Moving between the hope of the strikes and the uncertainty of the pandemic – short update

The first quarter of 2020 has been eventful to say the last. In this blog post, I will focus on two matters that are especially relevant to my interests, immediate experience, and the scope of this project.

The second round of UCU strikes (and I am referring to this dispute in particular because of it being part of my immediate experience) took place in February and March, over 14 working days, over pension contributions, pay, gender and ethnicity pay gaps, casualisation, and workloads. Despite an ongoing and active struggle on 74 campuses (and many more that have not managed to reach the ballot threshold), the dispute has not ended yet. Supporting the pickets, attending the rallies and teach-outs, and delivering a teach-out myself with a number of colleagues, have been truly transformative experiences which cannot be equalled by any theoretical readings around work and trade unionism. 

Immediately after the strikes (and to an extent, overlapping with them), the coronavirus pandemic started in the UK. It has impacted all aspects of life, and in particular we have seen very clearly how work, the economy, health, and disablement are all fundamentally intertwined. While already ‘privileged’ enough individuals in employment will be supported (indirectly) by the UK Government through payments made to employers (up to 80% of employees’ wages), those who are most economically and socially marginalised (gig economy workers and unemployed people) are still having to rely on the conditional social security system – Universal Credit (with an at least 5-week wait for a very low amount of money), as well as foodbanks and support from friends and family. The TUC declared this wages support as a victory; UVW Union are campaigning for increased support for all workers, not just employees. Their demands for reform are:

By-pass the bosses, pay workers directly.

Offer all workers regardless of employment status the same deal.

Any worker who earns under £2,500 per month (equivalent to around £14.50 p/hr 40 hrs p/week) to be paid 100% of their wages.

Make it compulsory for employers to cease all redundancies and rehire those already made redundant.

Don’t just suspend evictions, suspend rents.

Pay full pay sick pay to all workers.

Universal Credit for the unemployed to be paid at the rate of a Living Wage.

No dismissal of any worker refusing to work for fear of contracting or transmitting Coronavirus.

At least £15 an hour for any “Key Worker” working throughout the Coronavirus crisis.

Today, IWGB announced that they are suing the UK Government for ‘its failure to protect the wages and jobs of millions of workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as its failure to ensure the health and safety of those still employed through proper sick pay’. Other proposals and demands for action in relation to Coronavirus have been published by Recovery in the Bin (a critical theorist and activist collective), and ROFA (Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance). While calls for self-employed people to be treated in the same was as employees (instead of receiving a mere £94.25/week, which is the regular Universal Credit payment so familiar to social security users) is a step in the right direction, it is troubling that discussions regarding eligibility criteria and who is (morally?) entitled to state funds revolves around those who already have an active relationship to the wage system. A petition for Universal Basic Income has been signed by more than 100,000 people, and will therefore consider this proposal for a debate. 

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of the level of support for workers and unemployed people, former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Ian Duncan Smith declared his disapproval of a universal basic income because it would be a ‘disincentive to work‘. This short phrase aptly describes not only IDS’s attitude towards work and disablement, but it also makes visible the function of the wage system. That is to say, the wage system is a socio-economic and political system used to discipline society through making work the main condition for survival. Access to survival tools outside of the wage system – that is, through social security and universal basic income, would reduce the need to sacrifice oneself to the imposition of work; or, at least, to work that they do not enjoy or find either self-fulfilling or socially useful. Whereas being outside of the wage system and not having much to rely on, disciplines one into having to continuously seek a paid job, despite the sacrifices and costs that this entails.

Those affected the most by the pandemic (often fatally) are disabled people, and people who experience mental distress, neurodivergence, and chronic illness; older people are also more likely to suffer more from contracting coronavirus, however anyone regardless of age can be severely and fatally affected. Those ‘at risk’ have most often been talked about in a paternalistic and apolitical way as simply being ‘vulnerable’. ROFA (Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance) rightly point out that the so-called vulnerability is not simply the result of an immune system that cannot cope with the virus. Instead, it is

a result of social, political and economic factors. What creates their vulnerability is a failure to put in place appropriate resources, support and advice; not who or what they are. The complete lack of infrastructure in place to support those groups of people who are potentially most at risk has been made evident by this current pandemic, at all levels – national, regional and local. Community based support ought to have been a priority from the first day of recognition that a crisis situation was on its way.

