Many of us were irked when the Mayday bank holiday was replaced by a VE Day holiday this year. As a movement we’re uncomfortable about the celebration of war, even when it’s the war against fascism in Europe. The Covid-19 crisis is often likened to a war and gives too many male world leaders the chance to play generals with the lives of our people.
But there is a clear comparison between the two situations – ordinary women and men are putting their lives on the line for the greater good. If it is a war, like most wars, it is one where our leaders are safe and protected and it is the lowest paid workers who are in the frontline.
I remember a speech from the late great Bob Crow on his dad coming back from WW2 and standing up to the foreman at work, telling him “We just fought a bloody war and risked our lives – we’re not gonna get pushed around anymore!” That spirit of a working class wanting a better world is shown best in the landslide Labour victory in 1945.
The new Labour Government created a National Health Service, a welfare state, built new homes and schools and had a vision of a new society, rejecting the normality of the old one. Its achievements stand firm today and the many signs proclaiming support for our NHS show how unthinkable we would find it to live without it. Imagine a world where the sick and vulnerable may be too poor for treatment? But this was a world that WW2 soldiers knew all too well.
The global pandemic has laid bare the stark inequality in our society – lockdown is easy in a house with enough space and a garden to enjoy the sunshine. Skilled professionals can work from home, but low paid retail and hospitality workers rely on furlough pay or universal credit. Schoolchildren reliant on school meals have been let down by a voucher scheme that has failed them. The lack of refuges, shut down after years of austerity, leave many women trapped in homes with abusive partners and nowhere to turn.
But it is probably in the access to sick pay and secure work where the inequality is most shocking. On our UNISON Help Hub, we have heard heart-breaking stories of workers who cannot afford to rely on SSP and have had to go to work. Even worse, workers with serious health conditions such as COPD or cancer, who were advised to stay at home or to shield, who have been forced to rely on SSP or even worse, unpaid leave. At a time of national crisis, we are a society that allows its most vulnerable citizens to go without food or to risk homelessness because they can’t pay rent or the mortgage if they are to protect their own health or that of others.
If at a time of enormous national debt, we could build a National Health Service and a Welfare State, then we can create a world where everyone who is ill can take the time off they need to recover. We can create a world where everyone has a home with enough space and a world where children don’t have to rely onto going to school to have a decent meal. We are right to be proud of every key worker and to stand on our doorsteps and applaud them every Thursday. But they need so, so much more than that. We can be proud – but we should also be angry, and we must be determined to demand real, lasting change. Like Bob Crow’s dad, public service workers have been pushed around for too long and after they have won this war for all of us, it is the time to stand up and demand better pay, sick pay for all and investment in the services they provide; the services we all need.
Like many, I will be standing on my doorstep tonight, clapping for key workers. But with every clap, I will be more and more determined to change the world we go back to after the pandemic. ‘Back to normal’ is not an option – every one of us deserves better.