A virus drives a pivot to manufacturing!

For 42 years the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, manufacturing workers, and the majority of Australians with common sense, have been saying that it is not rational to use Australia’s mining resources to diminish the role of manufacturing in our society.

In the main their rational thinking and proposals (in the case of the AMWU, see below) to maintain and develop our manufacturing voice have been ignored – especially by Liberal National Party governments – or downgraded, relative to free trade policy, as has been the case with the Australian Labor Party.

The union has consistently stood up for manufacturing workers and for Australian society over those years, using a variety of methods and tactics. They have been more consistent and insistent than anyone else.

The covid19 virus, presumably not a being with intellectual capacity, has proven them correct.

So much so, the Morrison LNP government, steeped in a long history of hostility to manufacturing and the AMWU, has announced a “pivot” to manufacturing. (Before the virus spread the Australian economy was drifting into a recession that would have become more apparent by around mid year. There is no way that, in that circumstance alone, this government would have considered the restoration of manufacturing as part of its anti-recession response.)

A national manufacturing task force has been created, dominated by business “leaders”, although the National Secretary of the AMWU has been appointed as a sole union voice.

Paul Bastian recently explained what could be done quickly to begin the restoration of manufacturing as an essential part of the Australian economy, instead of a coincidental afterthought.

These are the Union’s preliminary proposals for the immediate situation. However, the AMWU’s capacity used to go way beyond that.

Here you will find a quick history of AMWU and other union interventions in the struggle to maintain a strong manufacturing base founded on a skilled and well paid workforce.

Food supply workers hooray! Heroes they truly are.

“Without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.” (from “Solidarity Forever”)

Who, truly, reproduces society?

The corona virus pandemic, and the Morrison government’s handling of it, brings to the fore a simple, profound although neglected truth. No society can reproduce itself without workers.

From that, because ours is a society driven by profit seeking, even this government now recognizes (without saying it) that it is workers whose labour provides profit, not just wages. Investment from employers is dead unless workers apply their “brain and muscle” for so many hours each day to the machinery and equipment put in front of them.

Showing our gratitude: health care … and food workers

Some workers, we are sharply reminded, are so essential that without their work sickness and death reigns.

Now, in gratitude, we stand and applaud our health care workers, including bosses and politicians who want a pay freeze inflicted on them.

And rightly so. Their “brain and muscle” cares for us despite attacks by governments, just like Morrison’s; not just pay freezes but the full range of neoliberal management … budget cuts, staff cuts, casualised and precarious work, commandist management, corporatisation, and privatisation (in which human caring becomes a commodity).

But so far, workers in food and water production and supply are relatively unrecognised. They are the direct farmers, harvesters, equipment maintainers and repairers, energy suppliers, transport workers, factory workers, warehouse and dam workers, and retail workers, especially check out assistants. Transport and retail workers in this “chain” do get a mention here, but not those actually producing.

They deliver both profit and wages and, elementally, the food and water that gives us all, including health care workers, the physical and mental energy to do our paid and unpaid work.

And that’s true for every one of us. We cannot protest and demonstrate, think and act critically or creatively, without the labour of food and water workers.

The starting point for food is of course the soil and its interaction with water. Who owns and controls the soil-water interaction is a very big deal for all of us. (I leave our oceans aside for the moment.)

Turning our back on food workers?

In Australia a big part of this essential food and water work is done by visa workers, often in “wage theft” driven businesses.

What they do is every bit as honourable and brave as any health care worker. They deserve our recognition. Yet the Morrison government deliberately excludes them from the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme.

The government spin is that it must “draw the line somewhere”. Some workers who produce and distribute food and water to us are deserving, some are not.

Why? Because the government believes they can get away with it. Thus, they invite us to consent to that … that some workers are deserving and some are not.

We must not fall for that. Instead, think about it when we shop for our fruit and veg and so on. We must not agree that some food supply workers do not deserve our recognition and respect.

The ACTU has not fallen for that. They still work for excluded casual workers and visa workers to be brought into the scheme.

