Meeting the challenges of 2021

Mike Clancy · 8 January 2021

Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy reflects back on 2020 and looks ahead to the challenges facing us in the year ahead.

2020 was the most challenging I have experienced in 34 years as a trade union official.

Not only has the pandemic presented risks to members’ health, it has caused an unprecedented recession damaging the finances and hopes of many members. Even now it means more uncertainty about the future. It has also changed the nature and location of work for thousands of members.

It has required rapid changes to our operations and how we all interact. Our remote platforms and engagement have worked and driven new insights, but I freely admit to missing seeing colleagues, representatives and members in the way we did before last March. You really don’t know what you miss, until it is not there.

I am proud of how we handled 2020. Firstly, adapting to much more remote working for members and our staff, whilst still delivering, whether it was in negotiating new working arrangements, challenging employers on health and safety, advising on furlough or campaigning for better government support.

I speak for all staff when I say we could not be prouder to represent our members, from every different industry and background, from energy workers going in every day to keep the lights on, to creatives coming together to fight for the future of their industry, and public servants, like the staff of the MHRA working round the clock to get the new vaccines approved.

But as the new year arrived it was clear we still have big challenges ahead. Most immediately, we face a worsening health situation, with all the hardship that brings. And whether you are going into work every day or working remotely, trying to juggle the difficulties of family and work commitments, I want to make sure we are there for you.

For members in sectors like aviation, the creative industries, or heritage, whose industries are effectively closed for now, and who face an extremely uncertain future, we will be with you every step of the way. We are arguing for decent support, working with employers to get sectors back up and running safely, and making sure that government understand how essential it is that we support the workforce when the economy recovers.

The vaccine rollout offers hope of light at the end of the tunnel and the prospect of a return to something more ‘normal’ by the middle of the year. But the terms of this new normal are there to be fought for. The potential for the return of the ‘old normal’ of skewed income distribution and power concentration is waiting right there.

Not only do we have to ensure that the economic stimulus is sufficient to enable a quick recovery, but there is also a debate to be had about the future of work.

For some, the last few months will have demonstrated the desirability of more home working, for others it will have had the reverse effect, underlining the importance of separating work and home spaces. For everyone it will have shown the deep interrelationships that exist between workplaces and wider society. Neither exists in a bubble. Many need services like schools and childcare to be there to work effectively. At the same time our wider health and wellbeing is closely linked to how we work. Public infrastructure must be seen in a new light; to be conserved and strengthened, not cut to a minimum.

The important thing is that we make sure that workers have a say in how their work is structured in the future, and that government listens to unions like Prospect. It must also update workplace rights to reflect the new reality, ensuring flexibility and that blended working is an option for workers not just employers.

We need to address issues like the right to disconnect, or switch off, from the always-on work culture, with answers on wellbeing, and digital usage. We need government to share its vision of the law that balances the rights and powers of employers/employees and the engager/engaged.

Beyond coronavirus there remain significant challenges for Prospect and members.

Public servants have yet again been subjected to a punishing pay freeze and we will be building the case against it in advance of the next spending review. The climate emergency demands action on new energy infrastructure and investment in our natural environment, but also poses challenges that need to be resolved in helping workers transition to a low carbon future.

Institutions like the BBC, the civil service, and the National Trust must be defended from those seeking to undermine their founding values whilst prosecuting a culture war. And the impact of new technology such as AI in work must be channelled so that workers can exploit the opportunities, but prevent new forms of discrimination, monitoring and exploitation creeping in under the cover of ‘innovation’.

These are significant challenges for us to navigate in the coming months and I add some more. What has 2020 taught us about power imbalances? About inequality and discrimination? What do the scenes on Capitol Hill tell us about the dangers of populism and the future we now should build outside the EU? And how can we be open and tolerant to each of our lived experiences?

It is an immense privilege to be Prospect’s general secretary and to represent fascinating people who do fascinating things. Let’s take the collective effort we have demonstrated in 2020 and make your voices heard in 2021.