Once the Coronavirus crisis is over, we will not simply revert to the way things were beforehand. For workers, many of the ways of working introduced during the crisis will persist. There will be fresh challenges as we face the threat of renewed austerity to recoup the money spent by the government to shore up the economy, and as bosses try to turn automation designed to cope with workers being unable to leave the house into a means to replace our jobs on a more permanent basis. There will also be the opportunity to organise differently, and more effectively, if we are willing to take it.
Here are five things we can do to organise in that changed environment.
Working from home isn’t going to disappear when the crisis passes. It was already becoming more of a feature of working life in some sectors, and it was something that union organisers weren’t always ready for, as it’s a lot harder to recruit somebody via an unsolicited email than via a face to face conversation, but if they’re not in the office you have little choice.
Organisers for tenants’ unions and other community organisations build by knocking on people’s doors and engaging them where they live in the same way that workplace organisers build by talking to people at their desk or on the shop floor. With the advance of home working, it’s likely that we will need to add this to the repertoire of workplace organisers as well.
Knocking on doors to organise workers will both be helped by and help unions building links between the workplace and the community. Our campaigning already crosses the boundary between workplace and social issues an awful lot – for example, the impact of HMRC office closures on local communities whose economy will suffer, or the delivery of front line DWP services and how thing affects claimants.
The changing face of the workplace demands that we expand upon this and rebuild the union as a presence within the local community as well as the office.
Whilst we seek to link organised workers in the offices and the organisation of working class communities, we should on the other hand be very clear that home working shouldn’t lead to an expansion of the working week. The fight to enforce the boundaries of the working day, and to decrease its hold over us as we argue for a shorter working week, will be ever more crucial in a world where there is no obvious physical transition between the workplace and the home because they might be the same building.
It’s a common refrain that the current crisis has shown us who is really valuable within our society, particularly since the overwhelming bulk of those dubbed ‘key workers’ are working on or near minimum wage.
It is crucial that the workers movement goes on the offensive in this regard, and demands far more than we have previously. As the Bakers’ Union has said, now is the time for a £15 per hour minimum wage. We also know that the technology exists to allow us to work shorter days, to do so more flexibly, and to have our workloads reduced. We cannot be restrained in our demands when the ruling class will want us to pay the cost of this crisis just as with the last.
Finally, and most importantly, it is vital that the workers’ movement itself doesn’t retreat into a comfort zone with the worst of the crisis passed. It is vital that where we have expanded our use of technology, increased participation and democracy, and become more innovative in our campaigning we don’t abandon all of that to return to the pre-Coronavirus norm.
This will in some ways be the biggest challenge for organised workers. Much of the trade union bureaucracy will be resistant to more innovation, democracy and militancy in any instance, and particularly to the idea of maintaining that when they think they don’t have to. That is why an organised rank and file holding the leadership to account (and going beyond them where necessary) remains an absolutely crucial goal.