Unions can lead the debate on how we work and rebuild the economy in the New Normal

Mike Clancy · 27 January 2022

Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy outlines how, as we learn to live with Covid-19, unions have an opportunity to shape how we rebuild the economy and to create the ‘New Normal’ that emerges.

We’ve spent two years grappling with surviving the pandemic. It’s been a tough time, not least for those families struggling to make sense of loss.

Whilst primarily a public health crisis, Covid-19 has also been a work emergency. Unions stepped in to protect members’ jobs by helping to design the furlough scheme, ensuring provision for freelancers and highlighting the gaps in support.

Unions protected lives as well as livelihoods, with our expert reps ensuring people were kept safe whilst at work. Despite the novelty of homeworking leading the news, millions of essential workers continued to go into their workplaces to keep the country going. Our history of proactive engagement with employers meant that unionised workers benefited from reps fighting to make their workplaces as safe as possible.

Surviving to thriving

Now, with restrictions lifting and a post-pandemic future seemingly approaching, unions have an opportunity to lead the debate on how we go from surviving to thriving: how we keep people safe, keep the economy open and ensure workers emerge from the pandemic with a better deal.

Prospect believes that our collective response to Covid-19 – the coming together of workers, employers and government to meet the greatest crisis since the Second World War – provides a blueprint for building back better for workers. The speed at which we responded to the crisis in the spring of 2020 was only possible because of this social partnership.

To meet the challenges the UK economy faces – learning to live with the virus, finding our place in the world post-Brexit, dealing with the scale of technological change – we must build on this model where workers’ voices are routinely listened to.

There are three issues we need to tackle urgently to rebuild the economy in a way that shares success fairly: the resourcing of our public services, widening inequality, and deciding what the “new normal” should be.

Firstly, we must invest in our public services. A decade of or more of underfunding and knocking public services from public science to the Health and Safety Executive undermined our response to the pandemic: just look at the mess we got into over the procurement of PPE.

We need highly specialised and skilled public servants able to evidence, manage and respond to our collective needs – rather than handing out lucrative contracts to generic big consultancy firms and ministerial contact books.

A properly funded NHS and functioning care system – rather than one constantly being run hot at full capacity – is essential both for the nation’s health, and to give businesses confidence that society will remain open.

Secondly, we need a post-pandemic settlement for the low-paid. Essential workers kept the country going but carried so much more risk than others: struggling to get through the most challenging of times on inadequate sick pay and Universal Credit, or to feed their children in the school holidays. There must be a renewed focus on inequality of working conditions and the threadbare social security net.

Thirdly, the “new normal” can’t simply be an extension of working conditions implemented in response to an emergency.

Prospect members had the full range of pandemic working models. Our committed public servants delivered for the country whilst predominantly working from home. In film and TV with freelance working the norm, we agreed detailed protocols to get members safely back on set by the summer of 2020. In between we had members who worked a hybrid mix, particularly those in critical operational roles.

But our surveys show just one-in-four workers has been consulted about new working patterns. Too often talk of flexibility in the economy is simply code for pushing risk and insecurity onto workers and ripping up regulation that keeps us safe at work.

New normal for workers

As we await the long-delayed Employment Bill, we need to move on from simplistic commentary about the death of the office to explore more inclusive notions of truly flexible working – developing a “new normal” that works for workers, not just employers.

Whilst technology has made remote working more convenient than ever before, these same tools can be used to invasively monitor workers in their homes. Unions need as much of a voice as employers as we develop new standards for a hybrid future.

So as we emerge from the pandemic, we need a plan that tackles not just the health impact of Covid but the economic symptoms too: creaking public services, declining business confidence, the magnification of existing inequalities and unilateral decision making.

Emergency triage measures got us through the pandemic, but as we enter the endemic phase we’ll need a new national endeavour to avoid a rollercoaster of restrictions and lockdowns and to give businesses the confidence to plan and invest.

For Prospect, living with the virus is about emerging into the light; a new normal of genuine social partnership between government, employers and unions.

It means learning from the success of our collective endeavours across the public and private sectors, rather than racing to deregulate and leave everything to the free market. It means unions stepping up – as we have throughout this crisis – to keep our economy open, keep our members safe and secure a new settlement for working people.

A version of this blog first appeared on LabourList.