Working from home: the big question

Is working from home a shirker's charter or the way of the future? As lockdown is set to end Jim plunges into the controversy. He also reports on the important contest to lead Britain's most powerful union

Jim Hancock

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A shirkers charter or a pragmatic answer to post pandemic working? That’s the question being asked by bosses as June 21st approaches and a substantial return to work is possible.

Views are mixed on what is going to happen. Some believe our inner cities with their vast office space and retail and catering support outlets are finished. The inconvenience of commuting, the cost of business accommodation and the ease of a zoom call will mean a total revolution in the way we work. At the moment it is the smaller towns of the North that are bouncing back faster. Localised spending data indicates a score of 120 for a town like Birkenhead while Manchester and Birmingham have readings of between 53 and 73.

Others think the need for accountability and networking, the sparking of ideas in watercooler moments cannot be replicated on a stilted remote call. When theatres, nightclubs and restaurants are fully reopened, they say, the people will return.

The outcome will probably be in the middle, but we shouldn’t forget that there is a North South divide here as in so many things. A recent survey found 46% of people in London worked from home at some stage during the pandemic compared with just 14% in Middlesbrough. In other words, it is much easier for people in clerical jobs in comfortable houses to work from home. It is not possible in manufacturing or people facing employment.

The government’s decision on a return to near normal is on a knife edge.

UNITE THE UNION?……HARDLY

Nominations close next week for the most powerful post in the trade union movement. Liverpool born Len McCluskey has been General Secretary for a decade and more. He has conducted a left-wing critique of the Labour Party. He let up during the Corbyn era believing that the Labour leader’s policies were just what his members needed.

Since the arrival of Keir Starmer, the criticism has returned, with Red Len threatening to cut some of the union’s £1.3m support for Labour. So, this is an important election for the Labour Party and for business leaders worried that high employment and shortage of workers in key industries might herald a new era of shopfloor militancy.

Starmer will be hoping that a “moderate” candidate gets elected, although that term must be put in context when you are considering the politics of Unite.

The best bet for Labour would seem to be Steve Turner. An Assistant General Secretary, he is from the pragmatic left saying he will negotiate with anyone to get a good deal for his members. More importantly, he is not threatening to cut Unite money for the Labour Party.

Nor is the union’s senior organiser Sharon Graham who has little appetite for McCluskey’s high political profile. Jobs, pay, and conditions are her priority.

Then there’s Howard Beckett who seems to be outflanking Red Len from the left. He is prepared to contemplate cutting funds to Labour if it swings to the right and wants to increase the union’s strike fund in contemplation of a wave of strikes. He has been suspended from Labour membership having called for the deportation of the Home Secretary Priti Patel in a row over immigration policy.

Finally, we come to Gerard Coyne. A former regional organiser in the West Midlands, he ran McCluskey close in 2017 in a bitter contest which ended with a judge ruling that he had included misleading information in his election material.

Let’s hope for a higher turnout of Unite members than in the past to give a truly representative result.

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