A Covid Response Requires a Fighting Workers Movement

It is no secret that the COVID pandemic has been a disaster for people everywhere. Omicron has only exacerbated the crisis, though largely as a result of the State removing previous measures taken to contain the virus. The extent of the failure of both the Federal and State Governments to contain and manage the outbreak is obvious in a way not witnessed previously. The collapse of living standards continues to drive home the neo-liberal offensive begun in the 80s, as working class Australians become increasingly worried about financial and lifestyle security.

For a brief moment many saw a flicker of hope. The initial response to COVID saw federal and state governments introduce initiatives aimed at containment, at the same time mitigating some of the worst social impacts of the crisis. The positive aspects were that the dole was raised and eviction moratoriums were put into place. However these changes came on the back of extensive lockdowns.  The lockdowns played a contradictory manner, at once helping contain the virus and at the same time exacerbating some forms of social distress. With the lifting of lockdown, the positive changes to social security have been stripped away. There is nothing to suggest any of these measures will be reinstated.

This should not come as a surprise. Anarchists have long argued that concessions from the state, when received as hand-outs rather than hard-fought for gains, will only be temporary. Early support extended to workers was really provided in the interest of keeping business and landlords afloat; by supplying workers with adequate cash the state attempted to prop up demand. A secondary effect was fulfilling the state’s mythos as public benefactor and social mediator. The state attempted to keep society stable for the sake of capital, not people. The development of relatively effective Covid vaccines offered the State the potential and the excuse to withdraw financial support and send people back to work. Increased welfare payments meant that low-income workers were avoiding a return to work, and undermining the ability of business to pay low wages. There was always going to be a concerted effort from business to have the State slash social spending on this basis. Workers needed to be disciplined, virus or not. 

As we have previously argued, the COVID pandemic was not an unforeseen disaster. Multiple Australian governments have been warned of the increasing likelihood of just such a virus reaching our shores. Instead of investment in public healthcare, funding has been stripped from state budgets. In the two years since Covid hit Australian shores, there has been no new investment in improving our healthcare system or preparation for what could become an overwhelming situation. Lockdowns, heavy policy and curfews aided the state in avoiding investment in increased funding to the medical system. Western Australia has just delayed opening its borders to the rest of the world. Covid would utterly devastate the state’s public health system, already on the verge of absolute collapse

The nature of the capitalist state meant that this outcome was all but certain. Without a powerful and aggressive working class movement, capital has free reign over society. Throughout the pandemic the working class has been on the backfoot. Responses have either focused on single issues, or attempted to cling to the temporary extension of welfare and eviction moratoriums. With lockdowns lifted and Omicron running rampant, the new situation workers face requires a change in strategic orientation.

During the early stages of the pandemic anarchists participated alongside sections of the workers movement in illegal car convoy protests, drawing attention to issues as diverse as the treatment of refugees, funding of social safety nets and celebrating May Day. These slowly dissipated as lockdowns wore on and some activists received large fines, while other sections of the Left became immobilised in the face of a situation as new and daunting as a pandemic. Others complied with everything State governments demanded. In Victoria this meant going so far as cheerleading Dan Andrews (remember #IStandWithDan?) or keeping quiet in the face of unfair, targeted lockdowns like the Flemington Tower Flats and massive increases to police powers. While the Left stalled, the anti-vax movement seized the opportunity to bring people onto the streets. So far the progressive response to the anti-vaccine mobilisations has largely centered around a message of anti-fascism, the largest actions to date having been called by Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. Anarchists have supported them on the basis that the Right should be challenged whenever they take to the streets, and fascist leadership should be wedged against other participants in a populist movement. However, antifascism is not enough. Instead of trying to smuggle almost every slogan and campaign issue under an anti-fascist banner, we need clear and forward demands the mass of people can mobilise around.

COVID has impacted Australian workers across multiple facets of life including housing, healthcare, employment, workplace safety, and disability rights. The struggle on all fronts offers an opportunity to bring together various sectors of the class around a single campaign in a way that has not existed for a long time. Unifying the class around a single set of demands offers great potential for reconstructing class power. 

A set of positive demands should aim to push the conditions of the working class beyond what they were prior to COVID, rather than attempting to stabilize our deteriorated conditions or ‘return to normal.’ While COVID is rightly seen as a crisis, in crisis there is always great opportunity for the advancement of the struggle. One of the few strike powers in Australia that is not completely criminalized is action predicated on Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S). Disputes over OH&S are often a game of cat and mouse as the Fair Work Commission and courts can redefine what is considered safe. What matters is that workers understand what is actually safe, and have the confidence to break industrial laws to enforce appropriate measures. In turn, this is the only way we can successfully redefine what is actually safe in the face of a court system established in the interests of the bosses. It is more vital that strikes across industry are legitimate in the eyes of the workers more than that they are legitimate in the eyes of the law. As the government is already seeking to weaken existing OH&S provisions under the smokescreen of the “labour shortage”, our best defense is precisely not just fighting to defend the provisions already there, but in their expansion.

