For workers and their communities, COVID-19, presents a triple crisis.
Firstly, there is the immediate threat of workplace-based transmission. Secondly, there are the already existing and emerging ways in which the corporate and political classes are shifting the risks and costs of the crisis onto workers. Thirdly, there is the fact that this is all taking place within a moment of acute atomisation and disorganisation for the working classes.
As the second-wave of infections in Melbourne built throughout July, United Workers Union members in warehouses, contact centres, laundries and manufacturing took a collective stand. These workers faced the triple crisis of despair, anxiety and insecurity and chose to fight back, striving to go from vectors of transmission to agents of history.
Workers and union members at twelve United Workers Union sites in Melbourne took action to restore safety. At each of these twelve workplaces, workers had to quickly learn the true potential of their collective power in order to save themselves, their families and their communities from greater harm.
The twelve safety stoppages all occurred between mid-July and early-August, following the introduction of the Victorian government’s Stage 3 Stay at Home restrictions came in effect. The rate of actions started to wind down after the shift to Stage 4 restrictions and greater controls on workplace safety that applied from the first week of August.
A diverse range of United Workers Union members took part in the stoppages. Some workers were recent migrants, some were casuals and some were labour hires. Some of the workplaces were highly organised and militant, with good safety structures, and others were not.
Of the twelve workplaces that ceased work, one was a call centre, one was a pharmaceutical distributor, one made food packaging, one processed chemicals, one was a meatworks, one was a laundry, two were supermarket warehouses, two were distribution centres for major retail brands, and two supplied products to the major supermarkets.
All of them do essential work to keep society running.
All of the actions took place in worksites where at least one worker had tested positive, many of the workers had concerns about the safety protocols on site, the way in which close contacts were defined or simply the lack of consultation with the workers.
As one pharmaceutical distribution worker observed, ‘people are concerned the company hasn’t done enough.’ A Spotless Dandenong laundry worker remarked at the time of their safety stoppage: ‘We feel unsafe because there has not been a thorough cleaning at work.’
At a handful of the workplaces, site management had tried to keep the news of a positive case from their workforce. One of the actions was precipitated when news leaked that a manager on site had contracted COVID-19 and no one had formally told the workers.
Common to each of the actions was a sense that workers were standing up for the public good. It was an imperative that could not be ignored. As another laundry worker at Spotless Dandenong said: ‘We need to stand up.’
There is no doubt that this collective worker action made a significant difference to curbing the spread of COVID-19 in the community. When the official histories of this time are written, much of the focus will go to the actions and decisions of official leaders, political and corporate. However, ordinary workers – and not just in these twelve worksites – saved lives.
At the same time, the spokespersons for the business community were pushing to sacrifice people at the altar of the economy and their profits. On 17 July, News Corp. published an opinion piece by Gideon Rozner of the right-wing, corporate funded Institute for Public Affairs, who argued that ‘if Daniel Andrews or any other premier is foolish enough to pursue an ‘elimination strategy’, they must come clean and tell us how many more jobs they are prepared to destroy, and how much anguish they are willing to inflict on their own people.’
However, there is one thing the capitalists care for more than profit and that thing is control. The twelve stoppages were an early warning that capital could lose critical control in the workplace. The danger for business was that if it did not support more intensive state action to curb COVID-19, the stoppages would spread as exponentially as the virus itself. I would bet that this is part of the reason why on Sunday August 2nd the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry came out in support of the Victorian Government’s Stage 4 lockdowns on industry, stating publicly: ‘… we encourage everyone to do the right thing, abide by these tough rules with the hope that by September we will be in a better position.’
There are broader strategic lessons here for the left.
Firstly, and most importantly, true security and safety only comes through people acting together. Legal rights and entitlements are the shadows, the remnants and echoes of the great motor of history: workers uniting in the struggle for safety, dignity and democracy.
Secondly, progressives have wasted generations contorting ourselves into knots trying to show how our policy goals align with the creation of profit. What has that effort got us? A few steps closer to the edge of civilisation collapse. Instead, to win changes within and against the present system, the left needs to challenge control. This is the fulcrum on which capitalism turns. Give workers a chance to take a stand, and they will move the Earth.
The safety stoppages were not without obstacles.
The most immediate barrier was the way employers initially responded to the threat of COVID-19 by policing the behaviour of their workers. There are workers in Victoria who have lost their jobs because they might have or were suspected to have contracted COVID-19. A worker at one of the twelve worksites summarised a common feeling: ‘I have a positive test, and I’m worried about my work and what happens next.’
The second obstacle was local management trying to use its to prevent workers from taking safety stoppages. In an incident captured on video, a manager can be heard at the Kmart distribution centre in Melbourne’s western suburbs can be heard threatening workers with disciplinary action if they walk off the job over COVID-19 concerns. For one brief moment, you can see other managers standing in the way of workers who might have wanted to walk off the floor.
When these intimidation efforts, inevitably, failed, companies turned to the state and legal system to reinforce their control. Spotless Ensign first responded to safety concerns of its Dandenong workers by applying for the Fair Work Commission to issue a return-to-work order. Ultimately, it withdrew the application before the matter was determined. As the positive cases from the Dandenong cluster increased, the matter shifted from a legal question to a social question. Two days later, Stage 4 restrictions were introduced in Victoria with the broad support of capital.
Writing this from Melbourne in the middle of the Stage 4 lockdown feels like trying to survey a storm from inside its eye. Things may be calm for now but feel unreal. It’s as if the present moment is one of hypernormality. Employers pretend that they are the ones paying their workers, and workers pretend that they are free agents within a functional labour market.
While the future is open and contingent, I can’t help but feel that in becoming a plague of the working classes, COVID-19 is also showing itself as a plague of capitalism.
The present moment reminds me of the end of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The alien machines, running on human blood, crush all before them and change the planet’s environment to suit their needs. The protagonist, driven to despair by the trauma of invasion, decides to end his life in a final confrontation with an alien machine only to find that its occupant has died, ‘slain … by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth’: a virus.
COVID-19 has brought the inhuman machines of capitalism to a temporary halt. What happens next is the question, and it cannot be answered by any one person alone.
Image: Jeremy Sallee