Instead of Choking on Smoke, Sydney Workers Are Walking off the Job

Following cataclysmic bushfires, Sydney has spent the last fortnight choked by poisonous smoke. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison pretends all is normal, construction and dock workers have refused to put business as usual above their health, and are walking off the job.

Activists rally for climate action as New South Wales is battling over eighty bushfires and hazardous air quality, at the Sydney Town Hall on December 11, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Jenny Evans / Getty Images)

In the first week of December, Sydneysiders inhaled the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day of bushfire smoke. Air quality plummeted to levels lower than the most polluted parts of China, and the concentration of cancer-causing PM2.5 particles soared to ten times the normal level. On December 11, anger boiled over as an estimated twenty thousand marched, swathed in smoke, to protest Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s disinterest in the disaster.

A little less than a week earlier, all three of Sydney’s container ports ground to a halt.

Wharfies had been suffering eye and throat irritation for several days before they ceased working, Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) organizer Shane Reside says, and they were beginning to rotate shifts more often and take more frequent breaks. On Thursday, December 5, air quality sank even lower, and westerly winds pushed smoke over the portside eastern suburbs. With terminal management only providing face masks that worker health and safety reps — and experts — deemed ineffective, wharfies refused to unload ships.

Walk off the Job Against Warming

Although the smoke haze is a new environmental threat in Sydney, the MUA (now a division of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union [CFMMEU]) responded clearly. Many branches told their members to put their health first and promised to support any members who refused to work. As the toxicity of the air skyrocketed, thousands of trades workers and apprentices stopped work.

These stoppages were not billed as strikes but rather as a necessary precaution against a workplace hazard. “Unprotected” strikes (strikes organized outside a legally mandated bargaining period) are illegal and often result in exorbitant fines. Yet the New South Wales Work Health and Safety Act permits an employee to cease work if there is “a reasonable concern that to carry out the work would expose the worker to a serious risk to the worker’s health or safety.” For dockworkers and most tradies, the only way to limit exposure to poisonous air is to stop working.

When terminal operators branded the walkout illegal and stood wharfies down without pay, Paul Keating, a wharf worker and the deputy MUA branch secretary summed up the response well:

“The MUA will call out every boss, every stevedore company, that thinks they’re going to put profit ahead of our members’ safety. We will wage campaigns on them until we deliver in regard to our members’ right to work in safety.”

Although Sydney’s air has begun to clear and her port workers have returned to work, their action may set an important precedent. Normally, when hazardous conditions are exposed, employers may choose to give staff time off or to invest in better safety equipment. But hazardous air is both unpredictable and largely uncontrollable — and just one of many possible consequences of increasingly frequent extreme weather patterns.

This will have an impact on labor productivity; many employers are already nervous. As Shane Reside, a MUA organizer, suggests: “There are parts of capital freaking out about climate change for exactly these material concerns — issues like this could cause mass disruption to their business model. The port’s a great example; port workers not unloading ships due to massive bushfires is going to have a severe impact on productivity.”

In many industries, it’s already accepted that extreme weather is a workplace health and safety hazard. Many enterprise bargaining agreements covering CFMMEU members contain 35°C or 75 percent humidity stop-work clauses. More is needed, however. As Freya Newman and Elizabeth Humphrys write in a recent research paper, “implementing these conditions effectively is still fraught for union delegates and members.”

Newman and Humphrys’s paper, titled “Construction Workers in a Climate Precarious World,” explains how many workers — including union members — lack the industrial clout to demand more frequent breaks or to reschedule work and mitigate extreme heat exposure. They also argue that the spread of insecure, informal, and casual employment reduces the ability of all workers to protect their safety. “[I]nformal and casualized labor arrangements, sham contracting, and fragmented labor-hire structures” means that workers can be punished for raising safety concerns and easily replaced.

The MUA and its parent union, the CFMMEU, remain among Australia’s most industrially powerful unions, enjoying relatively high union density in strategically important sectors. This puts them in a stronger position than other unions to fight for safety in the face of extreme weather conditions.

They can also point to recent wins: in 2018, Sydney port workers refused to unload ships for over two weeks after the collision of two port shuttle carriers, which left a fifty-five-year-old wharfie fighting for her life. After being stood down without pay for weeks, the company eventually agreed to meet wharfies’ demands.

As Shane Reside explained: “If you have a well-organized workplace that has an elected work health and safety structure, with elected representatives that have been trained and are recognized by the company, which is the situation at all three terminals in Sydney, then there’s strong protections under the law for those workers to refuse to undertake work.”

Strike to Save the Planet

What about workers who aren’t as organized but who are still subject to climate precarity? Take the Victorian town of Mildura, the capital of one of Australia’s “food bowl” regions. Mildura recently faced extreme heat and drought-triggered mega dust storms. Hwa Yun Chan, a farmworker in Mildura, described it as follows: “We wear masks and scarfs, but the dust still gets through into your mouth. Before we drink water, we have to rinse the dust out of our mouth. The dust sticks on our skin and itches, even until the next day.”

Hwa Yun Chan is a rank-and-file member of the newly formed United Workers Union (UWU), which covers industries ranging from aged care to manufacturing. Many of its members labor under the most precarious, informal, and often illegal arrangements in the country.

Thus, the UWU is perfectly positioned to make good on the “considerable, albeit latent, organizing potential” that Newman and Humphrys identify in their paper. Encouragingly, the union’s leadership has indicated its willingness to lead. As Godfrey Moase, an executive director at UWU commented, with reference to climate-related health and safety walkouts:

“I don’t think it’s as far away as anyone would think from the outside . . . Aged care workers have to watch the people they care for die in heat waves, manufacturing workers often work in un-temperature-controlled conditions, and so do logistics workers . . . . If the UWU consciously organizes workers as people who shouldn’t put up with unsafe working conditions, then it won’t just be farmworkers, it’ll be manufacturing workers, aged care workers, and early childhood educators.”

Beyond this, the new trend may prompt unions to more forcefully articulate an environmental politics. When wharfies stopped work last week, the MUA’s announcement didn’t restrict itself to health and safety, but also declared that “catastrophic climate change is real, and is right now having an effect on workers on the job.” Sydney port workers also called a four-hour work stoppage on September 20 and sent a contingent to the Climate Strike. Around fifty UWU members (who produce conveyor belts for the coal mining industry) also joined the strike.

These examples hint at the power that the organized working class might bring to the climate movement. Even though the September 20 School Strike for Climate rally was promoted as a general strike, and although around six million took to the streets around the world, the protest didn’t wield the economic force of an industrial strike. Those skipping work to attend only withdrew one afternoon of labor from their employers. The impact was diffuse. Although the Australian Council of Trade Unions and thirty individual unions endorsed the strike, the contingents they brought were only a tiny fraction of their membership base.

Doubtless, the vast majority of union leaders and organizers would agree with the sentiment behind the slogan, “Break the Rules or Break the Planet.” Yet Australia’s uniquely draconian industrial relations laws, as well as decades on the defensive, make it difficult to see the unions leading the charge. Perhaps industrial action triggered over health and safety concerns could supply the missing circuit breaker.

Environmental activists should encourage this. One of the proposed dates for the next School Strike for Climate rally is May Day. If that date is chosen, it will signal the potential for alignment between class politics and the environment.

Meanwhile, as Godfrey Moase says, unionists and climate organizers can forge stronger links by highlighting connections between different forms of exploitation: “The exploitation of the planet is just the flip side of the exploitation of people . . . So really focusing on corporate relations of domination and how they’re impacting the climate leads naturally to how people are exploited in very similar circumstances. You turn the temperature up on one, you’re turning the temperature up on another.”