As Billy Bragg sang, "There is power in a union".
Or at least, enormous potential collective power, provided leadership is given on the right issues.
Tens of thousands of workers have awoken to that in recent times, with a significant upsurge in trade union membership.
Surge in Union Membership
During 2019, 90,000 workers joined a union; that's over 200,000 new recruits in two years.
The biggest increase has been amongst women workers, who now constitute 3.6 million in the UK, the highest figure since 1995.
In Scotland,15,500 joined a union last year.
Of course, to keep perspective, that still leaves only 23.5% of workers unionised, with even lower density in the private sector and amongst those aged under 35. Less than a quarter of trade unionists are under 35, whereas 40% of them are aged over 50.
Likewise, we've had several successive years of very low strike figures, and therefore low profile for collective action and the advantages of trade unionism for younger generations to observe and absorb.
That is the result of a cocktail of factors.
The most repressive anti-union laws in the western world - introduced by the Tories, sustained by Labour governments. A regime of fear, wielded by senior management buoyed up by this battery of anti-worker legislation. And all too frequently, weak, compromising leadership from the top of the unions, far too accustomed to cosy relationships with employers and a lifestyle more akin to that of the company chief executives than to the average worker who pays their union subs.
The Times They are A-changin'
There are moments in history when sharp changes occur.
There is a tendency throughout history for workers to seek solutions to their daily privations and problems through collective industrial struggle when no political solutions appear imminent, and vice versa.
To take random examples: the 1880s were marked by a monumental surge into the unions by the most downtrodden, lowpaid, so-called unskilled workers, previously neglected by craft-based trade unions, when they increasingly saw no salvation from the dominant Tory or Liberal politicians.
In turn, that industrial wave helped fuel the birth of independent working class political representation, creating the newborn Labour Party.
In the 1970s, disappointment with the 1964-70 Labour government and savage onslaughts by the 1970-74 Ted Heath Tory regime triggered the biggest modern wave of strike actions, increased union membership, a rise in workplace militancy, and through this showdown between rival class forces led to 1975 being the year with both the highest union membership in Britain and the lowest levels of inequality across society.
That stark statistic in itself is a profound lesson for today's young working class. Indeed 'there is power in a union', and correctly wielded it can not only combat poverty, unsafe working conditions, and bullying by management, but also reduce inequality.
Coronavirus Crisis: a New Turning Point
The coronavirus crisis is poised to be a new turning point in trade union and working class history.
The experience of millions in recent months has taught many profound lessons.
It's demonstrated the simple fact but there's such a thing as a working class, an idea previously sneered at by the commentariat, including some self-styled lefts and socialists.
It's shown in action that the people essential to society's functioning, to the very existence of human life, are workers of multiple and varied occupations, and certainly not the remote, grotesquely overpaid company chief executives and directors or financial speculators.
More pertinent still have been the lived experiences and visible displays of the role of trade unionists in fighting for measures to save lives in the teeth of the deadly virus, often in conflict with employers and indeed governments slow or unwilling to put people before profit.
It took relentless pushing and demanding by workplace shop stewards and the best national union officials to eventually win basics like hand sanitizers, cleaning equipment, protective screens and of course PPE for the millions of workers who have sustained life and society throughout the crisis.
Unsung Heroes on the Frontline of Trade Unionism
The unsung heroes of these times, whom the Tories would never applaud on a Thursday night, are thousands of workplace union representatives who have fought for the safety of fellow workers. Often under intense pressure from senior management, and sometimes under threat of victimisation for daring to demand measures like shutdown of non-essential workplaces, with 100% pay; protection of workers' holidays; and rigorous Risk Assessments with the full participation of union health and safety reps, to help prevent a second spike in COVID-19 deaths as the lockdown eases.
It is the determined action of these unsung heroes, and the lobbying by national unions, which forced the government into the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
Observing this collective effort, thousands of new workers have joined unions in the past three months.
That is the experience of most major unions.
Unison have reported 65,000 new recruits since January. The National Education Union (NEU), engaged in frontline battles in England over premature reopening of schools, has had over 20,000 recent recruits.
Previously scattered, unorganised and heavily exploited sectors, such as fast food and hospitality, have also begun to unionise, with some spectacular localised success stories in reversing employers' plans to make thousands redundant, gaining furlough with at least 80% pay instead.
A Dangerous Phase for Workers' Health
Currently we are living through potentially the most dangerous phase of the whole crisis, where UK and Scottish governments are to varying degrees declaring against mass outdoor gatherings, but encourageing or insisting upon mass indoor gatherings - by reopening non-essential workplaces, to revive production and sales for flagging profits.
The newly enhanced profile of the trade union movement - not seen for at least a generation - needs to be organised at both national and workplace levels to insist on proper safety measures, alongside a fully-funded and staffed regime of mass testing, tracing and isolation.
This moment should be seized to push for workers' control of workplace health and safety, through elected union reps.
The Capitalist Virus of Mass Unemployment
The other virus about to sweep the country, rooted in capitalist production methods just as much as the coronavirus, is mass redundancies and unemployment.
Millions of jobs are on life support through the taxpayer-funded Job Retention Scheme.
