It has never been more important to be in a trade union. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the key and essential role that UNISON has played in fighting for the rights of our members, including their right to be safe.
UNISON has acted at every level of the organisation to make sure that our members’ rights and interests are prioritised.
From demanding that all our members on the front line have the correct personal protective equipment (PPE), decent pay if off sick, isolating and shielding, and proper testing to halt the spread of the virus, UNISON has been at the forefront and has had some significant wins.
Senior UNISON officials at UK and Scottish level have had meetings with government ministers at both Westminster and Holyrood to press for the measures that our members need to ensure they have adequate protection to do their jobs and financial support when they need to be off work.
In April UNISON secured the agreement of the Scottish Government to set up a PPE taskforce to address the significant problems faced by health and care staff across the country in accessing PPE.
Welcoming the move, Tom Waterson, chair of UNISON Scotland health committee said: “The safety of health and care staff and the people they are caring for is paramount and we welcome the Cabinet Secretary’s agreement to address these concerns as a matter of urgency.
“The creation of a PPE taskforce will allow us to continue to voice our members concerns straight to the top of government.”
Later in April, UNISON Scotland welcomed the decision by care charity Cornerstone to pay full pay to all staff who were forced to shield or self isolate as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result of pressure from UNISON, an enhancement to statutory sick pay (SSP) has now been extended to all community and voluntary sector services, with the Scottish Government providing additional funding to ensure that no staff member is forced into work when symptomatic because they cannot afford to live on SSP.
In Scotland, UNISON has also secured a death in service arrangement for those care home workers whose contracted pension arrangements do not offer death in service cover. The Scottish Government has agreed a one-off payment of £60,000 to a named survivor.
Calls in Scotland for national bargaining for the care home sector have been less successful, however, when this was rejected by the Scottish Government.
Mike Kirby, UNISON Scottish secretary called the decision “a bitterly disappointing setback in tackling the crisis in our care homes,” especially when the Scottish Government has acknowledged that the care home system is broken.
Nationally, Christina McAnea, assistant general secretary has called for a complete overhaul of the care sector once the crisis has passed. “Never again should the concerns of staff, unions and employers be ignored.”
However, UNISON Scotland has succeeded in our demands that the Scottish government pass on funding to councils cash-strapped as a result of COVID-19; in our insistence that guidance be fit for purpose to ensure our members safety; and has successfully pressed for testing to be more widely available and accessible for those in rural areas and non-drivers.
But it is probably at branch level that the greatest impact of being in a union will be felt by our members, as stewards and branch officers respond to the daily queries and concerns of our members on the front line of the pandemic and negotiate with local employers to address these issues.
From inadequate PPE, to a lack of proper guidance, to failures to risk assess new situations to protect the health and safety of our members and their service users alike, branch activists have come up trumps in supporting our members.
So as we rightly praise those members on the front line of this crisis – those previously unsung heroes, like our care workers, our refuse collectors, our social workers, our education hub workers, our cleaners and all our other staff carrying on their daily activities to support us all throughout this pandemic – we should also spare a thought for our branch officers, stewards and activists across the country who have also gone above and beyond.
And as we start to come through this crisis, we must never let these front line workers again be forgotten and undervalued. We must find a way to ensure that they are all properly paid for the work they do and that their working conditions are fit for purpose and safe for themselves and the people they work so hard to support.
By Kate Ramsden, SiU editor