Australian Unions Can Win the Fight Against COVID-19 — And Against Neoliberalism

Australia’s employers and federal government have failed to halt COVID-19, while the country’s public health system and union movement have stepped up. The Australian labor movement now has an historic opportunity to push for an alternative to neoliberalism.

Shops in Melbourne place signs in their windows informing customers of the closures due to restrictions related to the spread of COVID-19. (Darrian Traynor / Getty Images)

Early in the COVID-19 crisis, Scott Morrison’s conservative government briefly tried to convince Australians to continue life as normal. We were told that shaking hands was “low risk,” that kids aren’t as likely to transmit the virus, that face masks are ineffective, and that it was safe to go to the footy. Although Morrison continues to reject the idea of elimination, he very quickly lost the arm wrestle with public opinion.

As state and territory governments established testing clinics, contact tracing and quarantine systems, and pandemic plans, the prime minister went silent. Public health came first. After that, the Commonwealth spent billions on income-support measures, including the JobSeeker supplement and the JobKeeper wage subsidy. Although we didn’t notice at the time, many aspects of the new situation were advantageous to the labor movement.

Yet workers are still at risk and under attack. As millions of Victorians strap in for the stringent, extended lockdown announced on September 6, business has escalated its campaign to exploit our fatigue. It has a COVID-era program etched out.

Their Recovery and Ours

Its centerpiece is a publicly bankrolled “business-led recovery” that will maximize profits by further dismantling institutions that return to workers a share of the value they produce. Sound familiar? The same neoliberal class project continues apace.

Capital, however, faces a significant barrier: support for public health provision, including pandemic-specific measures, runs deep. Indeed, the coronavirus has catapulted health care systems into the spotlight. It’s unenviable terrain for conservatives who have tried (and failed) for decades to dismantle Medicare, Australia’s universal health care system.

On a deeper level, by demonstrating that markets are unsuited to meeting the most essential human needs, Australia’s health care and public health measures to fight the virus have reinforced a long-standing collective commitment to the public good.

This may even give us the building blocks for a revitalization of working-class organization, offering unions a historic chance to lead the pandemic response, to protect human lives, and to rebuild a post-COVID economy that can reverse decades of declining living standards.

Capital, Conservativism, and the Coronavirus

For big business, public health orders are an unacceptable imposition on capital’s capacity to forecast long-term profitability. The virulent anti-shutdown agenda was initially the domain of fringe far-right think tanks; now Morrison and big business are uniting behind it.

Daniel Andrews, the Labor premier of Victoria, has introduced the strictest measures. For this, he has become the target of the most rabid rhetoric. The Right is claiming his public-health orders will destroy freedom, kill the economy, undermine nationhood and lead to total societal collapse.

Indeed, no Labor premier is safe from the Right’s crusade. While mining magnate Clive Palmer pursued a High Court challenge against Western Australia’s border closures, the front page of Rupert Murdoch’s flagship national paper, the Australian, railed against “fortress premiers.” The Business Council of Australia demanded an end to restrictions, regardless of case numbers.

Big business’s “let it rip” agenda is sinister. When business suggests that we should learn to live with the virus, they really want us to normalize preventable deaths. Capital would have us believe that unemployment, fatigue, anxiety, and general malaise are consequences of the public health measures, not the virus itself. Ideally, the Right would prefer a nation of hyper-individualist “sovereign citizens” coughing and splattering on each other as we keep staffing their businesses.

Right-Wing Realignment

This is in line with a global realignment of the Right. Christian conservatism, having done away with moderate conservatism, is reverting to Cold War anti-communism, arrayed against the last vestiges of the postwar social democratic welfare state, and now threatening public services, labor protections, progressive taxation, and even parliamentary democracy.

Former prime minister and archconservative Tony Abbott built his political career on denying abortion and euthanasia rights. In a spectacular pivot, he now denounces “health dictatorships” that stand in the way of letting the elderly die, to the detriment of the economy.

The intensity of the Right’s offensive is proportionate to the resounding popularity of public health measures. Across all states and territories, an overwhelming majority supports border closures to prevent the spread of the virus. Despite enduring the world’s longest lockdown measures, Victorians still widely support the health requirements.

89 percent support mandatory masks. 76 percent agree schools and day-care facilities should be closed to nonessential workers. 75 percent support restricting hospitality services and 72 percent agree with nighttime curfews.

Market Failure

In spite of these obstacles, the business agenda is gaining momentum. While nearly two million people face unemployment, company operating profits actually grew by 15 percent in the June quarter. Labor’s share of income fell below 50 percent, the lowest since 1959.

Worse, under the cover of crisis, the Coalition government is taking a sledgehammer to the few levers of wealth redistribution that remain. 91 percent of Morrison’s billion-dollar income tax cuts will go to the top 20 percent of earners. Legislated increases to obligatory employer contributions to superannuation — workers’ retirement savings — are in jeopardy. Business also has the industrial relations system in its sights, hoping to drive down wages and conditions.

For decades, working people have been told our lot depends on the success of private markets. Yet the moment that a crisis placed for-profit businesses and service-provision models under pressure, they failed spectacularly. Victoria’s outsourced hotel quarantine system and private aged-care sector are cases in point.

Simultaneously, public health measures and Commonwealth income support have been crucial to our survival. The business class knows this. Every day that Victoria is locked down is, to the Right, an ideological risk.

Openings for Labor

There is a precious opportunity for the workers’ movement to use the vast popularity and importance of public health provision to build an alternative to COVID-19 neoliberalism. But to make good on this, we need organization: across and between workplaces, in communities, all the way to civil society and politics.

