When the last disposable PPE is discarded, as we start to re-enter shops, offices, libraries and pubs and cafes, and when schools and universities are open again, Covid19 won’t simply be over. It will stay with us for the rest of our lives. We know that there is unlikely to be a set date when the virus is simply declared ‘over’. But we also know that whether we like it or not the world we return to will be vastly different to what it looked like before. Lost loved ones won’t return, not all the boarded-up businesses will reopen and dislocated forms of economic exchange and decaying social networks won’t ever be what they were. The shadow of Covid19 will define the next decade. There will be much to win and lose in conflict over what the virus means and how we should respond to it and rebuild the world after it.
The struggle over the meaning of Covid19 is already a feature of high politics. It’s also visible more diffusely in the discussions that loom over how we should champion the NHS and whether the Thursday night applause is a symbol of national unity or one of solidarity and protest. Yet a more meaningful account of Covid19 needs to look beyond these noisy debates. The virus has affected all of us in complex ways. All of our working lives have been fundamentally altered by the pandemic and the resultant lockdown. To be ‘socially distant’ has meant enacting new sets of rules and adhering to and imposing new forms of discipline. Conventional boundaries between civic responsibility and the market have broken down as have distinctions between work and the home. The Scotland that emerges from Covid19 will be shaped by collectively renegotiating these distinctions once again, and the lessons we have taken from the virus will be central to those choices.
Participation in the societal response to Covid19 hasn’t been voluntary. We have all been conscripted and swept up in some way or other, but to varying intensities and with quite different outcomes. That leads to the temptation to brush off our experiences. After all, if everybody has gone through this, what’s so special about me? And why do we have to do it now anyway? It’s a cliché to refer to journalism as history’s first draft but one that is more than justified. Broadcast media and newspaper articles are already shaping how the history of Covid19 will be remembered. Histories ‘from below’, such as oral testimonies collected decades later, are hugely valuable retrospectives but both benefit and suffer from the effects of retrospective construction. Now is the time to start reflecting on what Covid19 has meant for our vastly altered experiences of work. It can start to shape the public narrative of events as well as provide the raw materials that future historians – from trained professionals to enthusiastic volunteers – will use to trace what these events meant. They won’t just want second-hand reflections and institutional accounts. Historical memory will be best served by a record of the diversity of experiences and avoiding being hung up either on modelling the ‘typical’ or seeking only the dramatic.
In past moments of major workplace upheaval, self-confident workers have often collaborated with fellow trade unionists, researchers, writers and artists to record their experiences. During 1971, Cinema Action filmed the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in and in 1987 the Glasgow Film and Video Unit assisted workers occupying Caterpillar’s large tractor factory in Lanarkshire produce an account of their experience. These groups of Scottish workers ensured their protests against workplace closures and the threat to communities from hostile governments and distant corporations were remembered in their own terms. Activists have kept banners, minutes of meetings, pin badges, song lyrics and countless other artefacts from these struggles and others like them, whilst others have recorded oral history interviews in more recent years. Covid19 presents a different, more lethal, challenge to our working lives than deindustrialisation. But we should also learn from these examples. We can’t afford to have a history devoid of worker presence, but nor can we endure a crudely heroised and collectivised image of the worker during Covid19. Simply surviving the conditions of lockdown and its economic consequences, including furlough and redundancy, has been the lot of some workers. Trade unionism’s usual routines have been majorly disrupted, where they existed, but new possibilities for collective action have also opened.
Workers’ Stories was established to help workers to record their experiences of Covid19 as it happened. We operate through the ethics of co-production. Our most valuable contributions to documenting Covid19 will be the considered reflections from the workplace — whether that is now the factory, the home or the street. Our project has no party-political perspective but nor can we eschew politics either given the inherently political nature of interpreting Covid19 now and in the future. Its political imperative lies in placing working-class voices at the centre of these discussions. By collating our submissions into online exhibitions, we will draw on themes that reflect diverse experiences in terms of gender, generation, economic sectors and parts of Scotland. In this way we hope to encourage contact between groups of workers who may be isolated from one another, especially in conditions of lockdown. The project will archive our submissions which will collectively comprise a historical record. There’s no question about whether Covid19 will be remembered, but who will be remembered, and whether workers will be recalled directly or in the terms of journalists and professional opinion formers remains to be determined.