Simms at the University of Glasgow agrees. She says before, health and safety was sometimes seen as “the most boring bit”. But “this is a point at which it’s never more obvious that your interests are at odds with your employer, if your employer asks you to do something that might make you very sick”.
There are certainly signs that the pandemic is generating renewed interest in labour unions. “During the height of the pandemic we saw our new weekly membership numbers increase by 300 to 500%, and the majority under the age of 35,” reports Rafael Espinal, the 36-year-old executive director of Freelancers Union. Espinal believes that “the dramatic increase in numbers can be attributed to freelancers looking for a support system and a point of information during a time of uncertainty”.
The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, which represents workers in typically non-unionised roles, including cleaners, receptionists, charity workers and game developers, also saw a spike in March in the number of new joiners younger than 35. The numbers are modest overall, but the rise has been significant and continuing. There were 146 young recruits in March, compared to an average of 78 in the previous four months, and 93 in the following four months. IWGB President Henry Chango Lopez says, “Young members are joining the IWGB because Covid-19 has made it chillingly clear that not even our most basic rights, not even our health and safety, can be taken for granted in this crisis.»
Yet even if the pandemic is exposing the importance of employee organising, it may be making such organising harder. Converting current momentum into sustained change will be the harder part.
As Simms points out, “when there’s a recession and associated job losses, union memberships go down for the very obvious reason that people lose their jobs”, while those who don’t can be reluctant to rock the boat. Simms asks rhetorically, “Why would you go to war with your employer when most people haven’t got a job?”