Ever since Boris Johnson’s address to the nation outlining the UK government’s plans to roll back lockdown restrictions, trade unions have been in the headlines. Teaching unions, as well as the British Medical Association, the UK’s largest doctor’s union, have opposed plans to re-open primary schools from June 1st. This is due to concerns over the potential spread of the virus without a testing structure in place.

Although the government has not backed down from the June 1st goal, a great deal of uncertainty has been thrown on the re-opening process. As a result of union discussions, documents from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies have been released showing that the expert recommendation was to wait until a testing system had been established before re-opening schools. England is the only country within the UK sticking with the goal, and even then, at least 14 English councils will be advising schools against opening on June 1st.

Union activism has played a large role in keeping this issue live, and rightly so. In a member poll conducted by NASUWT, a leading teaching union, 95% expressed concern about the government’s plans. Yes, schools are hugely important for children’s well-being, and for allowing parents and carers to re-enter the economy. But teachers, like all workers, have a basic right to safety in the workplace that must be protected.

As lockdown measures become less strict, this right will come increasingly under threat. The unprecedented nature of the crisis means nobody is truly sure when it will be safe for workplaces to re-open. And due to the huge economic incentive to re-open businesses as quickly as possible, industry leaders are far more likely to push for the earliest estimates that carry the highest health risk for workers. In the last two years, union membership has already seen an uptick; the pandemic could well lead to further unionisation as established working relations destabilise in the scramble to recover from the pandemic.

In the midst of a crisis, it is far too easy to paint unions as an obstruction to the good of the nation. Teaching unions have been portrayed as frustraters, ignoring the needs of students, despite the legitimate concern of members and a constant offer to work alongside the government towards a safer timeline for school openings.

This is because the policies that are safest for workers are often the most inconvenient for those in charge; they require delays, or extra expenditure and thus reduce profit. With union power far diminished since their 1970s heyday, and only around 23% of the workforce currently unionised, the most obvious first solution to inconvenient union demands is to foster public opposition towards them.  

Unions are far from perfect. They are often unrepresentative, likely to contain the most activist members of any profession and skew heavily towards older workers; only 4.4% of union members are aged between 16 and 24. The shift to the gig economy has also excluded unions from many disputes. For example, Amazon has repeatedly refused to recognise unions, and since the beginning of the pandemic, has fired several workers for speaking out about safety concerns.  

However, in the fight to have workers’ voices heard, the union remains the best tool available – change is awkward, especially now, and it can’t be achieved without an organised collective will. Unions will probably never return to their pre-Thatcher standing, and under the Tories, they’ll almost certainly encounter constant opposition to their proposals. But if there was ever an opportunity for the union to reach a representative sample of workers and achieve concrete change on their behalf, it’s now.