Workplace Report February 2021


Pandemic shows why we should ❤ Unions

With Covid-19 raging and frontline workers under such pressure it might seem an odd time to celebrate ❤ Unions week, but in fact it’s a good time to remember all that unions have achieved since the pandemic first hit.

It’s ❤ Unions week this month (8-14 February), an event organised by the TUC to tell the story about why unions are vital for everyone at work, and encourage people to join. Unions would not exist if a voice, pressure and – if need be – industrial action were not needed to secure the best outcomes in the workplace. So victories, large or small, deserve to be recognised this year, just like any other.

This year they fall into two camps. Many, like the education unions’ struggle over the safe re-opening of schools and colleges, relate directly to the pandemic and workplace safety. Efforts to persuade employers to make full use of the furlough system and preserve jobs have also been driven by the pandemic.

But what stands out, reported or highlighted by a wide range of unions, is the extent to which normal bargaining issues have remained on the agenda since the start of the pandemic – pay and conditions, working time, and dignity and equality.

The TUC itself helped set the scene, with successful interactions with the UK government in the following areas.

Workplace health and safety: it influenced the government’s Covid-safety guidance for workplaces in a number of areas. It also persuaded the government to encourage the publication of risk assessments, something it regards as a “partial win”, as it wants them to be legally required to publish risk assessments. A TUC spokesperson told Workplace Report: “Another partial win is that employers cannot make clinically extremely vulnerable people go to work, however they can only receive Statutory Sick Pay while shielding, which we think is insufficient”.

Sick pay and self-isolation support: rules on statutory sick pay (SSP) meant that in most cases it would only start being paid after three days of unpaid sickness, while around two million people on low pay have no eligibility. Unions argued that, as well as causing hardship to workers who fall sick, the lack of support could cause people who ought to self-isolate to continue working, as they would have no other means of support. The government agreed to make workers who must self-isolate eligible for sick pay from day one and introduced a payment scheme for people who need to self-isolate and have no sick pay. The TUC recognises these as improvements, but is campaigning for SSP to be a day-one right for every worker, paying at least the same as the real Living Wage.

Furlough payments: trade union campaigning and negotiating with government helped achieve the creation of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. It succeeded in winning extensions to the scheme for ongoing restrictions that affect work and for the second and third national lockdowns. And it succeeded in persuading the chancellor to amend the original scheme to allow flexible working. The TUC is now calling for the extension of furlough until at least the end of 2021.

Universal Credit: union campaigning also highlighted the millions of low income families who face significant hardship from losing work, or from moving to a lower income under furlough (as the scheme only replaces 80% of earnings). The chancellor responded by temporarily increasing weekly payments in Universal Credit by £20. The TUC is calling for the increase to be made permanent.

The TUC also drew attention to another success, one with no direct connection to the pandemic. Last August the government announced plans to replace the system of Trade Advisory Groups, but the proposal for a new advisory group system to aid with trade deals after Brexit did not include trade unions. “Our lobbying produced a U-turn, with unions in the new advisory group structures which will be consulted on ongoing UK trade talks,” the spokesperson explained. “This will allow trade unions to push for protections for workers’ rights, public services and good jobs in trade deals”.

Union gains in safety and health

The third wave of the pandemic is proving to be more acute and more dangerous than ever, so union victories on safety and other pandemic-related issues have been especially important.


The UK government’s plan to re-open English primary schools from 4 January left unions fearing for their members, the children they care for, their families and the over-stretched NHS.

An emergency online union meeting held by the National Education Union (NEU) helped to pile on the pressure. Members were told they had a right as individuals not to attend school if they felt it would be unsafe, under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. Thousands of NEU members used a model letter to headteachers setting out their concerns, in many cases with one letter used to represent multiple staff. A government U-turn quickly followed, echoing an earlier reversal on in-person teaching at universities in December (a success for the UCU lecturers’ union and its joint approach with the National Union of Students).


