Above: Australia has mostly had a relatively light toll from the pandemic so far, but a new localised lockdown was imposed from 4 July after an outbreak in high-rise blocks of flats in the Melbourne suburb of Flemington
Over the 12 months prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, hundreds of thousands of people in Australia had joined protests to demand the government deal with climate change. After the re-election of the conservative coalition government in 2019, there could be no faith in the government taking any initiative to reverse climate change. The school students who took up the global School Climate Strike made a huge impact. Then the bushfire season was devastating, with dangerous smoke pollution reaching the cities, and even more people felt the urgency of the need for climate action.
The trade union movement is split and weak on climate action, with small pockets of active support, especially from the National Tertiary Education union (NTEU). The large and most “militant left” Construction Forestry Maritime Mining Energy Union (CFMMEU) is opposed to phasing out fossil fuels, and coal mining in particular, because of the relatively high paid jobs of its members in those industries. Some unions officially endorsed the School Strike without organising their members to join in.
The union movement leadership was deflated after its failure to secure the election of a Labor government that might “Change the Rules” and allow unions more legal scope for winning wages, conditions and job security. The Change the Rules campaign epitomised the fundamental corrosion behind ever-declining union membership. Career officials launch and relaunch campaigns to recruit dues-paying members, to pay for union staff, without consistent education, organisation and democratic structures in workplaces, to raise the collective capacity of workers to pursue demands against employers and the government. The only common approach to anti-union laws is to lobby Labor to promise to relax them, plus electioneering for Labor. Most of the officials who might privately think that the way to win the right to strike is to take the right to strike, keep their thoughts behind closed doors amongst other officials. Some individual unions have backed workplace industrial action. But prior to COVID-19 there was no sign of any democratic political organising, open to all workers to shake up unions and despatch the right wing officials, who are blamed the lowest common denominator approach of the ACTU, and for vetoing sharper demands, industrial campaigning.
Then COVID-19 arrived
The material change from pre-COVID conditions is that governments at national and state levels were forced to make concessions to meeting needs (with the exclusion of non-residents, like the British NRPF), over the usual priority of creating conditions for accumulation of value. The ACTU convinced the government to provide a wage subsidy scheme, which is called JobKeeper, and pays $750 a week, about the same as the minimum wage. Unions did not succeed in getting the government to extend eligibility for JobKeeper or in winning paid pandemic leave at either the national level or from specific employers. There are reports of employer failure to even apply for JobKeeper, or rorting it in other ways, and sacking staff before applying. The unemployment benefit was renamed JobSeeker and doubled to $550 a week. Child care was made temporarily free, and private hospitals were in effect requisitioned to the public health system. A few Marxist academics and some of the left have noted that even the meeting of needs was driven not only by an intention to strengthen the effectiveness of the health response, but was designed to benefit capital rather than labour or the population.
During the lockdown there have been pockets of action by workers and unionists over workplace health and safety (mainly the United Workers Union and the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union), but the very low rate of infections and deaths combined with the lockdown reduced the sense of urgency over specific workplace safety. An opinion poll found that public support for unions has increased considerably, with “3 out of 4 Australians believ[ing] unions provide essential services to ensure members are paid properly, have a safe working environment and provide a strong collective voice.” But conversion of this sentiment before it evaporates, to membership and active participation requires a leadership and politics that is lacking in most unions. The ACTU and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees (SDA) even backed a change allowing McDonalds to suspend penalty rates, i.e. extra pay for working weekends, evenings and long shifts. This is most plausibly explained by the fact that the SDA is one of the richest affiliated unions, and closely aligned with the employers.
Workers in the arts and culture have been particularly badly affected, as so many are ineligible for JobKeeper, as casuals, contractors and freelancers. Other industries most immediately affected by the lockdown measures are aviation, tourism and hospitality, advertising, media and retail (when shopping centres were empty). Apart from aviation these have high levels of casual, insecure, low-paid work, and higher proportion of women. One Australian Airline, Virgin, went into receivership in March, and QANTAS, the other major airline announced in June that it would sack 6000 workers.
Culture wars continue
Universities (Australia’s 3rd largest export earner after coal and iron ore) are ineligible for JobKeeper, and heavily dependent on overseas students for income. The closing of borders caused a funding crisis and thousands of jobs are set to be lost. The NTEU attempted to soften the blow of job losses by negotiating limited conditions under which higher paid university workers would accept wage cuts in return for retaining casual jobs, however most individual university managements rejected the limits the NTEU tried to place on their budget cutting. The NTEU is calling for more federal funding for universities, but instead the government wants to force universities to offer more vocational courses, and charge students more to study social sciences and humanities. A left organised campaign against the NTEU leadership’s efforts won support at a small number of universities, but so far this has not led to any alternative action to save jobs.
