unions wage stagnation
(Image: AAP)

Yesterday, the story going round the traps was that Greg Combet and Sally McManus had come up with the JobKeeper rescue package and sold it to a reluctant Scott Morrison, who then sold it to the even more reluctant hardliners in his cabinet.

This morning in the Oz there’s a breathless story about how Morrison dodged it up with four business leaders, and Greg Combet was then roped in to sell it to Sally McManus. I don’t believe that Paul “Elevator to Nowhere” Kelly or other journos would knowingly report porkies, so I don’t doubt the business roundtable happened.

But I wouldn’t trust them as fast as I could spit them out on spin and slant. Quite possibly it was the CEOs who persuaded happy-clappy ScoMo that capitalism was just a series of deals, not a divinely ordained master-servant relationship. The group included Solomon Lew, who has just dudded the landlords of 1250 of his outlets with a retail rent strike.

But I’d be surprised if a lot of the pressure didn’t come from McManus, and the actual content of the package from Combet, the brains of the outfit. In terms of stuff other than making money, most CEOs are as dumb as Gerry Harvey sounds.

Whatever, the case, now that immediate crisis for many (not all) has been averted, it’s time for the ACTU, the unions and Labor to pivot sharply to the defence of workers as a class, and to provide more democratic, left and creative responses to the crisis.

There may have been a need for immediate national coordination to a degree. But it also plays to the fatal script buried deep in Australian unionism that it should play the role as state’s subaltern in disciplining the workforce, and managing its expectations.

It’s time for the unions to radically pivot around and assert the immediate needs of workplace workers, healthcare and other “contact” workers in the first instance.

The heartwarming sentiments about us all being in this together are the fiction that makes these lockdowns possible. Some of us are at home, doing work — essential, useful, bullshit work as it may be — and minimising our risk, while others are being crowded into high-contact situations for food production and distribution, transport, knick-knack delivery, etc.

Suddenly, work that was seen as low-status — the proverbial “shelf-stacker” replaced the “ditch-digger” as an image of drudgery a while back — has now been given hero status and thanks of a grateful nation, etc. The question of the work’s safety has never been adequately raised, as we rushed towards a lockdown society.

This is the pure logic of capital at its most visible: the human worker remains essential because of their essentially human capacities as self-directing labour power. But because they are essential, their humanness cannot be acknowledged. They are dead and alive, machine and person. In this case, their negation/alienation is as potential disease sufferer.

The possibility that food distribution and general delivery was too high-risk to be conducted on a business-as-usual basis was simply never acknowledged.

It was a dirty secret, as we hunkered down, and the union movement as a whole was willing to participate in that acquiescence. Since workers and members were also dependent on things keeping going, one can acknowledge the contradiction that had to be faced.

But now is the time to come down on the other side of it. Across the US, workplaces are staging wildcat strikes — they’re not even calling them strikes, in many cases, many having no connection to that tradition — over working conditions related specifically to safety.

That’s especially over the obvious contradiction that general guidelines on social distancing are specifically not being followed in workplaces whose output makes social distancing possible. What I have suggested be organised as, in the Australian tradition (of industrial “blackbans” or environmental/social “greenbans”) “yellowbans” on unsafe workplaces, are being called “sick-ins” in the US.

They’ve started here but on a smaller scale. Is that because conditions are better, or because the Australian union apparatus is playing a disciplining role that is absent in the US? Are workers at WholeFoods starting to come out on sick-ins in multiple branches, not despite the absence of something like the SDA, but because they don’t have a reactionary, repressive, miserable company union like the shoppies sitting on their necks?

The relevant unions not only have a duty to start agitating in these workplaces for a full floor-to-ceiling audit of work practices and safety, they have the opportunity to change the basic presumption of safety authorisation in the workplace.

This needs to be moved out of management and proprietor hands absolutely and finally. The safety of a workplace, within nationally-achieved safety guidelines, should rest with a workplace committee, in which management/ownership is only one voice.

But they not only have the opportunity, they have the threat that if this don’t respond to these concerns, workplace committees will form autonomously.

This is the paradox of Australian unionism. Having gained a larger role than most in the affairs of the nation, rebellion against such must ceaselessly be staged within it — otherwise conditions become worse than elsewhere, because contradictory interests are buried.

The national direction is settled for the moment; it’s now time to stand up for the stackers and packers, and other essentials, working for the JobKeepers allowance amid multiple disease vectors, so the rest of us don’t have to.

As we have found out, there’s nothing like a few empty shelves to make people aware of how things really work.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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