Big campaigns around personal protective equipment (PPE) dominated the early months of the pandemic, but health unions have pursued other objectives too. For example, in England the NHS Social Partnership Forum (trade unions and NHS employers) agreed a joint statement on how to pragmatically deal with low-level disciplinary and grievances cases during the first wave of Covid. Other negotiated successes included: free car parking for NHS and social care staff; national guidance to support extending overtime to shift overruns and those in higher bands not covered by overtime in the Agenda for Change agreement; and pushing to ensure the government published promised pregnancy guidance.

The CSP challenged the loss of physio/rehab space and issues around restarting services in Scotland, drawing on the experience of stewards from England. It also took up problems members had getting access back into schools, raising the issue at a meeting with Scottish government present. It has also been a key member of the Wales Partnership Forum’s Business Committee, negotiating and agreeing Covid-19 FAQ’s, redeployment principles, a statement on industrial relations and facilities time, and guidance on implementation of the Covid workforce risk assessment.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) focussed on students, working to ensure that they would remain eligible for the Coronavirus Life Assurance Scheme in the same way as NHS employees. It also lobbied to establish that – if they are delayed in graduating due to the pandemic – they would continue to have access to their bursary or learning support fund.


At an early stage in the pandemic, rail unions Aslef, RMT, TSSA and Unite struck a wide-ranging agreement on principles for social distancing, based on discussions with government, the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Office of Road and Rail. Meanwhile in the bus sector, Unite took similar steps, including securing a government announcement that all people travelling on public transport in England would be required to wear face coverings. The union also ensured that London bus air conditioning systems were altered to draw air into the driver’s sealed cab from outside, reducing exposure to the coronavirus. At food manufacturer Bernard Matthews, Unite celebrated the suspension of fares on company-subsidised buses, after the employer said the Covid outbreak at its site in Holton, Suffolk, could be linked to low-paid workers car sharing. The union said this had been “actively encouraged” by the near-doubling of the fare in August.


Nearly nine out of 10 shop workers suffered abuse during the last 12 months, so Usdaw’s Freedom from Fear campaign was more important than ever. An important victory came with a Scottish Parliament vote to implement legislation to protect retail workers, after significant lobbying and campaigning. The union is also looking to make an impact in Westminster, with a 100,000-stong petition calling for specific legislation to protect retail workers. The Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee has launched an enquiry into the issue. The union also had success at sector level, working with the British Retail Consortium to produce industry-leading guidance on how to make retail workplaces Covid-safe. An Usdaw spokesperson told Workplace Report that this had provided a blueprint for other industries.

Sickness and self-isolation

Like the TUC, individual unions have also been working to protect workers while off sick or self-isolating. Unite highlights successes at food manufacturers, in a sector where Covid infections can spread quickly:

Rowan Foods: with over 300 infections (and with Wrexham Council involved and Welsh government guidelines to take into account) company sick pay was agreed for any tested-positive and isolating employees;

2 Sisters Coupar Angus: full pay for all workers for a 14-day self-isolation period following an August outbreak. Unite wants this to be repeated following a second, smaller outbreak.

Unions including Nautilus secured a fairer pay scheme for staff self-isolating at Uber Boats by Thames Clippers (UBTC). Instead of SSP, from 1 January, the company agreed to record time off as furlough where a requirement to self-isolate was activated by the employer, or there was proof that an employee had tested positive.

Jobs and furlough

With several hundred thousand jobs already lost, nine weeks of strike action at Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick produced some much needed good news. A minimum of 350 jobs have been preserved and a community has been protected from ruin. The site will get a new lease of life as a core manufacturing facility and will host a new centre of excellence.

There was success for the UCU at Heriot-Watt University over a proposal to cut over 100 jobs, with the opening of a voluntary redundancy programme one of the outcomes. Meanwhile, Prospect highlighted its reps’ work on redundancy consultation at the Building Research Establishment. Felicity, one of three new reps involved, said: “Don’t be scared to ask questions and don’t be fazed by the hierarchy of it all, as a rep you are there to scrutinise and advise”.

