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.

Urgency

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.

Dependence on private corporations to fix inequality and climate change will be a dead end

Global economy faces $19tn corporate debt timebomb, warns IMF

Here we have the IMF warning the capitalist class, and the governments that protect it, that they have a problem. Interest on corporate debt that cannot be repaid.

It’s yet another problem of their own making.

The IMF is a capitalist institution and is one of the chief governors of the 21st century system of gross exploitation so that it stays in place. It is one of the 3-4 global coordinators of the neoliberal form of capitalism that we have had since the mid 80’s. It is sending the warning in order to keep this system of exploitation (of the mass of humanity and their natural world) together.

In Australia there is no public discussion about how serious this corporate debt problem is in our economy. However, we do know that total profits are very healthy and, despite that, corporations have been failing miserably to invest those profits in productive capacity.

In this context, The drift to a global recession continues and Australia will be a part of that.

The trouble with the growing corporate debt problem is that it will make the recessión currently taking shape a very serious big problem for 90% of humanity, and also nature.

We are talking more unemployment and underemployment, idle productive ability, even more downward pressure on both industrial wages and the social wage (for example, adequate housing), and intense search to exploit new land and rivers and oceans.

All of this coincides with the worsening climate emergency and, in Australia, a national government that is in wilful denial of it because that suits the fossil fuel corporations, and others in their supply chain.

The movements of the 90% against inequality – eg unions – and against global warming must keep growing and grow even tougher to make sure there is a rapid and democratic just transition driven along by big public investment (job creating) and where necessary takeovers of private corporations that hold productive capacity but are otherwise falling apart.

Global economy faces $19tn corporate debt timebomb, warns IMF

Just transition and green new deals – “Plan B AAA-Rated”: workers taking charge

The Australian school students strike on September 20 put forward 3 general demands for climate justice, that they have repeated since:

“But words aren’t enough to stop the devastating impact of climate change. Which is why we need movements. To keep on pushing for real action on our demands:

  1. No new coal, oil or gas projects, including Adani’s mine.
  2. 100% renewable energy and exports by 2030
  3. Funding for a just transition and job creation for fossil workers and communities.”

Since then this is the best response I have seen from Australian union leaders, which included this:

“Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union state secretary Steve Murphy said meal rooms across regional Australia were filled with workers worried about their jobs and futures due to inaction on climate change.

“They are sick and tired of it being workers versus the environmental movement, or workers versus change,” he said. “We have a real opportunity for workers to be at the forefront of this change, and if there is going to be renewable jobs, for these jobs to be made here.

“We’re talking to our people in power stations, and they’re saying ‘we’re not loyal to coal, we’re not rusted on, but we just don’t see another job we can move to.

“I don’t think our members are particularly loyal to what their current job is, but what they don’t see is a plan for what their future job is.

“If we have a plan for the future then we can create a plan B for these workers who might be displaced. The truth is that renewable energy is coming at us and it’s not something we can stick our head in the sand and deny.”

The objective need for rapid transition is well established in the ongoing scientific research on climate change.

It is time, and we are entering a new phase now, for workers, their unions and their communities to take command of the situation. That’s Plan B … triple A rated.

Rapid Transition

Rapid transition (and the effects of a recession) could have a dramatic impact on job security for workers directly involved in raw resource extraction and the downstream industries and occupations that flow from it. These are workers in coal mining, and oil and gas, and in jobs dependent on these industries. That’s the Illawarra story but there are others also, for example workers in universities dependent on mining industry subsidies, gifts and donations.

The concept of “just transition” has been developing as a concept by groups within the union movement. For example there is the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC, see here starting at page 22 and here), Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, for Australia look at the NUW, AMWU, NTEU.

More unions have endorsed “just transition” and, associated with that, strike and other workers’ action in solidarity with secondary students.

Loosely associated with “just transition”, a “Green New Deal” has been developed in the USA by political and social forces associated with the rising socialist left in the Democrats, expressed by personalities like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez. In Germany and Spain at least, strong initiatives are under way to shut down fossil fuel industries with union support.

Thus, it is useful to think through, from a working-class point of view, what all of this means, especially how much workers from within their present jobs can themselves effectively shape the content and pace of strategy to stop and reverse climate change.

The recent Australian national election brought the issue into sharp focus, when coal mining dependent electorates vigorously rejected a “green caravan” of southern state activists that tried to win them to vote so that the giant new Adani coal mine in their region would be prevented. They then voted against the modest, vague and confusing proposals from the ALP to start slowing down Australia’s contribution to climate warming.

Just Transition in Brief: 2 core ideas for workers and their unions

The first is that climate change is real and is happening at a rate that makes it an emergency from the perspective of the 90%, including those in mining and energy producing communities.

The second is that carbon based energy production must be replaced by some mix of solar, wind, tidal, thermal and hydro power. In the transition there will be immediate new jobs that require the skills workers already have, new ones that quality training in the new skills, in a healthy and safe working environment, and without loss of income.

Four Options for Australian Workers

  • Reject the science and go with the fossil fuel corporations striving to survive and even grow.
  • Accept the science and trust that an LNP government, stacked with denialists, that prides itself on opposing “green tape”, and relevantly also red tape, can ally with corporations and conservative think tanks to fix the problem.
  • Observe the proposals and plans that come from governments, employers, union centres, political parties, experts in the field, and social organisations and go with what makes the most sense. That is, endorse “just transition” plans that make a bit of sense, at least, especially if they are enabling a rapid transition into new jobs in which they can use existing skills and knowledge and quickly learn new ones.

