An update from LSWU on conditions during Covid-19 and how members have responded:
Hundreds of workers from across the country have joined Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU) in the wake of COVID-19. LSWU members say that it wasn’t the virus itself that drove them to unionise, but the often abject response by management and the state.
Where some bosses were open and honest from the outset, others left their workers in the dark. Communication as to furloughing and redundancies was non-existent until the moment it took place, and there was little meaningful consultation about how to protect jobs in the long term.
Many workers were forced to continue going into the office even as the virus raged through the community — and even if they were shielding. Some firms enforced this despite having the IT systems to facilitate working from home. Ultimately, many employers chose to prioritise billable hours over staff health.
Most worryingly, Covid-19 in the legal sector saw the development of a clear pattern of firms disproportionately imposing the burden on the lowest paid, least secure workers — who are disproportionately of lower socioeconomic class, and more likely to be Black or people of colour.
Requirements to ‘prove’ that working from home wouldn’t interfere with workers’ responsibilities favoured senior lawyers over clerical and admin staff, and blanket refusals to supplement the salaries of furloughed workers ignored that those already earning the living wage or close to it rarely have a pot of money to dip into in times of need.
Employer failings were compounded by the government’s blatant disregard for workers. No provision was made to protect those attending police stations; workers were attacked as ‘activists’ for the crime of doing their jobs; and criminal practitioners were expected to acquiesce to extended court hours despite already being critically overworked, in order to fix a hearing backlog caused by years of brutal austerity.
In the face of all this, workers could not be blamed for giving up. It is testament to their unwavering commitment that they have done the opposite. For the first time, the advocacy of bodies like Young Legal Aid Lawyers and the Criminal Bar Association has been allied to a mass movement of legal workers, autonomously organising themselves within a trade union to demand a profession that is accessible to all and that prioritises justice over profit.
As a result of concerted action by LSWU members, many of the unfair decisions taken by management were retracted. From supplementary payments to ensure that those who needed it received 100% pay, to guarantees of communication and even consultation on major decisions, workers won the day.
Members have also recently fought for the widespread adoption of a COVID-19 Police Station Protocol, campaigned for an end to immigration detention to protect workers and clients throughout the pandemic, and supported the #strike4justice movement to defend and further the interests of criminal practitioners.
Isaac Ricca-Richardson, LSWU’s Media and Communications Officer, adds that, “it is our hope that this marks a new dawn for legal workers. One which recognises the materiality of the problems we face – from strict hierarchies to overworking and the pervasive commodification of legal services – but refuses to be cowed. As long as we stand together, there is nothing we cannot achieve.”
If you work in the legal sector, as a barrister, solicitor, cleaner, secretary, paralegal, caseworker, intermediary, clerk, support staff or legal executive, join LSWU today.