Furlough is an alternative to job losses, but persuading employers to use it can be a victory in itself – something the school unions have taken up on behalf of supply staff.

School catering staff on the Wirral scored thanks to UNISON pressure and political support. Plans by Chartwells (part of the Compass group) to make 10 low-paid women employees redundant – rather than access the furlough scheme – were scuppered.

Pay and conditions

Many of the victories claimed by unions during the pandemic have been about pay and conditions. At the Royal Mail Group the CWU has been busy negotiating a new national agreement (see page 5).

Usdaw highlighted its success in achieving thank-you bonuses during the first wave of the pandemic (typically 10%, as Workplace Report has previously reported). It agreed with the Co-op that they will become a Living Wage employer “as part of our efforts to ensure key worker status continues to be recognised as we move on from the crisis”. And at Morrisons it has just agreed a new £10 consolidated hourly rate, removing the uncertainty of bonus payments.

Even in the crisis-hit creative sector, Bectu’s FAA branch has just secured a three-year pay agreement for Supporting Artistes (walk-on actors) with the producers’ alliance PACT. Negotiations official Emily Collin said, “it’s been a challenging year, and our members have been hit hard, and as freelancers, many were excluded by the government support schemes. Bringing forward the rates increase to 1 January will mean our members can have greater hope that financial stability shall return to them in 2021, as work continues to increase”.

In Gateshead a 400-strong workforce represented by GMB and Unite at International Paint suspended their overtime ban and planned strikes, after voting to accept a 1.5% backdated pay offer with 2% and 4% performance-related payments.

But the suspension of action at bus manufacturer Optare, after discussions with management, reflected the recognition that a pay settlement was not possible at that time. Both parties welcomed a government pledge to purchase 4,000 zero-emission buses, and Unite agreed to work with the company on a “payment mechanism” ready for implementation once recovery from the pandemic is clear and future orders have come in.

UNISON celebrated a number of deals bringing members’ pay rates into line with NHS Agenda for Change. They included 30 drug and alcohol support workers at the We Are With You charity (formerly Addaction) in Wigan and Leigh. Their 15-month campaign involved a total of 26 strike days, and their cause attracted political support from Lisa Nandy MP and Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner.

There was a similar result for outsourced cleaners at Luton and Dunstable Hospital. Cleaners, porters and security staff at Homerton Hospital, represented by the GMB and UNISON, secured the London Living Wage and NHS sick pay “from day one” but fell short on NHS equivalents for their wages, pensions, overtime or annual leave.

Following the devolution of pay setting for school teachers in Wales, the Welsh government enacted two key recommendations of the Independent Welsh Pay Review Body. Coming into force last September, they were described as “major wins for workers’ rights” by UCAC, one of the unions involved, and covered:

• the reintroduction of national pay scales (rather than pay ranges with statutory minima and maxima only); and

• the removal of performance as a basis for pay progression, and the reintroduction of incremental annual progression.

Another victory in Wales was the Welsh government’s decision to make hardship funding for taxi drivers available through local authorities. Unite regional officer Alan McCarthy said: “While it is a welcome move, the income that’s been lost since March is astounding, and individual local authorities can still do more by waiving license and badge fees”.

Pensions were also on the agenda, with the NEU persuading a number of independent schools not to follow their peers by leaving the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (using the pandemic as justification in some cases). And at the Port of London Authority Nautilus members voted to accept a new “defined contribution” scheme with an improved contribution structure and new life insurance cover.

The recession has seen the return of employer “fire and re-hire” policies but Unite was happy to report that the University of Sheffield had dropped its plans to worsen conditions for 8,000 employees. In December, striking Securitas first responders at Airbus also won their fight against fire and rehire.

Minimum wage

RMT’s successes include its long-running campaign to extend the National Minimum Wage to seafarers working from UK ports, putting the union and UK seafarers in a stronger position to compete for work when the pandemic subsides (particularly in offshore wind and other net zero industries reliant on shipping).

