Type
Article
Category
Coronavirus
Workers' rights

A plague of the working classes, part three: it is what we take with us

See part 1 and part 2

The pandemic continues. COVID-waves peak, crash and repeat around the world. 

Even if COVID-19 recedes from everyday concerns for those of us living in Australia and Aotearoa, it will be a long time before many in the world have access to a vaccine. For now, our public health defences are only as strong as a casual cleaner or security guard’s economic precarity allows. Nonetheless, it is possible to begin to look forward to a world either beyond COVID-19 or where it becomes part of everyday life. 

COVID-19 is one crisis among many, along with those that invest the climate, democracy and capitalism. Even as it subsides, those others will remain and intensify. If COVID-19 can have any lasting, constructive impact, it will be in teaching the working classes how to handle a crisis. The pandemic’s most significant legacy is the lessons workers globally take from this experience. 

The first lesson is that, while a public health emergency might end up becoming a crisis for capital, effectively addressing the spread of the virus was not capital’s only, or even preferred, solution. Politicians, corporate executives and right-wing intellectuals running the herd immunity or let it rip lines are evidence of other ways of shoring up corporate profits without dealing with COVID-19 transmission. 

The concern to balance the ‘economic costs’ of action with the public health benefits of not having people die from COVID-19 comes down to a grim question: how many people must be sacrificed at the altar of profit? 

Currently, in the United States a person dies every thirty seconds from COVID-19. Yet it appears not even such sacrifice is enough. Pray you never know how much blood will satiate the dark gods of the market. 

This is a lesson to apply to other existential crises such as the climate emergency. Capital has no interest in intrinsically resolving any crisis so long as it can adapt and find a way to continue to make a profit. 

The second lesson is that collective solidarity and disruption are necessary to winning any people-focused solution to a crisis. As Australia’s second wave of COVID-infections crested around Melbourne in July and August, it was the swift and effective safety stoppages by essential workers concentrated in warehousing, the food supply-chain and manufacturing that created the conditions for effective public health measures. 

The impact of these safety strikes can be read into the ABS’ September 2020 quarterly release of industrial disputes. The June quarter registered the lowest ever number of working days lost since the data collection began at 1,500 days, breaking the record set in the previous March quarter with 3,900 days. The September quarter, however, saw 11,700 days lost to industrial disputes. While relatively anaemic by historical standards, this number still represents a multi-factor increase in a matter of weeks. 

Moreover, the days lost were overwhelmingly concentrated in the essential industries where workers were taking safety stoppages: logistics and manufacturing. Together, these industries account for 93 per cent of days lost in the quarter. The momentum generated by these collective actions will likely spill over into an angry summer that, by my prediction, will see the days lost to industrial action at least double in the December 2020 quarter. 

The snap actions springing up across numerous key Melbourne worksites played a vital role in pushing business to back the bulk of the Victorian government’s public health measures, especially the workplace interventions. This is not to play down the daily acts of solidarity that ordinary Victorians engaged in. Rather, it is to highlight the cooperation that was necessary to beat back the second wave. The willingness of essential yet insecure workers to walk off the job was the flip side of the preparedness of millions of people to stay at home. Both are markers of incredible sacrifice for the common good. 

These daily acts of solidarity and cooperation between ordinary people are what made elimination the only viable strategy, and created the deep reserve of political support that made the Victorian government’s key public health measures possible. It was the strong activated social solidarity that made the radical right functionally irrelevant for months. 

The third lesson is that, while leadership matters, individual parliamentary leaders don’t matter as much as we think. Australia has Scott Morrison, New Zealand has Jacinda Ardern. Both leaders have very different personalities, values and instincts. Both countries have ended the year in effectively eliminating the local transmission of COVID-19. In Australia, however, this was an achievement of ordinary people almost in spite of the best efforts of the federal government. 

Quarantine is one of the few express powers the Australian constitution confers on the federal parliament, yet the Morrison government could not even manage to get this right. The quarantining of international arrivals was left to a disastrous mix of different state governments and private contractors. Australian Border Force let infectious tourists walk right off the Ruby Princess. Retooling Customs & Quarantine into a militarised Border Force has cost the lives of hundreds of Australians. It has taken too large a toll to discover that the hammer blow of state violence is no help in smashing a virus.

To make matters worse, Morrison and senior members of the federal government actively negged ordinary Australians in the fight to eliminate local transmission. Morrison called the second-wave ‘the Victorian wave’, argued that eliminating COVID-19 would crush the economy, and has taken no responsibility in fixing a privatised and outsourced national aged care system that has killed hundreds of ordinary people during this pandemic.  

In response to the federal government ignoring them or telling them what they can’t do, people did what was necessary to eliminate the virus locally. Of course, dedicated public servants – whether in the state or federal public service – and health care workers were absolutely necessary, but even their best efforts would come to nothing without the cooperation, sacrifice and leadership of ordinary people. 

And what do the working classes get as thanks for all of this? A bill to pay for continued corporate profits in the form of a #DogAct of IR changes designed to support corporate profitability at the expense of wages and conditions. This is a parliamentary mirroring of other acts of corporate villainy like Coles locking out Sydney distribution workers for three months over Christmas in an effort to staff a new highly automated warehouse with insecure, compliant labour, and Lion shutting down the 160-year old West End Brewery in Adelaide

Well, stuff ‘em. 

The rebirth of Australian democracy and the organised labour movement is not going to come waiting for the next great political leader to arrive and win an election no matter their faction, their political party or colour of their campaign T-shirts. The moment when such a political leader emerges will be a sign of progress already made rather than a precondition for progress to occur. 

The real leadership from the shopfloor that workers started exercising through the pandemic is what we can take with us, and with it build a better future. 

 

Image: John Twohig

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Godfrey Moase is Executive Director, United Workers Union. He’s previously written for the Guardian, Overland, Jacobin and New Matilda.

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