Complicating the picture is the growing chasm that has opened between federal and state governments. Yet this may be a space in which workers can advance their interests.

Since the Coalition took office in 2013, they have forcefully championed the agenda of business, accelerating the upward redistribution of wealth. They have imposed austerity and sought to marketize social services, with more than a few failures as a result — the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), aged care, and employment services are the most egregious cases in point. On nearly every other front, the Coalition has found itself plagued by policy paralysis.

As the pandemic hit, Morrison assembled representatives of Australia’s oligarchy into the National COVID-19 Commission (NCC), outsourcing major public investment decisions to it while parliament was suspended. In recognition of their support, Morrison reserved seats for corporations that dominate mining, finance, media, and retail. He handed unprecedented control to capital, over the federal government’s commanding, profit-maximizing levers, such as corporate taxation, free-trade policy, and wage-setting.

In contrast, state governments possess neither the economic power nor the political legitimacy to further the general interests of Australian and global capital. Instead, they oversee tighter links with local business sectors, like construction and manufacturing.

A Democratic Space

In view of the conservative hegemony at federal level, Australia’s states have kept open a valuable democratic space. Indeed, state governments have won greater legitimacy during the COVID-19 crisis because they administer the public goods that Australians value the most: health and education.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has already made use of this power. In a remarkable development, the Victorian government has imposed workplace-level restrictions, requiring some of the most at-risk workplaces to issue workers with hospital-grade PPE (personal protective equipment) and reduce their output by one-third, while requiring others to reduce staff.

Andrews’s second round of COVID-19 measures for businesses, announced on September 6, built on this with a “traffic light system” that rates different sectors based on risk, virus transmission, and compliance. Red-rated businesses must remain closed. Orange- and yellow-rated business may operate under greater and lesser restrictions, respectively. A business with a COVID-safe plan that has been given the green light may go ahead unhindered.

The reopening of different industries will be phased, depending on the rate of daily new infections. Industry shutdowns will finally end when the average drops below five new cases per day. This imposes an incentive on businesses to keep their workforces and communities safe, lest they be penalized by further shutdowns (and ruin it for their partners).

Following Victoria’s Lead

The Victorian second wave of coronavirus has also opened a space for unions with potentially national implications. From March, unions organized actions around health and safety, from small battles over PPE provision to more ambitious strikes, like the one that saw Spotless workers walk off the job for two days.

Empowered by popular sentiment, organized labor could make a crucial contribution to stamping out the virus. Airtight work health and safety regimes can be established and enforced by worker-led compliance systems.

At the shop floor, this can begin with establishing and training a national network of unionized Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs), who are empowered by law to issue a cease-work direction if there is a danger to workers’ safety. Logistics workers at the Toll Kmart warehouse in Melbourne used these powers to organize a successful one-day work stop.

Fighting over workplace health and safety (WHS) protocols can also rebuild power and organization. WHS inevitably raises issues like the pace of work. It can be used to push for additional breaks, safer rostering, funds for skills and training, and minimum and maximum staffing levels.

COVID-19 WHS compliance measures have a broader strategic potential. They can be used by unions to eradicate insecure, casual work. Nearly one in three workers lack paid sick leave. Due to years of deregulation and outsourcing, the most at-risk sectors are the worst paid, most precarious workers, suffering under the greatest economic hardship.

Precarious workers are also the cheapest to fire. Lacking the industrial-relations powers needed to mandate private-sector caps on casual jobs, or force employers to create permanent jobs, state governments are in a bind with respect to insecure work. However, the new traffic-light system gives business a powerful incentive to extend paid sick leave and to provide sufficient hours and pay to their workers to prevent contagion and avoid shutdown.

If unions exert their power to regulate COVID-19 testing regimes and lead shutdowns at the first evidence of infection, workers may find it possible to push further, for safer and more secure work. With a strong intervention, unions may help to stamp out two viruses at once: COVID-19 and precarious work.

A Fight on Three Fronts

The union-led reconstruction can win the battle of ideas. Australians have already refused to sacrifice human lives to the virus. Refusing to sacrifice lives to insecure work is a logical next step. And there is no economic reason why millions of insecure jobs cannot be made secure and well paid. There is no reason why new jobs created through COVID-era public investment should not be good, secure jobs.

The biggest barrier to this is labor’s lack of political power. To turn this around, it is first necessary to expose the wage-cutting, deregulation agenda of business. This is the Achilles’ heel of our ability to fight the coronavirus, end lockdowns, and rebuild something better.

Beyond this, the labor movement has a rare opportunity to fight on three fronts. Firstly, unions can lead industrial campaigns, rebuilding declining membership by transforming insecure jobs into COVID-safe, secure, higher-paid ones. Secondly, unions can become leaders of the public-health agenda, showing that workers’ rights are inextricably tied to good public health outcomes for all.

Finally, the labor movement must stridently assert the need to renationalize and reinvest in key public services and goods that have failed, often catastrophically, as a result of the crisis. Billions of dollars have been diverted from Medicare and public provision of critical social services since the 1980s, to be channelled into manufactured “markets” in aged care, disability care (NDIS), childcare, vocational training, and employment services. We are now living with the disastrous health and human consequences.

The only solution is to unlink human services from the market and bring them into public delivery. Privately employed health care and social services workers can simply be transferred onto the public books, with higher wages and crucial conditions, like sick leave and job security. Governments can build on this by immediately investing in disease-containment systems. Unions can bolster their strength by insisting that workers take the lead in both governance and compliance.

For an historically weakened union movement, this three-pronged industrial–public-health–public ownership approach is a necessity. Unions cannot pass up this historic opportunity to rebuild working-class organization and to spearhead a democratic, public-led reconstruction effort.