In his speech Sunday night Boris Johnson said that workers in manufacturing and construction should go back to work.
This is class cruelty. The government and employers aim to send mostly manual workers in manufacturing and construction into danger. There they will join the essential workers in cleaning, shop work, logistics, care homes, hospitals and all the others. The people at work will be mostly manual workers and low paid service workers. The people working from home will be the professionals and the better paid office workers. It will not be just the manual and service workers at risk, though. Their families will be exposed too. And the statistics already tell us that the low-paid, manual workers, and black and minority ethnic people are all dying in greater numbers.
We already know that we live in an unfair world. But this is going too far.
So please do not go back. If possible, simply refuse to go back to work until you are safe, collectively, across the board. If that is not possible, go stand outside work together and start to negotiate with management. Tell them your collective demands for safety before you start.
If that is not possible, go into work and start talking to each other and keep talking to each other. See if you can come together to make management negotiate.
You need to talk to your workmates and act together, and all the workplaces, across the board, need to stick together too.
This government has been forced to change course before. Public opinion forced them to lockdown in the first place. The opinion polls say 80% of the people support the lockdown. The law says that workers can refuse to work if there is imminent danger in health and safety. This is all about danger, health and safety. The governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are saying stay home and stay safe.
Almost all the unions are saying do not work if it is not safe. But many of the unions are only telling us to fight workplace by workplace. An awful lot of workplaces have no union. In many more the union is weak and people are not confident. We will have to fight this one workplace at a time. But we also need unions to say no non-essential workers should be at work now.
After all, the danger is not just workplace by workplace. The danger is for everyone, because the number of cases and deaths each day is still so high. This is not the time to unleash the monster. We need unions that say nationally, and loudly, for everyone, don’t go back.
The bottom lines
Three things matter most in negotiation – distance, touching, testing and keeping vulnerable workers at home.
Standing two meters apart out of doors is crucial. But as many building workers have discovered, it is very, very hard to keep that up consistently. That difficulty makes building sites unsafe.
Then there’s touching the surfaces, tools, machines and materials other workers have touched. That is hard to avoid in any number of jobs.
Moreover, indoor work is dangerous even if you keep distance. You are not safe when you work in a room and someone in that room has covid. Even if you are more than two meters apart the virus will still build up in the air. You breathe that air for eight hours.
The key thing in whether you catch the virus is how much ‘viral load’ you breathe in. Several things affect the load. You get more load the closer you are to the person, the longer you share the air with them, the more the air is trapped in a room, the more they or you talk, and the more they sneeze or cough. A safe workplace is a workplace where no one is breathing out the virus.
For clear, detailed explanations of why sharing big rooms while distanced from each other, see this article by Erin Bromage, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth: https://www.erinbromage.com/post/the-risks-know-them-avoid-them
There is a way you can make sure no one at work has the virus. Tell management to set up tests so no one starts until they have their results back. Then everyone gets retested every few days. If anyone tests positive, everyone who has been in contact with them, or worked in the same small room, or big room, or workshop or garage or shopfloor as them, goes home and stays home until they are confirmed negative.
The employers will tell you they can’t get the tests, and they can’t get the results back in time. That’s the problem, right there. It’s a problem for the government. And the government can fix it if they want to. Many other countries do far, far more tests. Our government has known of the need for testing for four months now, and not really bothered to get it sorted. It is frightening to think how little they care about us. If people in danger won’t work, they will have to bother.
By the way, doing those tests is skilled work, and the results are useless if the tests are not done correctly. So avoid the cowboy firms who are doing the tests now.
Protect the most vulnerable
One other condition is important. If humanly possible, get management to agree that vulnerable workers can stay home until everyone is consistently testing negative. That means workers who are themselves vulnerable are paid to stay home, but also workers who live with someone vulnerable.
The employers will say they cannot afford that because too many workers will be vulnerable, and there is still a lot of covid in the wider community. Again, that’s the problem right there.
Management may try to get you to negotiate on all sorts of other things. If you can’t win on testing and vulnerable workers, you may have to negotiate other partial solutions. But try to stick to the bottom line.
The crucial thing is – don’t let them pick you off one by one. Talk to each other on phones, on social media, outside work, in work. Talk to people you know on other jobs. Share information widely on every job where people refuse to work, or try to refuse to work. Keep talking. Human beings get strength from each other.
This is not about teenagers flirting in parks. It is not about picnics and shopping. Most healthy people will probably be OK if they shop quickly and keep distance. Shop workers who breathe in those rooms eight hours a day are not OK. Not OK at all. We owe them a debt, like we owe the health, care and other essential workers. But all the media fuss about the lockdown is coming from the government and the employers. And it’s about one thing – getting us to work eight hours a day in the same room with someone who is contagious – to make profits.
If enough workplaces act together, and everyone keeps talking to each other, online and in reality, we can stop this.
Jonathan Neale is a writer, and a covid and climate jobs activist. On twitter he is @NealeSayles.