Leeds TUC organises to defend workers during Covid-19 crisis

Leeds Socialist Party members attended the public meeting of the Leeds Trades Union Council (Leeds TUC) via Zoom on Wednesday 29th April. Over 40 trade union reps and activists from across the region came together under the banner of “Testing, PPE – Put our Safety First – Organise in your Workplace”.

Michael Docherty, PCS delegate to Leeds TUC & Leeds Socialist Party member

John Ingleson (Chair, Unison Leeds Teaching Hospitals branch) highlighted the impact on the NHS of years of austerity, with staffing reductions and cuts to Intensive Care Unit beds. Nurses on the frontline of the Coronavirus pandemic are the first generation not to receive a bursary. John called for a campaign to restore the bursary and scrap tuition fees for all nurses, which was endorsed by Leeds TUC.

An effective 20% pay cut for furloughed workers during the lockdown is exacerbating poverty, especially in sectors such as retail where low pay is already endemic. Joanne Thomas (Usdaw Divisional Officer) demanded that furloughed workers receive 100% of their wages and called for an increase in the minimum wage. Socialist Party members proposed a £12 per hour minimum wage, as a step towards £15, which received support. The issue of government bailouts was raised, with the demand that any bailout money should go to help workers rather than boosting company profits.

Usdaw members at the meeting highlighted the positive role reps have played on the ground in organising workers and pushing for improved safety measures. While retail bosses have frequently disregarded social distancing measures to maximise profits, Usdaw reps have succeeded in winning demands over issues such as the introduction of perspex screens, regular deep cleans and PPE for shop workers. Patrick Murphy, Secretary of Leeds National Education Union (NEU) stated that many workers are now seeing the value of unions, with NEU membership increasing nationally by 5000 in the first 2 weeks of the lockdown and 250 new reps.

Many issues were raised as to how unions should fight to keep workplaces safe and defend workers interests in any move out of the lockdown. There is the prospect of an employer offensive in the post-lockdown period, with further attacks on jobs and terms and conditions.  The need for workplace organisation at a grassroots level was emphasised in order to ensure that workers do not pay the price for the pandemic further down the line. Workers need a say over when it is safe to return to work and how social distancing measures can be implemented, which poses the question of workers control.

Leeds TUC has continued to be active during the coronavirus crisis, working across trade union branches and campaigning on issues affecting working people in Leeds. On 24th April, a Covid-19 statement was published (https://leedstuc.wordpress.com/2020/04/24/leeds-tuc-covid-19-statement/) containing 35 demands in support of workers and defending the NHS. In response to the scandalous lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the result of years of austerity and privatisation, Leeds TUC has called for the government to take over factories and the production of PPE to ensure adequate supplies for frontline workers. Leeds TUC has also offered to provide advice to affiliates and other trade union branches on holding online meetings during this crisis, ensuring reps can collectively take up concerns on behalf of their members.

The first May Day marches took place 130 years ago to celebrate International Workers’ Day. In Leeds, around 30-40,000 attended the inaugural May Day march and rally in 1890. A Facebook Live event was organised by Leeds TUC on May 2nd to celebrate this anniversary. Tanis Belsham-Wray and Iain Dalton, Leeds TUC officers and Socialist Party members, discussed the origins of May Day and its relevance to workers struggles today. (the video can be viewed on facebook here – https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=272353687124396)

Trade unions can give an outlet for the anger of workers by providing a collective way to tackle problems and campaign on issues facing our class. Trades Councils play a vital role in developing this collective approach, bringing together trade unionists at a local level and supporting workplace and community campaigns.

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