And there is another reason why we should escalate our respect for all food and water supply workers.

What brought the virus into human contact – the really big question?

It is almost certain, the science so far tells us, that the virus leapt from bats to food workers, and was probably a species of bat with very rare or no previous dangerous contact with humans. Otherwise it would have struck and spread earlier.

The particular location is almost certainly the Wuhan wet markets in China, so-called. (See here, and for further discussion, also here.)

Yes, so far everything points to food production workers being the first humans exposed. If so, we can be certain that that they did not choose to be exposed. And then the chain of human transmission formed and grew exponentially in the way that most of us now understand.

The really big question is this. What is the root cause of the pandemic?

In what ways has food production changed so that, for the first time, the virus leapt from animals in the first place? What had changed in food production that triggered the leap?

Discussing this question is critical. Here is one reason why.

Understanding “root cause” is essential

This past week we have been introduced slowly and carefully to the idea that there may not ever be a vaccine for the virus. Scientists have known this possibility for a long time.

If there is not the possibility of a short term, say 12 months, vaccine that works, the profit-seeking system, and our own social instincts, will push a return to work before a vaccination is available. At the very least, that means hundreds of thousands may remain exposed to the illness, serious sickness and possible death.

And that leaves in place the prospect of another virus appearing with similar potency against humans.

Surely “we” must demand a focus on the root cause and deal with that. The word is “prevent”: prevent new, exotic killer viruses.

And, what happens if a vaccination is found for this virus and, the “new” food production methods continue, not investigated and not dealt with? There will be a new virus.

The “root cause” question is generally neglected across main stream discussion , except for an article here and there that sort of sidles up to the issue and then wanders away. (For example, here.)

Nevertheless, serious “root cause” discussion is going on, and it is all about the link between viruses and food production, and who owns and controls food production. We are fortunate this is the case; there are critical thinking epidemiologists and activists in other fields articulating a deeper investigation into cause and effect.

Understanding “root cause” is actually dangerous knowledge. Not for the 90 percent of the population and within them food and water supply workers. Rather, dangerous for the ten per cent who profit from food production methods that enable new destructive virus – human interactions.

A Workers’ Alternative Programme

In Australia, the United Workers Union (UWU, through its National Secretary, Tim Kennedy), has published for discussion a pithy Workers Programme that advances the perspective of the 90%, the majority of the population.

This is such a positive development in the Australian situation. It is the starting point to challenge the government’s desire to “snap back” or “stagger back” to the normalcy that existed before the pandemic. That normalcy included the drift to a recession that would give us around 9% unemployment sometime between June and December.

There is so much that is positive in the UWU proposal. It can help us work out what there is that the government has done that we want to polish up and keep, for example the doubling of the JobSeeker rate. There are other bits that the government might like to keep – subsidies that enable shareholder and owner protection and stricter controls over public association – that we must vigorously resist.

Correctly, the UWU proposal links climate change transition to new jobs creation and the possibilities for renewed manufacturing under democratic public ownership.

However, the UWU proposal is inadequate in some areas. It is silent on “closing the gap” for our First Nations peoples, in my view the most urgent of programmes to tackle rising inequality. It falls short on corporate tax reform and democratic control of financial flows (ie banks, private investors and the stock exchange).

There is a pre-history to the UWU proposal in our union movement. In 1978 the AMWU closed the pages of its famous “Australia Uprooted” with a Peoples Economic Programme.

Readers of this post can help create popular momentum for the UWU proposal and its improvement. It is the seed for the birth of a movement that we need and is possible. Silo campaigning will be a failure.

Every worker is talking with their workmates, their families and friends about their grievances with the present situation. Many of them want to have a go in their own good time. Many know already that they will have to fight for their interests as soon as the conditions allow. Their instincts know that this government and their own bosses cannot be trusted with SnapBack.

The UWU programme can harness those justified grievances towards a more powerful movement.