Around 8 million workers were at least temporarily kept in a job, albeit with 10% or 20% pay cuts in many cases, through this state subsidy of businesses.
As that scheme tapers off, the greed-driven employing class are frequently poised to slash thousands of jobs and family livelihoods.
Daily announcements by the likes of British Airways, Rolls Royce, retail and hospitality firms are a deafening wake-up call to the devastation facing the working class in the months ahead.
The unions need to rise to the challenge, not only by consciously involving members and wielding the collective 'power in a union', but also by advancing concrete fighting alternatives to this capitalist blitzkrieg.
We cannot tolerate a re-run of the devastation visited upon the working class in the wake of the 2008 bankers' crisis; a lost decade of savage pay cuts, job losses and punishment of workers for a crisis they never created.
For a 4-day Week on 5 Days' Pay
The unions have the potential power to spearhead an alternative Socialist Recovery Plan.
That could start with the immediate demand to share out the available work through a shorter working week, but critically, without loss of earnings.
The demand, for instance, for a 4-day week on 5 days' pay would evoke massive sympathy amongst workers who have either been enduring regular 12-hour shifts during the pandemic, or gained a taste of other things in life outside the drudgery of long hours at work.
That one measure could create and save tens of thousands of Scottish jobs.
Socialist Green New Deal
A Socialist Green New Deal built on the foundations of public ownership of key sectors such as construction, transport, energy and banking must become the clarion cry of the organised labour movement.
A recent STUC study shows the massive potential for job creation in such a scheme.
Analysis by Transition Economics - in part based on information from post-2008 investment schemes in other countries - gives precise figures of potential job creation in 23 different clean infrastructure projects in Scotland.
Overall, they demonstrate that £13billion investment in a two-year infrastructure recovery plan could create 150,000 jobs immediately.
Examples of the schemes they cite include expansion of the rail network (including for freight) with 13,700 new jobs.
Other clean, green investments include construction of cycle lanes and pedestrianisation (nearly 18,000 jobs); low income residential retrofit programme (34,000); residential retrofit programme (over 14,000 jobs); and upgrade of ports and shipyards for offshore wind supplies (almost 6000 jobs).
Wield the Power of Organised Workers
Socialists and trade unionists need to agitate and seek to organise the collective power of the trade union movement to demand precisely such an emergency green re-industrialization plan. It will require the social, class power of the organised workers' movement to translate fine ideas on paper into living reality.
The catastrophic impact of deindustrialization over the past 40 years led to a lack of equipment for hospitals, an inability to rapidly produce such equipment, which in turn meant both the UK and Scottish governments initially resorted to the obscenity of 'herd immunity', and then an emphasis on stopping our hospitals being overrun. Leading to such tragedies as over 1,000 elderly patients in Scotland being emptied out of hospitals into care homes without being tested, and the carnage that followed.
Housing, Public Transport, Jobs
The housing crisis has been highlighted during the pandemic, with the huge differential between the experience of those in cramped or substandard housing during the lockdown, and people even with a decent house and modest garden.
In addition to the plans detailed in the STUC study, an emergency social sector house-building plan - with a variety of types of homes for rent according to demand, including gardens for all who want one - would solve both a housing crisis and the desperate need for decent, well-paid, skilled jobs and apprenticeships.
As people return to work, the problem of ensuring social distancing on public transport serves to underline the case for democratic public ownership of all public transport and massive investment in fleets of buses, trains and ferries. Both to accommodate safe travelling and prevent a return to the appalling pollution caused by massive reliance on cars, which the lockdown has given temporary respite from, and given millions a glimpse of how better life could be if freed of both pollution and poverty.
Invest in NHS and a National Care Service
There are plenty of other immediate areas requiring huge state investment. Not investment of public money to boost the private profits of capitalist enterprises, but public sector investment accompanied by democratic public ownership and working class control. With massive job opportunities created.
Two of many such areas are the NHS and a public National Care Service, to cut out the profiteering that kills elderly people. To instead construct a care service free at the point of need, with decent wages, conditions, and training for a vastly expanded workforce that is guaranteed collective union bargaining rights.
Underpinning this socialist recovery plan is a vast redistribution of wealth from the remote, grotesquely privileged capitalist elite to the working class, who have been seen with renewed clarity to provide life's daily essentials and all that makes for a civilised existence.
Not only those rightly classified as 'essential workers' during the pandemic, but every worker, needs to be guaranteed a £12 minimum wage rising with inflation - rather than another lost decade of pay cuts and reduced spending power, which in itself further undermines job security.
Battle Commences for a New Future
COVID-19 throws up a profound challenge on what kind of future we want.
Nothing is predetermined in history. The future will be decided by a clash between rival living forces.
On one side the capitalists, bankers, landlords and their hired politicians, who want to return to the old abnormal, the inhumane pursuit of profit at terrible cost to peoples' lives and the planet we live on.
On the other side, the growing forces of an organised working class, who need to feel a renewed self-confidence and demand a Socialist Recovery Plan that rejects the obscenity of production for profit, and builds on the values of human solidarity touchingly displayed in thousands of small incidents during the Covid crisis.
Join the battle!