The government is persisting with annual cuts to funding for national cultural institutions and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where yet more jobs will be lost. The “culture wars” continue under the joint generals of the Murdoch media and the conservative parties. Since at least the late 1990s they have pursued anyone who challenges the glory of Australia, its history of indigenous dispossession or colonialism, or stands up for LGBTIQ rights. They point to supposed “cultural Marxism”, in universities, the ABC, the public service, and deny science and climate change.
Between now and September, the income support schemes will end or be severely cut, along with the moratorium on eviction of tenants and banks deferrals of mortgage repayments. There will be longer term knock on effects even for sectors that did not shut down. Unemployment has nearly trebled to 14.8% or 2.09 million, and around 9.7% of the workforce (1.37 million) want more hours. When the JobKeeper scheme ends in September, more workers could get the sack.
Repossessions and evictions are likely, along with a home price and construction slump, and possible financial instability. Some tenants are organising against evictions and rental arrears, but not with any results beyond state governments banning evictions temporarily, while arrears still accumulate. On paper, unions support more public housing, but have not taken up housing issues for the nearly 30% of households in private rental. Only 3% of households are in public rentals. There have been no reports of organising against banks on mortgage debt, which affects 37% of households. A workers’ program needs to take up the immediate issue of housing along the lines of “No evictions, no foreclosures, the banks can pay, they are rich, the debtors are not.”
The ACTU and employers have accepted a government invitation to “sit down together” to work on recovery measures. If the unions were making clear demands, and preparing workers to take action in the certain event that the demands are rejected by employers, this would not necessarily be a bad thing. But given both that there’s no preparing for action, and the history of union concessions in response to high unemployment, these talks will not solve problems of livelihoods, and are likely to weaken unions further when they don’t deliver.
The United Workers Unions has taken tentative initiatives for clearer working class politics in an early COVID-19 response in March, demanding a higher minimum wage, higher unemployment benefits, and “Don’t bailout essential sectors—buy them. Bring public goods back into public ownership.” So far the document seems more for discussion than organising around. The Retail and Fast Food Workers Union is also very vocal against union concessions on penalty rates. It is not at clear that the officials of these unions see this translating into a wider political movement.
Living Incomes For Everyone
A new campaign called Living Incomes For Everyone (LIFE) was set up on the initiative of a small group of long time labour movement left activists, some with a history of being on the left of the CPA. Representatives from the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, Anti-Poverty Networks, other social security recipient groups, local labour councils and student activists developed a set of demands. It focuses on income support, largely because of the urgency of resisting the cutting back down the level of unemployment benefit, due to happen in September. The demands are for keeping the doubled rate of the unemployment benefit, extending the benefit to everyone who was left out, and for social security with dignity, ending the harassment of recipients.
LIFE takes up an immediate and urgent need of around 20% of the population affected either by unemployment, or struggling to survive on payments below poverty line measures, so it is highly relevant with the potential to engage a large number of working class people, at a time when the government can’t get away with blaming the unemployed for not having jobs. It is building nationwide links between organisations of the employed and unemployed. It is especially relevant to precarious workers who swap between wage income and social security.
It also has potential to be taken up as a political campaign of demands for commitments from Labor and Greens branches and MPs.
The capacity of groups representing benefit recipients to mobilise collective action is patchy, but unlike the unions, they are not bureaucratised, and they are focussed on people’s needs. Organising to win rather than just protest will be difficult but possible, depending on whether the campaign can attract not just endorsements, but active participation by some key unions and other labour movement groups. The ACTU has started a petition demanding to #Keeptherate of both JobSeeker and JobKeeper, which should boost the confidence of living incomes campaigners.
It is another overseas or global issue, unrelated to the pandemic, that set off the first large demonstrations since the lockdown. This is Black Lives Matter in the USA, and local incidents of police brutality against First Nations people. Left political activity has continued through the lockdown, in the form of online meetings, social media campaigns, car convoys, and some small physical protests for refugee rights and housing. The student climate strikers are getting ready to protest again, and the support for climate action remains.
This is the context for potential working class and socialist organisation and mobilisation, as Australia comes out of lockdown.