It’s not often that you see anything other than picture-perfect models staring out at you from the cover of fashion magazines, but this month’s British edition of the iconic Vogue magazine leant its front pages and 20 others to a feature on key workers.
Under the headline of The New Front Line, a series of great portraits by Jamie Hawkesworth highlighted supermarket staff and shop-keepers, carers, tube workers, teachers, posties, soldiers, designers, immunologists, and NHS staff from consultants to cleaners, foodbank organisers.
Why did this happen? Vogue’s Edward Enninful was in no doubt – in an editorial entitled “Every so often a moment comes along…” he was clear that the magazine and its readers were not immune from the uncertainty and anxiety of coronavirus, and in awe and thankful for people who “are not usually afforded the spotlight”. In those key workers, Vogue’s reporter, he said, “discovered a meaningful shared experience that unite those from so many walks of life.”
This new twist on being “drawn to the extra-ordinary in the ordinary, as we all are now” is certainly different, but will it make a lasting difference? It might well, not least because as well as being key workers, and in many cases unsung heroes, there was a good representation of union members and at least one rep amongst those featured.
At this point, you may tut in exasperation – we know that union density is highest in the public (or recently public-owned) sector, especially in health care. Of course, if you feature workers from these occupations you are likely to capture union members. It’s just a coincidence, and the article is entirely silent on any union involvement by those pictured (and in fairness why would it be anything other).
So why does it matter, and why does it add weight to the argument that this current change to our view about what or who is important could be permanent?
Well the peer group support for, for example, CWU rep Karrie Scott and ASLEF member Narguis Horsford, has been very strong. Unions centrally are proud that their members have been highlighted in this way. The reaction of the CWU’s Young Workers section is pictured above. ASLEF linked Narguis’s picture to the companion “day in the life” video project.
The message in this support is clear – being a union member or rep and featuring in publications like Vogue are not mutually exclusive. It’s not a cause of jealousy or envy. It is a source of peer group pride, and feeds into a sense of collective self-worth. Put simply – it makes us feel good.
That’s important in itself – especially when every rep in every union I speak with describes heavy workloads and increased stress. Anything that helps us keep going is helpful. And part of “keeping going” is to make sure we Build Back Better (to quote the hashtag). Maintaining capacity is of crucial importance.
But it is not just union reps and the associated peer group that is affected. Karrie and Narguis are role models and standard bearers for what it means to be a union member and a local rep in 21st century Covid Britain. They may not see it that way, but potential members and young people entering the workforce look at those pictures and think – “I want to be like that.”
This is not just about media, it’s an organising thing too. And that’s why it really matters.
A discussion on Vogue and The New Front Line article is included in the new UnionDues podcast episode, published tomorrow (9 June). Access all episodes here.