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View: The importance of working with unions

By Zack Polanski

This article was originally published on Green World on 16 February 2022. It is the second in a series of blogs exploring how Greens in local government and communities can work closely with trade unions. The first blog can be found here.

As with so many important issues, it is worth repeating: Greens don’t have to leave unions to Labour.

I have seen first-hand how working closely with unions can have a transformative impact, both on the ways we work and on the community around us.

In 2020, I met a group of care workers who had decided things had to change. They also realised that things wouldn’t change unless they changed them.

The workers at Sage Nursing Home in North London struggled with low pay, overwork, and mistreatment for years. But during the pandemic things got even worse, as stress levels increased and the residents of their home became increasingly vulnerable to Covid-19.

Some of the workers had been in trade unions before, but had never had the feeling of support they needed. This time they got together and joined United Voices of the World (UVW), a union predominantly made up of migrants and workers from ethnic minority communities.

They demanded an immediate pay rise to enable them to get by in an increasingly expensive city. At the height of the pandemic, they demanded real sick pay, to ensure they could afford to stay home when ill and keep their residents safe. These were just two of the improvements they identified and fought to secure.

I was fortunate enough to meet some of the workers on a Zoom call, and like so many others I was inspired. Over the following weeks and months, I had the privilege of assisting the workers and UVW in trying to increase pressure on the trustees of Sage to change course and improve things at the home.

The campaign at Sage grew and got lots of attention, including – unusually for an industrial dispute – some mainstream media coverage. This was in no small part due to the passion, dedication, hard work and charisma of the strike leaders, who spoke to hundreds of meetings and rallies to build support for their cause.

But the Sage dispute acquired prominence for another reason, too. For many people, the struggle at Sage reflected the wider struggle in the care industry as well as struggles with precarious, low-paid work across the economy.

Millions of people in the UK face similar struggles to the Sage Nursing Home workers. Low pay, overwork, little or no sick pay, precarity, mistreatment: these are woven into the fabric of daily life for the greater part of the UK’s working class. This never seemed clearer and more true than when Covid cases and casualties were mounting, and the Sage workers decided that enough was enough.

Now, in 2022, as the cost of living rises and the government puts super-profits before people’s wellbeing, these combined crises in living standards are only going to intensify. The deadly flaws in the UK’s political economy are still very much in evidence.

Most of the millions of daily struggles that people face getting food on the table do not become flashpoints or strikes or turning points in the scheme of things. They become so commonplace, so routine that they can fly under the radar of the UK mainstream.

Nonetheless, the campaign at Sage Nursing Home offers a glimpse of what can be achieved when workers are empowered to get together, identify the changes they need and fight for them.

By bringing attention to these struggles in our communities, and helping groups of workers to get together and win, we can build a broader consciousness of what needs to change to make life better for the majority. This is, in a small way, what I was privileged to be a part of when I lent a hand to the workers at Sage. And it’s something that I hope all Green candidates, councillors and party activists will feel empowered to do.

By working proactively with trade unions and other workers’ organisations, we can offer our expertise, our outspoken support and our time to groups in our community that really need it. This is something that Greens do so well, and many of our hundreds of Green councillors are already pioneering this work in their area.

Helping trade unions to build and grow in power is not just about supporting the particular group of workers in question. It is transformative for us, too, and how we think about things around us. But most of all it is a process of education and consciousness-raising for the whole community involved, helping previously unrelated and disconnected groups of people to recognise their common interests. The work we do with communities now will serve as the basis for future campaigns we haven’t even imagined yet.

It is through this hard, often slow, but vital process that we can really build power in our communities.

I’m pleased to be supporting the Green Party Trade Union Group’s pledge campaign, urging Green councillors and candidates to pledge their support for trade unions and their campaigns. If you haven’t already done so, please take the pledge today and share your support widely.