Before the pandemic, UK seafarers only filled 34% of all ratings and officer jobs, and that has worsened following over 2,000 redundancies (particularly at Dubai-owned P&O Ferries) as employers chose job cuts rather than furlough.

In 2018, a Legal Working Group recommendation to extend the National Minimum Wage (NMW) to all seafarers (regardless of nationality or ship flag) working on domestic routes, including the UK’s North Sea energy sector, was accepted. The National Minimum Wage (Offshore Employment) (Amendment) Order 2020 came into force on 1st October 2020.

RMT estimates that over 13,000 seafarers will be covered by the new legislation, including operators like P&O Ferries and Seatruck, and charter parties who crew their ships on some domestic routes with non-UK seafarers on terms well below the RMT Collective Bargaining Agreement and the NMW. .

Working time and shift patterns

Successes on working time include a plan negotiated by Unite at Airbus (Broughton) to cut the working week by 5 to 10% (with a reduction in pay to save jobs). Convenor Daz Reynolds said: “Airbus Broughton has been devastated by Covid-19 and we have explored every avenue available to seek a viable future for this world class plant.”.

Prison escorts working for GeoAmey have already had their working time reduced, to between two to three days a week, but Community negotiated full pay for the lockdown period. In contrast, imposition of a change to working patterns from a one-week cycle to a three-week cycle by Serco Marine almost brought 40 Plymouth Devonport tug crew members out on strike before Christmas. The action was postponed to allow for ACAS talks.

Dignity, equality and diversity

Dignity and equality remain on the agenda too. Elaine Sparks, assistant director of ERUS (Employment Relations and Union Services) at the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, said: “Whilst the focus on Covid has been essential, it has also been crucial for us to continue to provide advice and representation to members on all the usual workplace issues, such as formal procedures like grievances and disciplinaries, support for health, safety and wellbeing, the impact of service or organisational changes, or just the individual advice needed for members.

“During this time we have also focused on EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) issues, in particular looking at tackling racism in the workplace. We are pleased to have been able to adapt to the new working environment and continue to provide support and training for reps virtually.”

Unions continued to challenge bullying, and Unite succeeded in having its Unity over Division charter adopted by Caerphilly County Borough Council, Nottingham Community Housing Association and University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust.

Who you work for

A campaign to bring Hackney parking wardens back in-house succeeded (after lobbying and strike action) while the insourcing of cleaners on the Wales and Borders rail franchise by Transport for Wales (TfW) was another victory, this time for the RMT (which has cleaner insourcing as one of its priority campaigns).

There are more than 30 outsourced cleaning operations on rail franchises and open access operations, and in Network Rail’s station and estates cleaning and the massive Underground cleaning operation. In this case, the majority of cleaners were employed by Axis Cleaning and Support Services, on low pay and inferior working conditions compared with other staff.

That included cleaners directly employed by TfW to do the same work on better salaries, sick pay, pensions and benefits. A spokesperson for the union told Workplace Report: “RMT pursued a twin-track strategy of campaigning with TfW to persuade them to bring the cleaners in-house and simultaneously industrially pursuing improvements to end the two-tier workforce. This culminated in a dispute with Axis and a ballot for industrial action in May 2020”.

Following intensive discussions, and barely two days before strike action was set to commence, TfW formally proposed a working group to support the cleaners moving to direct employment (on the model used to bring the catering staff in-house). These discussions are now ongoing, with agreement on improvements to cleaners’ pay and conditions on transfer and TUPE talks due to begin in January 2021.

During the pandemic, unions have continued to pursue gains in organisation and recognition. UCU and Ruskin College confirmed the end of a collective dispute between them. Recognition gains during the pandemic were achieved by the NUJ in respect of Newsquest Local Democracy Reporters; for Unite members at Knapp UK (who maintain automated machinery at the Marks & Spencer distribution centre in Bradford) and with the Peabody Group housing association.