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28 May 2020

Lay union reps are protecting workers during Covid crisis, survey shows

Workplace trade union representatives have been a lifeline protecting workers from some of the worst economic ravages thrown up by the Coronavirus crisis, a nationwide survey by the Labour Research Department (LRD) has found. The largely unpaid union reps have also forced health and safety improvements for those employees still at work.

The cross-industry survey of union reps the only one of its kind - found that many have pushed employers to pay better rates for furloughed workers and those on reduced hours, forced resistant employers to allow employees to work from home and improved health and safety for those still going to work.

One in four reps from public, private and voluntary sector workplaces who responded to the ongoing survey during lockdown had dealt with staff going on furlough, with over half (57%) of them winning 100% pay for workers instead of the 80% guaranteed by the government. Other reps had negotiated other pay-related improvements, such as payment for shifts cancelled at late notice and full pension contributions.

The survey also reveals many health and safety issues are still causing concern. For example, 73% said lack of PPE was still a problem, 66% cited issues with physical distancing in the workplace, 60% said mental health was a major worry and 47% were concerned about cleaning.

Some reps have had to force employers to allow employees to work from home. Although the government had encouraged this where possible, reps said some bosses were still coercing employees to come into work unnecessarily, before bowing to union pressure. Eight-six per cent of reps said at least some staff had moved to working from home.

Union reps have also achieved notable wins for precarious workers, such as those on variable or zero hours contracts. For example, at Sheffield Hallam University, reps ensured that many hundreds of furloughed zero hours teachers were paid in line with the hours they were expected to work. At other workplaces, reps won deals for contracted-out staff.

Other ongoing concerns cited by reps include issues over sick pay and absence policies, homeworking and childcare, increased workload and lack of consultation.

Happily, only 2% of reps said that they had so far faced redundancies in their workplace, though many feared this would become a problem in the future.

This is what some of the reps told LRD:

  • "We have forced local managers to allow non risk-critical staff to work from home. We have forced the employer to ensure that only risk-critical work is carried out, not business as usual and that they issue clear directives to staff. We have forced the employer to increase the supply and availability of PPE."
    Rep, London Fire Brigade.

  • "[Staff] feel a lot more assured coming in to work now. We currently work four days on and four days off doing shifts of five and a half hours. Normally we would work a 37 hour week. We have also successfully negotiated average pay for casual staff not being used who would normally have expected to be given shifts.
    (Rep, London park).

  • "We manag(ed) to get facemasks for care at home staff before the government updated guidance on this following concerns raised by members. We put the case that staff may turn up at location to find elderly service user showing symptoms, they would then have to leave them all confused while they go back to base to collect a mask leaving the service user stressed the employer provided a carry case with a mask to be used only when needed."
    Rep, a borough council.

  • "[We achieved] Social distancing for front line workers with members of the public. Information signs were supplied and messages put on facebook to inform and protect public and workers."
    Rep, Scottish Water.

LRD secretary Lionel Fulton commented: "This survey has provided a unique insight into how, in a time of confusion and concern, union reps have quietly and efficiently been protecting workers' health, conditions and jobs. This is what they do, and the coronavirus crisis has underlined just how vital that workplace role is."


The findings above relate to the period of lockdown due to the coronavirus. Almost 500 union shop stewards, workplace reps and health and safety reps from 22 different unions had responded to the survey by the second week of May. The survey is ongoing and further information will be released by the Labour Research Department for the later period

Further details and examples of improvements negotiated by union reps across the country are published in the May 2020 issue of Workplace Report magazine.


Download: Corona Reps Survey Press Release (pdf file, 83KB)


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pdf file (83KB)