On the one hand, eco-fascist, eugenicist, racist, and pro-borders claims that we need to protect ‘our nation’, nature, and the economy (against migrants and ‘migrant-looking’ people, humans (as a species), and ‘economically inactive’ people) have been mobilised in relation to this pandemic. There are countless examples of discrimination: Trump calls coronavirus the ‘Chinese virus‘, a Chinese student’s jaw was dislocated by a violent group in a racial hatred attack in Birmingham; a Singaporean student in London faced a coronavirus-related, racially aggravated attack; an NHS paramedic has been evicted from home for fear he would spread Covid-19. On the other hand, mutual aid groups have been organised all around the UK and beyond, trying to create structures and support that are not currently offered by organisations and state institutions, and ACORN (a UK-wide tenants’ union) is seeking signatures for a petition demanding rent suspensions and for the government to:

Enact a rent suspension for anybody who is unable to pay rent during the crisis, either due to having to self isolate, being out of work, or being unable to go to work.

Announce an emergency freeze on all current section 21 or section 8 evictions.

Announce an emergency freeze on all current evictions of housing association and council tenants.

Extend the ban on eviction proceedings to cover lodgers.

On social media and in mainstream media we see numerous accusations, photos, and video recordings shaming individuals for not being careful enough to self-isolate and undertake social distancing (the Health Secretary called them ‘selfish‘, without mentioning the selfishness of employers), whilst others highlight the Government’s failure to take the threat of the pandemic more seriously, leading to guidelines that are not firm enough and supportive of those who are suffering the most. One should not be too surprised by the lack of support, however: it has been reported that the PM’s aide made a very worrying comment regarding the implications of the ‘herd immunity’ idea: ‘if that means some pensioners die, too bad’. Even if he did utter that particular sentence (he seems to deny it), actions do speak louder than words, and we can easily see the devastating effects of this approach which entails allowing the virus to spread to the majority of the population, in order to increase the immunity of ‘the herd’. We can now be even less surprised about the news that a No10 adviser recruited recently by the previous aide, had expressed deeply racist and eugenicist views by suggesting that cognitive enhancers ‘which can prove fatal, are “probably worth a dead kid once a year”‘. I look forward to reading future analyses of this concept and its respective policies. To me, this is a utilitarian approach that presumes that the happiness of the many can and should be guaranteed by sacrificing the few. In this case, the few are the most proletarianised people in society, both money-, health-, and disablement-wise. Frey brilliantly put it when she defined ‘herd immunity’ as ‘epidemiological neoliberalism‘:

Much like the unconditional belief in the free market, herd immunity relies on the assumption that an epidemic is best overcome by leaving it unregulated. But just like neoliberalism, it results in violence against the weak and the poor: elderly and disabled people, homeless people, refugees and people with severe health conditions – many of whom are likely to also have a lower socio-economic status because of the correlation between poverty and illness.

The lack of leadership from Government has translated into employers’ ability to interpret the guidelines according to their own interests: some decided to fire their staff and end work arrangements with workers, agency staff, or self-employed people (see the case of Sodexo and Axis, companies to which UCL have outsourced cleaning and security staff, and IWGB’s sick pay victory for members); some claimed that their staff are ‘key workers’ (including, for instance, Waterstones -who decided to close stores after public pressure- and Wetherspoons), and finally others delayed their lockdown and demonstrated little flexibility in terms of who, among their staff, would need to still come into work even when everyone else is staying away (see the case of Coventry University library whose managers adopted a “business as usual” approach; they took down the tweet that used that phrase…). The definition of ‘key workers’ and who is needed/essential to be in work during the lockdown has also been contested by staff members and the trade unions on my campus in negotiations with the employer, especially as the most low-paid staff (cleaners, estates, technical support assistants, postal services staff and others) are currently still compulsorily required to come into work. In my immediate circle, alongside continuing to work on the PhD, I have been involved in supporting and organising together with the UNISON and UCU branches on my campus and with students, to make sure that all workers and employees (including outsourced employees) are appropriately supported, informed of their rights, and can confidently stay away from the risks posed by working on campus.

