the new ‘normal’ particularly in the world of work. While restrictions have curbed our lives the fact is that for the vast majority of our members going to the workplace has continued. This has certainly been true for our heroic social carers, offshore workers, local government, transport, food processing and manufacturing workers.

In contrast, many finance sector workers, call centre staff, and workers in the hospitality and catering sector were either furloughed or had to adjust to the new normal of working from home. This change has brought major challenges and anxieties in terms of their mental and physical well-being, financial concerns along with trying to deal with the blurring lines between work and home life. A number of issues have grown in importance due to workers rightly feeling concerned about their well-being at home, getting to and from the workplace alongside being safe if they have had to be in the workplace itself.

We have had to develop new ways of communicating with our members. In many cases this has been in the form of holding virtual meetings, and increasing the frequency of electronic ballots. It has also involved hosting meetings within the workplace in line with Covid regulations and procedures.

It goes without saying that this has been an extremely difficult period for all unions to operate in. It’s been an environment which many employers have attempted to exploit by conditioning workers into believing that they should somehow be ‘grateful’ for even having a job – an attempt that has often been accompanied by the scandalous practice of ‘fire and re-hire’.

There is always the misconception perpetuated by the mainstream media which is that all unions want to do is strike. Anyone who knows anything about unions is acutely aware that it’s often the most difficult decision to take. It requires bravery and sacrifice. But doing this during the pandemic requires extra strength.

We have seen workers in offices, plants, depots and factories across Scotland stand up time and time again during the pandemic. Our members have confronted bad and rogue employers head-on to say ‘enough is enough’. Example after example demonstrates workers will not tolerate being treated in a derisory and insulting way by employers under the cloak of Covid.

Bus drivers, warehouse workers, logistic drivers, manufacturing workers, engineers, and North Sea workers have fought and won in the battle for better jobs, pay and conditions. Millions of pounds have been secured in pay rises, and better shift pay. More than 1,300 Stagecoach bus drivers across Scotland took a stand after supporting strike action, and forced the employers back to the table winning on average a £1,700 rise. Pay rises of up to 21.5% over the next two years were also secured for more than 1,300 First Bus Glasgow drivers.

Unite’s members at Carntyne Transport achieved an inflation busting pay rise of 19%. Warehouse workers at Tennent’s lager in Cambuslang won 11%, while DHL workers in Bellshill secured a pay increase of up to 19%. Unite’s members who provide specialist services at the Royal Naval Armaments Depot Coulport won a significant victory after bravely taking strike action. The ABL Alliance workers will now receive backdated pay in their pockets of up to £1,700.

In the offshore sector, Unite has been organising and mobilising our members to defeat major oil and gas contractors. Around 100 members working on the Canadian Natural Resources contract for offshore contractor, Petrofac, had their 10% salary reduction reinstated, and in doing so, they secured a new pay deal which amounted to a 17% salary increase. Strike action by around 300 members working for Ponticelli and Semco Maritime also forced the employers back to the table with a new improved offer which was accepted by our members.

There has also been a string of notable victories for our members at Abellio Scotrail, in the local government pay dispute, and at the Dalkeith-based print firm, FLB. Through strike action, our members at the University of Dundee also forced management to think again over proposals which would have plunged our members into pension poverty. Pressure from our members in the Scottish Ambulance Service forced the Scottish Government to invest an extra £20m into the service on top of £20m announced in September 2021.

So, the last two years has been one of major challenges but also of major wins. It is with confidence and belief that we look towards the future in our communities and workplaces as the restrictions are lifted. We salute and applaud the brave stand our members have taken in fighting back. If there is one story of this pandemic which really strikes home for me it is that old adage: when workers stand together everything is possible.

Pat Rafferty is UNITE Scotland Regional Secretary