Added to the lack of safety at the point of production, COVID has made it clear that production cannot continue without workers in a way that was more obscured before the virus. The current failings of capitalist distribution means that the working class has unprecedented capacity to hold the capitalist state to ransom. For example, the power of a strike in logistics has increased incredibly to what it was only a few years ago. Supermarket shelves already sit empty due to the number of sick warehouse and transport workers. A single strike could have massive impacts on the supermarket giants.

At its core the success of a struggle based around positive demands (and every other struggle) is predicated on questions of power and organisation. A small group simply publishing a set of demands is a futile exercise unless such demands are backed up with tangible class power. Being able to build up the capacity needed is not guaranteed, it requires national effort. To effectively build this power it is essential the movement focuses on practical struggle, not electoral solutions. With the Federal election around the corner, the distraction of an electoral focus is strong. But a win by one party or another guarantees nothing. The most likely victor of the next election might be the ALP, but they remain resistant to action in many of the fields affected by the crisis (welfare, disability and refugee rights, housing ect). As a history of struggle has taught us, we can only win what we can hold on the shopfloor.

In terms of how we can practically fight, creativity in tactics is required. Mass rallies might be largely irresponsible and may potentially fail to mobilise large numbers; this would be fairly dependent on Covid case numbers. But we cannot simply mount a campaign on social media. What we need is a campaign that empowers workers to undertake direct action in the workplace, counters capitalist propaganda, and mobilises people in a safe manner. Workplace organising will likely center around OH&S issues. As it stands, legally every workplace is allowed to elect a Health and Safety Representative to make calls around their concerns. In the face of Covid, HSRs should be invested with more power, but more importantly every worker should be empowered to define threats to their own safety and call stop work over concerns. In the mid term this might result in expanded power for HSRs and stronger OH&S laws, in the long term the right to strike. But this should result as the manifestation of rank and file power, not direct campaigns for legal reforms skirting the issue on the shopfloor. 

We should also argue to shut down unsafe workplaces with full pay for staff. In countries such as the USA, wildcat strikes over health and safety have become regular occurrences. It’s entirely possible such a phenomenon may begin in Australia, as workers are increasingly squeezed between their health and safety and the bosses’ desperation to turn a profit. In many workplaces without a history of unionism this will require bold leadership and breaking new ground. In others, this will potentially involve challenging institutionalised relationships between our very own union leadership and employers. The battle over Covid safety offers an opportunity to renew the union movement from the bottom up.

Any workplace organising can be backed up by dispersed community actions. Early in the pandemic, parts of the Left were willing to break lockdown laws. Black Lives Matter pushed the boundaries, and a number of car convoy protests directly broke stay-at-home orders. There is no reason the car convoy tactic cannot be used again, nor other tactics that challenge State and Federal governments. This is provided the Left does not become mesmerised by social democratic illusions. Speakouts, rallies in regional towns with low case numbers, and poster runs are all options that can give practical direction to a campaign and its supporters that back up battles on the shop floor.

Utilising a broad set of demands predicated on furthering the direct interests of workers rather than the gains of political parties gives space for interpreting and acting upon said demands according to the context in which they are taken up. This helps link struggles together, rather than opposing overly specific demands with minute emphasis on details. Given the inertia of the moment, it is a massive task just to get the Left moving again. As anarchists, we believe that the manner in which our demands are achieved is as important as the achievements of the demands themselves. Mobilising the working class into taking direct action rather than waiting on political salvation is key to transforming working class consciousness and building power.

Initiating a movement based on the premises outlined is far beyond the capacity of any singular workers’ organisation. Such an effort would require the collaboration of left wing organisations across the political spectrum, not only on the streets but in the workplace. This will require a willingness to unite behind a flexible set of demands and a functional strategy for winning them. While success isn’t guaranteed, what can be said for certainty is that if the working class doesn’t find a way to fight back, things will get increasingly worse. The capitalist class has utilized the COVID crisis to further it’s interests and the working class can do the same. If a mass campaign based on positive demands comes to fruition then the possibility emerges not just for the working class to defend its interests, but to exit the pandemic in a more powerful position than it entered it. Such an opportunity should not be wasted.

Iswed Tiggjan is a member of Anarchist Communists Meanjin.

Tommy Lawson is a member of Geelong Anarchist Communists.