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Fighting back in Salford – an interview with Unison activist Steven North

(Steven is speaking in a personal capacity)

School staff are overwhelmingly rejecting the government’s shambolic and dangerous plans to reopen the schools and are willing to resist it.

The Unison public-sector workers’ union has just released a national survey of over 45,000 school support staff. The damning responses include, 98% were NOT reassured by the Prime Minister’s speech on 10 May that schools would be safe if pupil numbers increased from 1 June, 96% do NOT think the government has put safety first in developing its plan with many commenting that the economy has been the Tories’ priority, 64% are very concerned and don’t believe pupils and staff will be safe, 30% are losing sleep and/or suffering high anxiety as a result of the plan, 95% of those who were also parents of school aged children would not be confident safe to send their own children back to school on 1 June and 72% think the government need to do more to protect vulnerable children during the lockdown. Only 4% thought their school had adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

75% of the 45,000 workers responding to this survey were prepared to take part in action alongside parents to protect the health and safety of pupils and staff if the government insists on moving ahead with an unsafe reopening of schools and early years settings.

In Salford, the left-led local branch of the Unison trade union has been to the fore in defending the safety of workers which it organises and the wider safety of the people of the city. Hugh Caffrey spoke to Steven North, Salford City Unison branch secretary (personal capacity), Labour Party member and Socialist Alternative supporter.

Can you give us an idea about the situation in Salford UNISON since the start of the lockdown?

Within the branch particularly, we’ve massively increased recruitment of both members and reps during the lockdown because of the way we’ve responded to it as a team of stewards, branch officers and everybody. There have been a lot of difficult challenges and changes during the period of lockdown, which initially was about getting people out of the workplaces. The first massive challenge we faced was in social care, where we were able to successfully secure quite a good agreement early on which protected people’s wages if they were off work. And then there was the issue of PPE; we were able to deal with that, and there was also the issue of testing which we were able to deal with to some degree.

There have been lots of other issues in other areas, one was that for a lot of members where they’re being supported to work from home especially where there’s concerns about domestic abuse or mental health. And as we speak now, the single biggest issue now that the situation has flipped is to try to ensure that people don’t return to unsafe workplaces, particularly after the government announcement about the return to schools on the first of June.

What sort of agreements have been won by the union branch, and how were they won?

The first significant agreement was won in social care, and the agreement we won in social care essentially meant that any worker off for any reasons relating to Covid-19, regardless of employer (whether they’re in a commissioned service or not) were entitled to full pay for the first two weeks and then to 80% pay for a further 10 weeks. This was not just in cases of the worker themselves being sick, or self-isolating or shielding, but also where workers are in vulnerable categories or live with people who are shielding. That was massive, we got that really early on, and now we’re pushing and expect progress next week with what we’re pushing for with paying 100% of wages.

Getting that agreement in place early on in the lockdown gave a lot of reassurance to our social care workers and had a very positive public health impact. It’s not just a workers’ right issue, getting that agreement quickly stopped sick care workers from having to go into work and potentially be spreading the virus. This was absolutely key.

Another significant agreement came once we encountered probs with PPE. We were able through our organising in social care over the last few years, to ensure that PPE got to the frontline care workers who needed it. We’ve seen problems in other local authority areas where that wasn’t the case. This wasn’t done without problems; we had a particular problem with one social care provider not providing their staff with adequate PPE. There, in less than 24 hours we had secured 1000 pieces of essential kit and ensured that Public Health were involved in resolving the situation, and from that point onwards the official advice going out to providers in the city has always been shared with the trade union so that we can ensure it’s being done properly. Since that point we’ve had very few problems with PPE.

There’s been a whole number of other agreements, for example full pay for furloughed staff at the housing associations in Salford, full pay for people working in Salford Leisure Trust which is run at arm’s length from the council even though almost all of their services shut down at the start and will remain shut for some time to come. There’s been lots of other agreements too, too many to go into now.