From now through to the next 6 months will be decisive and shape the possibilities for the majority for the next 6 years or so. The absence of a peoples mobilisation behind a polished Workers Programme will load up heavy austerity into the lives of the 90 per cent for the next 6 years or more.

We are all members of organisations. We can encourage them, from below, to seek meetings and dialogue with the UWU to improve on, and put spit and polish into the proposal. We can seek to combine all organisations, including for example the Anti-Poverty Network, into an improved version that appeals to all parts of the Australian working class, the 90%, and shows due respect to workers in food and water supply. There are at least 3 other unions with a strong presence in food manufacturing. They must be involved.

We can start preparing for that moment when we can pursue our demands in public debate, physical delegations, in work go-slows, mass meetings, and coordinated , UNITING public demonstrations and other forms of action used in our past and still to be designed by our collective creativity. To get what we all need: a healthy, fair and democratic society, living and working to create the renewal of the natural world on which we all depend.

The metalworker thinking method: understanding today’s big picture

The physical isolation and handwashing mean that “we, the people” are required to break the links in the multi hydra-like chains of transmission that covid19 is passing along. When “we, the people” break the links the pandemic will subside.
The science of this makes sense. But, the consequence is that we consent to police state restrictions that we would normally struggle against, including within and across our workplaces.

The exponential transmission of this coronavirus from its original starting point means that right now governments are imposing fascist style intrusions on democratic liberties to assemble and, our instincts to socialise.

The physical isolation and handwashing mean that “we, the people” are required to break the links in the multi hydra-like chains of transmission that covid19 is passing along. When “we, the people” break the links the pandemic will subside.

The science of this makes sense. But, the consequence is that we consent to police state restrictions that we would normally struggle against, including within and across our workplaces.

So, in conditionally consenting, why should we consent to not looking at the problem in a different way, both personally and together, in solidarity?

The fundamental questions are these. Is there another science that can take us back to the very first link that connected a hitherto wild and hidden virus to humanity, and became a destructive pandemic? What forces created that first link? If we want to be scientific, would it not make sense to work out what that force was, is, and might be? And and then either remove it or bring it under control?

Some epidemiologists who think critically about the sociopolitical interactions with virus spreading have some answers to that. Should we track them down and study what they are saying? Might that be better than our nervous consent to the defeat of our democratic liberties and rights?

Or should we trust governments, like Morrison’s, or Albanese’s, to align with the powerful corporations to work it all out for us?

The ‘metalworker method’ of analysis helps us to see the logic of these questions and also to answer them.

The metalworker method

Decades ago, I spent several years working in a metal factory and, after that decades organising and running education programmes for metalworker unionists. Very quickly I learned to respect and admire the minds and skills of the fitters, boilies, sheeties and sparkies who install, maintain and repair machines so that second class machinists and process workers like me could keep working. (Especially those who worked out that it was handy to listen to us “unskilled” workers when we tried to explain what had happened in a machine breakdown.)

These workers are still spread all over Australian mining, including oil and gas, manufacturing, electricity and water supply, transport, hospitals and telecommunications. Not as many are members of their unions as there used to be. A good number are fly-in fly-out workers (FIFO). They are a multi-cultural mob, and to be truthful not all of the Anglo Australians like that.

Every day they repair, maintain and install machines; work that pumps water, picks fruit, processes milk, butchers meat, makes steel, creates hospital beds, and transports everything to the point of sale.

The machines break down

The skilled metal worker sets to work. They focus on not just what is before their eyes, and in their ears, and wafting through their nostrils, but also what caused the problem. Sometimes it takes hours, even more, to work that out. They work their way through every step they know and add new ones if and when necessary. Sometimes, as often as not, it’s quite straight forward and doesn’t take long at all.

From there, broadly speaking, one of two things happen.

The skilled metalworker has all of the tools and the spare parts to fix the thing in the normal time required for the problem. They might have a team helping them. The team talks (sometimes argues) through the process, the tools and past experience, as well as, when necessary, “What’s in the fucking manual”.

