We were honoured to be asked to make documentaries for Unite exploring how the union had responded to the pandemic. Followng Zoom interviews with regional secretaries, we were tasked with gathering stories from across our regions and nations, of union members and reps from frontline of the pandemic. These stories (over 40 of them) are an important record of the union response to the pandemic and will be something for the unions archives.
We began our film journey in London at the Covid Wall on Workers Memorial Day, with Bereaved Families for Justice, who were calling for a national enquiry into the handling of the pandemic. Here we learned that a shocking 56 bus drivers in London had lost their lives to covid while serving the public on the buses. We interviewed amongst others, Leshie Chandrapala, the daughter of bus driver and Unite member Ranjit Chandrapala, who lost his life to Covid-19. This was a heartbreaking story. You can watch it in our film.
The story of bus drivers and the pandemic did not end here. We also interviewed Sajid Fazal ‘Faz’ from Leicester who sadly lost his brother during the pandemic. In addition to driving buses during the pandemic, which he found terrifying, he cleaned the buses at night when eight cleaners went down with covid. Bus drivers like Faz kept the country on the move. When Faz talks about ‘terrifying’, he is not wrong. We also spoke to a union rep and bus driver in Belfast, *Michael Dornan, who made a similar claim when he drew comparisons with driving a bus during the troubles in Northern Ireland and driving a bus during the pandemic.
*his story will appear in our pandemic documentary for Ireland, coming soon.
Unite’s network of safety reps did all that they could to help protect workers, but with such a slow response from the government in supplying PPE to workers and in requesting the public to wear facemask, so many lives were lost on public transport.
In Belfast we spoke with Joan Turner, an NHS paramedic, whose story was harrowing. She was part of an ambulance team who during the pandemic, transferred elderly patients from hospitals into care homes, unwittingly spreading Covid. Joan contracted Covid herself while at work, and her life has been drastically altered. Despite this, she wanted the story to focus on the shocking lack of PPE in care homes. Care homes staff are often seen as second class to NHS. We interviewed a number of people in defence of care home staff. A future organising effort in this sector is needed. You can hear her story in our film.
Our film work took us to Banbury to the manufacturing sector and the campaign against fire and rehire. We recorded this day of action with national officer Joe Clarke. Standing outside the highly profitable coffee company J.D. Egberts. They had attempted to fire and rehire staff on inferior conditions. The workers felt very let down, especially as they had worked so hard during the pandemic. We edited a short film to support this campaign. It was moving to see so many mask wearing workers at the rally standing up for future generations.
Thanks to the 25 million strike fund provided by Unite, Goodlords employees were able to take on their employer. Goodlords had attempted to fire and rehire staff on inferior terms and conditions during lockdown. This meant the workers being asked to work from home permanently, and the withdrawal of London weighting. According to the company, they did not now need to be in London. Two of these worker, Athena Parnell and Martyna Ostrowska kindly let us into their homes and spent a day with us filming. Their stories raised the prescient issue of the future of flexible home working. A big challenge for unions going forward and a pandemic fall-out. For some workers, working from home is a panacea and for others such as low paid Goodlord’s employees based in London, a life of loneliness working on make-shift office desks in shared houses on significantly less pay. You can listen to their story in our film.
With the collapse of the aviation industry, it is no surpise that our film journey took us to Gatwick airport, to spend time with ground crew and union rep Mark Legg and Unite officer, Claire Simpson, an ex flight crew members, who have been tirelessly supporting members during an incredibly difficult time in the aviation industry, where 5000 jobs were being lost per day. You can listen to their stories in our film along with Sharon’s story from Logan Air in Scotland.
Another industry in existential crisis during the pandemic was hospitality. When restaurants and bars closed down, workers had nowhere to go. We met the amazing ex-hospitality worker, Julia Marciniak who now works as a Unite co-ordinator for hospitality in the Republic of Ireland. She spoke passionately about the challenges of life in hospitality and the post-lockdown recruitment crisis. Many workers do not want to return, post-lockdown, to low paid work in a public facing job, where they are potentially putting their lives at risk. You can listen to her story in our film along with the wonderful Caitlin Lee, a worker from the hospitality sector based in Glasgow.
Further pandemic stories are told by from James Mcabe in Dublin, a Unite branch secretary and construction worker, he told us the story of the union and government agreeing to close down all but essential construction work in Ireland during lockdown. The government along with Unite’s support agreed to the closure. This was not a popular decision at the start of of the pandemic, and Unite came under a lot of criticism, especially from other unions. Unite continued to show leadership, putting workers health before anything else. People soon realised that it was the right thing to do. As James points out in our film, “its always health before wealth in Ireland”. This decision saved lives. This is a story of a country in crisis and the union response. You can hear more about this in our pandemic film for Ireland. Out soon.
We spent time in the Northeast with Nissan, the carplant in Sunderland. The union reps, Craig McDonald and Paul Stewart told us their inspiring story of how the automotive manufacturer had used its industrial muscle to support the NHS. The company bought in a mask-making machine, and invited furloughed workers to volunteer to produce PPE. The Nissan workers produced millions of facemasks and aprons. This was a real community and industrial effort. We found the same pandemic community initiative in airplane manufacturer, Airbus, whose work, as part of the aviation supply chain, had been drastically affected. No planes in the air meant no new planes being manufactured. These furloughed Airbus workers manufactured PPE for their local hospital in Wrexham. With everybody afraid for their economic future, these community efforts are especially uplifting. Short films of both of these stories will be out soon.
Further community efforts were found with vibrant Claire Caulfield In Belfast, a Unite learning co-ordinator who had been seconded from her work at Unite to co-ordinate the production of scrubs to protect key workers from the virus (NI Scubs). Volunteers with sewing machines, in their own homes, produced tens of thousands of sets of scrubs. This activity staived off loneliness for many elderly people and unite became a household name. Claire was having to isolate because she has a daughter with a hole in her heart. She led this project from home from her laptop. You can listen to her inspiring story in our film. She is a tour de force.
Our filmic journey was an emotional one, and we met so many amazing union members and union reps, who are immediately inspiring and told us their stories with such passion. These stories and many more will appear across three longer films and a number of short films.