Now it’s about ensuring a safe return to schools rather than a return set by an arbitrary date. One of the agreements we’ve reached that’s particularly important is that initially the council were proceeding on the basis of the head teachers signing off the risk assessments of the schools. Now it has been agreed that the local authority must sign off on any risk assessment and that means that Salford City Council have got to take responsibility for the public health and duty of care to the workforce aspects of those decisions and this is a really key way of protecting our members, because it no longer depends on the particular personality or character of the headteacher and means there is now a universal approach across the city.

What sort of role does the union now have in important services?

There are many services which we are now helping to administrate so that they are run in a safe way and there has been a significant increase in the voice of the organised membership of our trade union in decisions in the workplace. For example in key areas like refuse and recycling and other environmental services in the council, and in the likes of welfare rights and debt advice. In these services our members recognised that that services need to continue and have shown a real commitment to the vulnerable people who need these services, but they’ve ensured that these services are safely delivered, ensured that the right balance is struck between providing the service and the safety of the service.

In some ways we’ve played the role that trade unions play during a prolonged period of industrial action, where you take some responsibility for ensuring that an appropriate level of service delivery is still maintained, while also maintaining your industrial action. This is not industrial action, we are not on strike, but there’s some similarities and I’m very proud that members and reps have played that role. We’ve recruited a massive number of reps, and a significant number of health & safety reps, and we are ensuring decisions reached at a locality level are run by the union and are only implemented with the support of the union.

Where does the council fit into this?

We are pleased with the role of the council in many respects during the lockdown, particularly the speed with which they assisted us with reaching the agreement for social care workers in the city. There was a real positive impact by the part which the council played, especially as these services are jointly commissioned with the NHS, we needed the council to put pressure on the NHS to release funds to support social care workers and they did that. We’ve also found that where we needed political leadership from the council on more internal matters then it’s been there.

The challenge now is around schools. We are confident that once the council gets to grips with the strength of feeling amongst our members and among parents in the city then they will go further than their current position. But we can’t just rely on their potential goodwill, there are real challenges if members are to be kept safe, and so we are organising as a branch as hard as we need to, but we are giving the council the opportunity to recognise the position which the union is taking and for them to be working with us as they have in other campaigns in the past like our successful nurseries campaign.

Do you think there are lessons here for other branches and the union movement as a whole?

Absolutely. One of the key things is making sure that we are organising the unorganised. We have only been successful in securing the social care agreements because we’ve organised care workers, and that’s not been easy at all but it’s bearing fruit now not only in terms of protecting those workers themselves but making sure that their voice is being heard to protect others in the city from this virus. In other sectors, whether that’s the public or private sector but perhaps particularly where it’s in public service of any kind, the relevant unions need to make sure that those workers are as involved in the trade union as the workers which we organise have been for a long time now.

I’d reinforce the point by saying, trust the knowledge and expertise of your members, these are the people on the frontline doing the job, they understand how to strike the balance between the need to provide a service to public, especially when it’s a service dealing with vulnerable members of the public, and the need to protect workers. If you’re in doubt as a branch secretary, talk to your members and be guided by them and stand by them. And if you do that, you’ll gain their trust and you’ll have a well organised branch, and you’ll be able to secure whatever is necessary from your employers be they public or private.

How are Salford UNISON approaching the issue of the schools possibly reopening?

As things stand at the moment, we’ve held two successful all members meeting, we have established a petition to the council and we have organised an online rally with local MP Rebecca Long-Bailey which will include both our members and members of the public. We’re taking very practical steps in support of the position I’ve outlined. If we need to go further than that campaigning response, with an industrial response, then we’ll do so.

In terms of organising, how have the branch been involving the membership and what sort of response has there been?

We’ve been sure as a trade union branch right from the start to provide the maximum possible opportunities for our members to be involved in the decisions we’ve taken at every stage. But absolutely key to that are our workplace reps. By patiently building a team of people with different abilities and areas of expertise, but all with a deep knowledge of the services that they work in and with the trust of their colleagues, we’ve been able to ensure that our branch can face the challenges put in front of us. That is combined with an understanding from the branch leadership, that in an area like Salford where we have a Labour council, a left-leaning Labour council, it is correct for us to provide them with the opportunity to act in support of our members, but for the council to fully understand that if they don’t do so, then we will challenge them in the same way we would the most viciously right-wing Tory local authority.

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