There is another possibility. The worker or team do not have the necessary tools and equipment, or a manual (in the right language), or the spare parts or all of the above.

The pressure is on – from executive management and the owner – to improvise, to find a short term fix, to get the machine working. They do that.

But they do it swearing at the lunacy of a fix that does not deal with the cause of the problem. Not the look of the problem, rather, the deeper underlying cause, that their method has discovered. The compromise fix is not what they want, despite their pride in putting something together against the odds. And proud they should be.

The consequences of the superficial method

The skilled metalworkers’ preferred problem solving approach must dominate working class thinking about the pandemic and, also, climate change.

The racist approach blames Chinese cultural practices. And, on the surface of things there appear to be real problems in Chinese wet markets. But, what created those problems? How deeply embedded in Chinese culture are they?

The superficial approach demands personal responsibility like intensified hand washing and physical distancing. We act on it voluntarily for social solidarity or, as we see now, because of undemocratic laws imposed by neoliberal and laborist governments.

As we comply, political leaders say, “Thank you! Thank you!”, mustering all of the sincerity they can in their ad man voices.

And we feel warm and fuzzy, almost seduced into not thinking about better alternatives, nor the consequences. “Wage theft is no longer a business model, its dead now because the bosses and us are all in this together”? Morrison and his government have been assaulting democratic liberties in various ways for some time, but this time they will not let the new restrictions continue after the pandemic is defeated?

The critical questions for our action now and in the future

The critical questions are actually quite simple, using the metalworkers quest for the original cause.

How did the virus jump into humans in the Wunan markets? Bats, it seems almost certain.

Well, how long have the bats carried the virus? Millennia? That doesn’t explain how the virus has not appeared before to wreak its havoc on humanity.

Recently? Well that means we must ask how the bats have recently become a carrier into city precincts.

What species have the bats been interacting with that have been carrying the virus, harmlessly, for decades and longer?

And, what is it that has brought on an interaction between bats and the rarely seen and poorly understood “wild” species?

At this point we are much closer to the root cause, the first link, the origin of the immediate problem.

Is there a manual to help us get there and how helpful is it?

The short answer is, yes, there is a manual and it is very helpful, although not absolutely.

Epidemiology has a manual. The manual includes acquired and recorded knowledge that goes with the viruses of previous generations. The late 20th and early 21st century “exotic” viruses that wreaked havoc on impoverished humanity in specific countries and regions are at the forefront of latest editions. The WHO makes sure it is translated and shared. Epidemiologists and medical researchers update it regularly.

But, perhaps arguably, the epidemiology manual suffers from the relative absence of what humans do that brings a virus, previously shielded from humanity, into interaction with it?

Is there a manual to cover that side of the story?

Yes there is. That manual describes the actual human activity and its dynamic forces that brings an exotic and destructive virus through its ecological “shield” to forge the first link in the transmission chain.

Therefore what would be pretty handy is finding and learning from that manual, keeping in mind that it would be a rare government or ruling class that is going to help us do that.

We find the epidemiologists who know what’s in that other manual and paying attention to them.

We find thinkers and activists who dig into the detail of changes in food production and water supply especially, and what drives those changes.

Of course, in impoverished nations, rather than in the metropolitan ones that gain from their oppression, we can find rich knowledge, gathered from previous experience, to deal with “low cost” human centred solutions.

Breaking the first link not the trillionth: where it takes us

We must, together, find the educating and organising power that translates the synergy of the epidemiology and critical economic and political analysis into plain language so that it belongs to a rising mass of the people.

We act not just on the appearance of things because that can be dangerous. We dig deep, and deeper again when it is necessary, to find and act on the cause of the problem. In doing so we will find the answers that feed humanity equally and rescues nature from its destruction.

We can, if necessary, “rescue nature” not from itself but from a very specific human action against it. Thus, we rescue humanity from the next virus not yet unleashed, and the one after that. And we create momentum for a twenty first century healthy metabolism between nature and humans.