During this pandemic we are seeing how the most low-paid workers across the globe are the ones who are keeping everyone safe, and whose jobs are ‘key’ and socially necessary; we can also see how trade unions and disabled people’s organisations are at the very heart of the struggle for better safety measures and protections for all. We are learning to notice that socially unnecessary jobs can be interrupted; we, as a society, can live without them. This pandemic highlights the need for societal care, mutual aid, and cooperation for collective flourishing. Indeed, as Walela Nehanda writes in this beautifully-written article, ‘the practice of mutual aid can fundamentally shift community relationships and interpersonal relationships by emphasizing self motivated reciprocity (not charity)’ […] Mutual aid asks us to humanize the same people capitalism will call useless’. As such, I hope to see increased and mobilised support for policies such as universal basic income and universal public services, restructuring the economy towards ecological and sustainable goals, a reduction of the working week, and an increased valuing of cleaning, logistics, caring, nursing, medical and other jobs related to social reproduction. Related to the above, The Foster Carers branch of IWGB demand the following:

all LAs and IFAs to pay a retainer of equal value to the normal fostering fee to any foster carer who needs time off to recover from the coronavirus. Currently foster carers are not eligible for statutory sick pay so they must not be put in a position where they cannot afford to pay priority bills due to this illness.

In the higher education sector, teaching and other staff all across the UK have been required to move their work online, often with not enough time to transition their materials and content of their teaching from the face-to-face mode of delivery to an online one. This is notably taking place during two ongoing UCU disputes and Action Short of Strike Action. Low paid workers (especially administrators) at various universities have highlighted how, when they had previously requested to have access to a laptop and work from home, they were never trusted by their employers. Suddenly, remote working is being allowed and demanded of them; many are using their own equipment and laptops. Suddenly, reasonable adjustments for disabled people have also been possible, but not because of ethical and legal requirements to support workers, but because of the needs of capital. This change to remote working and studying could also have negative implications for working conditions across sectors where institutions could learn how to further automate processes and avoid providing workspaces to employees.  

The Coronavirus Bill

The pandemic is also a party political matter, and its name has been instrumentalised for a Bill within which we find proposals that do not seem to be directly related or necessary for the tackling of the pandemic. These proposals include greater state surveillance powers and a curtailing of social care provision. The Coronavirus Bill (set to remain in force for two years) will be debated in Parliament today. Liberty UK (a human rights organisation in the UK) warns against the mass removal of the right to assemble, increased surveillance, policing, and detention powers that go far beyond what is necessary to address the pandemic. The Bill also seeks to offer increased powers to individual doctors to detain people who experience mental distress: the decision is required to be made by one doctor only, instead of two (as used to be the case). Inclusion London NGO (an organisation that supports dozens of Deaf and disabled people’s organisations in London) and their supporters (including myself) are contacting Members of Parliament, urging them to scrutinise the Bill carefully, stand up for disabled people, and oppose the Bill’s reversal of important social care provisions that were won through the Care Act 2014 and Mental Health Act. For instance, the Bill proposes to free local authorities from the responsibility to provide social care support to disabled people, especially at a time when this support is ever more important and needed, and after a decade of austerity. The LAs would only need to provide Social Care if the individual is at risk of having their Human Rights breached, under the European Convention on Human Rights; according to Public Law Barrister Steve Broach, the threshold for defining this breach is high:

We may find that disabled people are being left without care and support – in a situation which has a significant impact on their wellbeing. But where there is not a breach of their human rights, there is no requirement to provide them with care and support when the Bill goes through. That’s the first major area of concern.

Given that the Conservative Party have declared their desire not to follow the European Convention on Human Rights after Brexit, the above mentioned threshold may potentially not even apply anymore in a few months’ time. 

COVID-19 and PhD research

Since the start of the pandemic in the UK, and increasingly more in the past week, I have faced the ethical, methodological and logistical questions of what to do with regards to the interviews I had planned to undertake over the next few weeks. Given the risk of contracting and spreading the virus through face-to-face interaction, I will need to postpone the interviews, and/or arrange to undertake a few of them online. However, another dilemma is whether I should completely postpone the interviews (and for how long) due to this period being one of heightened stress for most people, and as such it might not be appropriate to held the interviews at this time. These discussions will be held during supervision meetings, and I look forward to finding out what other researchers are doing in this respect. If you’d like to express interest in getting involved in the project as a participant, please visit https://materialbodies.work/join.

Personally, I have been overwhelmed both by the multitude of news stories coming from all directions, and the need to keep up to date with what is going on around the UK and in other countries. This has meant that my ability to thoroughly focus on, and remember what I have been reading, has been significantly affected. I have also worried about the safety of fellow workers in my immediate milieu, and for weeks I have felt a constant anxiety running through my embrained body/embodied mind. 

I will be working from home in the foreseeable future, and I hope to be able to post more thoughts on the website (this post is a good start). I will also be thinking about how and to what extent I could include this global pandemic in the narrative of my thesis and interviews, and volunteering as part of a mutual aid group in my area. If you have any thoughts around any of the above, please feel free to contact me!

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