“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.
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.