In the main, this third approach is developed by others for or on behalf of workers in their industries and communities. At the best the proposals are brought to the workers for endorsement in some way or another.

For anyone who wants urgent action to deal with the emergency this is the minimum that is needed.

However, this approach is problematic. It is based on the idea that progressive technocratic know how is enough to bring on the fundamental changes that are necessary. Just Transition is something that is done to workers rather than by them. The fundamental assumption, explicit or otherwise, is that workers are not capable of driving just transition. “Just” does not include much democracy.

There is a fourth option. Its plan B, a la Steve Murphy (above), but triple rated.

“Just transition” is driven by workers themselves, both from within their workplaces and from within their communities. The role of “experts” of various kinds is to enable, advise, guide, support. The decisions, and implementation, are in the hands of democratically formed worker and associated “community organisations”. This option says that workers at work and in their communities have immediate skills and knowledge to drive the transition process and also, most importantly, the capacity to rapidly acquire new ones. Unions, even with low union density, are in good shape to start these worker and local councils.

This fourth option can be developed in 2 ways. First to enable worker intervention into transition initiatives that are already under way because of government or investor action, whether they be imperfect or good. Second, where nothing currently exists but is needed, to establish momentum for worker-controlled transition.

Worker controlled transition – essential ingredients

Some of the essential ingredients of this fourth option can be identified.

Before doing so, let’s look briefly at the role of government and employers  in this fourth option.

At each level, government’s role is as funder, enabler and supporter for workers at their workplaces, and in their communities. Its task is to open up new democratic possibilities relative to the limits of “technocratic transition”, “just” or otherwise. Of course, government funding and new public investment will be essential. (Look here for recent Canadian discussion about this.)

For employers, the primary interacting concerns, whether we like it or not, will be profitability and control. At the moment Australian employers are not committed to new productive investment. They will resist transition which workers and community groups are governing. They will see any link to unions as a barrier. They might push their own form of worker participation in processes they control for their profitability needs. This will threaten Just Transition because it threatens job security and skills formation.

Essential ingredients of democratic Just Transition

Democratic Just Transition (DJT), plan B AAA, raises workers at their work and in their communities as the protagonists in this socio-political process. “Workers and their communities” have a clearly defined geography, either as a region, or an employer, or a network of employers.

DJT places the technocratic, outside experts as assistants, educators and enablers at the service of the protagonists.

Workers in their community design and implement the plan for transition from fossil to renewable, and other related projects. The worker-community protagonists are encouraged and enabled to rapidly and democratically develop a spiral (not cyclical) planning process. See here for an example.

The plan has a defined goal that is determined by reality: zero dependence on fossil fuel over ten years replaced by renewal energy that provides secure, skilled and well-paid jobs.

The plan sets out associated specific objectives that are set by the protagonists against the primary criteria: rapid transition, continuous job security, new skills formation, including vocational training, strong health and safety, at established standards of living.

The associated objectives are the specific demands and their elaboration constitute the content of transition for each protagonist entity, and the content of negotiation and other action with employers and governments.

If there is limited or no momentum from community, a technical support team can stimulate the process with foundation education about democratic transition: community training days, door to door discussions, kitchen table – lounge room, and street meetings. This phase of the plan aims for deliberate handover to the workers in their industry / community.

Steps in the Process

Step one in the transition sequence is to study in detail the existing reality within the location (region), including a hierarchy of industries and businesses, and the interaction of the location with others, including overseas.

Step 2 is to develop a first draft of the specific objectives relevant to this workplace(s) or community and the associated thinking and decision-making structures. It would bring forward the “first look” of possible options for the course of action to achieve the objectives. This would include budget requirements, possible sources of funds, growing community participation in preliminary planning and action units. All is driven by mass meetings of the communities (that may start as quite small), and election of the governing democratic transition council.

This council would be the guiding entity between the mass assemblies. Its members would increasingly reflect the composition of the industries, associated and dependent groups (e.g. indigenous peoples and school students). It would initiate reports from the planning and implementation groups, including experts, and set tasks and, receive, consider and decide on technical assistance.

Step 3 presents the options to all or most of the constituents to determine which options will be implemented, and the order of priority and urgency for each project.

Then, each plan is implemented and reviewed. There is a continuous spiral of review, plan development, project selection, and project implementation and evaluation.

Immediate dilemmas

In the Australian context this framework would meet serious problems, but not insurmountable. Very low union density is one. The embryonic decision-making structure associated with high union density is not necessarily available. This is an objective reality and begs serious questions for unions that would want to lead the process, for example their stance regarding workers who have not joined being in the process. Would joining a union be conditional? For unions (defined as union members interacting with their union centres) who are willing to lead there is little organising know how for this type of strategy about job security. Leading unions could attract members and solidarity.

Another dilemma is workers’ own doubts that they can create and drive such a process; that they themselves are not capable of creating a new industry, of being the protagonists; that the whole process should be left to employers and their governments.

The irony is that most workers, justifiably, have little trust in employers, their managers, and governments, and know, when they discuss it with each other, they have unique and shared insights about how they could do it better.

All of us in the union movement and active in the struggle for climate justice can help transform this justified distrust from votes for right wing populists into new momentum for Steve Murphy’s Plan B.