Boris Johnson has made much of being at the helm of a supposed “wartime” government during the coronavirus crisis. The enemy is deadly, he tells us, and we have all been enlisted in the fight.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, has had enough of the bombast. “But if we’re using war analogies,” she says, “there have been times during this crisis which have had the feeling of the first world war, with the army generals camped hundreds of miles from the front line ordering troops over the top.”
In O’Grady’s view, it is the collaboration and progressive spirit of the post-1945 years that provides a better model. To that end, on Wednesday, alongside the shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, she will call for a “national recovery council” of unions, government and business. The next few years must see an increase in the minimum wage, a ban on zero-hours contracts and a job guarantee scheme – particularly for young people facing a bleak future, she says.
“The big challenge is what happens next and it’s important to have representatives of the workforce at the table to figure that out,” says O’Grady, speaking exclusively to the Guardian. “We can be architects, I think, of the next stage.”
This has been an extraordinary time for the TUC, which since the crisis struck has collaborated with the government to an extent unimaginable a few months ago. But with teaching unions in a deadlock with ministers over the proposed limited return to schools at the start of June and employees who can’t work from home already told to return to their workplaces, does she worry unions could be used as a scapegoat for the UK’s stilted exit from lockdown?
“I think the public trusts us and our members trust us,” she says. “Our first duty of care is to working people, and there is nothing more fundamental than people staying healthy and safe.”
O’Grady is insistent that “there can be no going back to business as usual” when the crisis passes and the fallout begins. Cuts to the welfare state and public services over a decade of austerity left the UK unable to deal with the seismic shock of a global pandemic, she argues. Black people in England and Wales are more than four times as likely to die of coronavirus, with poverty and health inequality mooted as possible reasons.
“We now know the real price of inequality,” says O’Grady. “This time working people can’t pay the price for recovery. People will not put up with that. I think the big issue is how do we grow our way out of this and what kinds of industries and jobs will help us do that.”
Rebuilding will require investment, not cuts – and that will have to mean fairer taxes, she adds. “We’ve got to get that safety net strung again, we’ve got to invest in our public services, which may have to build resilience for a long time to come,” she says. “Unions are back … but the state is back too.”
The need for “a healthy, secure and green economy” with quality skilled jobs is “not a pipe dream, it’s a necessity,” she says. “We have built hospitals in days, have had to radically transform the way we live and work within days. I think we’ve run out of excuses about creating a carbon-free economy.”
In practice that will mean building domestic supply chains, expanding renewable power, manufacturing batteries for electric cars, she says. If critical industries like aviation need bailing out, there must be strings attached. As firms slash entry level jobs by a quarter , job guarantee schemes – “proper ones, not Mickey Mouse schemes” – particularly for young people, will have to be put in place. It should mean, she adds, an increase in the minimum wage to £10 an hour, plus an end to zero-hours contracts and “false” self-employment where workers have no rights.
TUC analysis shows women make up three-quarters of key workers, who are worse paid, on average, than those in other sectors (four in 10 key workers earn less than £10 an hour, compared to three in 10 non key workers). In social care – where one in four workers are on zero-hours contracts – that figure rises to seven.
“These are people doing some of the most valuable work in society for the least money, who are still even today wrapping themselves in bin bags because of a lack of PPE,” says O’Grady. “What does that say about us?”
O’Grady is not a tub-thumper. But asked to rate the government’s performance so far she is quietly damning. “I think there have been a string of failures,” she says. “We were late on lockdown, late on mass testing [and] PPE. We’ve got the highest number of deaths in Europe. This was not a success and they’ve got to learn lessons.”
There is still no plan for the mass provision of PPE for a workforce, a significant proportion of whom have already been sent back to work. “It is going to have to happen fast or it will slow the recovery down quite badly because safety must come first,” she says. “It is possible to rebuild and to be safe. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to protect livelihoods and lives.”
O’Grady says the prime minister was “clearly irresponsible” to tell those who could not work from home to return to their workplaces without a clear plan in place. There was a worry among unions and business leaders in the week leading up to 10 May, that he might make a “cavalier unilateral announcement,” she says, but there was still shock when it appeared that people had been told to go back to work with 12-hours notice.
“I can only assume that this was an attempt to appease the laissez faire advocates on his backbenches and no doubt in cabinet too,” she says. “But it was counterproductive and backfired big time.
“It would be bad enough to gamble with the safety of any particular group of workers – but this is actually about public health. If it winds up with a group of workers unnecessarily exposed to the risk of infection, the likelihood is that it will spread to public transport workers, families and communities. You know, I really hope that [decision] hasn’t jeopardised people’s health.”
The TUC were critical of draft post-lockdown workplace rules, and after weeks of intense negotiations with business secretary Alok Sharma, civil servants and business leaders – although not the prime minister himself – O’Grady broke ranks, saying there were “huge gaps” over protective kit and testing.
There have since been significant improvements, she says. Companies have been told to publish risk assessments, the Health and Safety Executive has been given a £14m funding boost while employers have been told they are responsible for providing PPE if physical distancing is not possible.
But there is a long road ahead. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has publicly rejected a return to austerity, telling parliament that the government’s “levelling-up” agenda would take priority. O’Grady insists unions want to work with the government, and have demonstrated they are constructive and useful, but asks those at the top to show some humility and accept that they might not have all the answers.
“This crisis has made us question everything,” she says. “It’s shown that we are going to look after our families, but we want to look after our neighbours too. We have to shift the balance of power. It can’t just be a case of the boardroom says, and everybody else does. I think we’ve learned [that] social solidarity matters.”