The federal government’s “let it rip” approach to COVID-19 and its failure to plan a real public health response prompted the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to call an emergency meeting of national union secretaries on January 17.
The ACTU said that unions “report that [workers] are exhausted and feel abandoned by governments who have encouraged ‘let it rip’ policies.
“The ‘let it rip’ governments have failed to prepare our health system and our community, and they are responsible for Australia suffering the highest per capita infection rates in the world.”
The meeting resolved that where employers do not fulfill their obligations to workers, the union movement would “do everything within its power to ensure the safety of workers and the community, which may include ceasing work or banning unsafe practices.
“Australia is now experiencing our worst days since the start of the pandemic and the highest level of sickness ever seen in the workforce. Essential workers are being expected to put themselves in harm’s way to keep the country going and in many cases without the protections they need,” the ACTU said.
It said the federal government had ignored “repeated calls” for more than six months on the urgent need to procure Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) — “as an essential part of our Covid defence” — as well as the slow pace of the booster and children’s rollout. All this “puts working people at increased risk,” the ACTU said.
ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said on January 18 that workers have the right to stop work if they are in danger.
The meeting resolved to “write to all employers reminding them of their obligation to do all that is reasonable and practical to keep workers safe”.
In her announcement that there would be a union leaders meeting, McManus hinted that unions may consider more than a letter-writing campaign and a campaign for free RATs. Her Twitter feed was full of calls for industrial action.
Geelong Women Unionists Network (GWUN) co-convener Adele Welsh told Green Left that women have been especially hard hit by the pandemic.
“Women have lost more hours and more pay than working men and our unpaid caring responsibilities have escalated with the necessary but difficult to manage school closures.” She said family violence rates have skyrocketed to the point where “some services have had to turn women away”.
The Victorian government declared a “Code Brown” (external emergency) on January 18 for metropolitan and regional public health services. It is expected to be in place for between four to six weeks.
Mental health nurse Jackie Kriz told Green Left the ACTU’s demand for free RATS is good but that will require union action to achieve it. “We need mass delegates meetings to discuss how we can flex our industrial muscle,” Kriz said.
“All workers should have guaranteed paid pandemic leave so they can stay at home and prevent the further spread of COVID-19 which is putting enormous pressure on the public health system.”
Former Geelong Trades Hall Secretary and Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union member Tim Gooden agrees. He told Green Left that history shows that union wins come from mass union action. “Bosses and politicians have never given working people anything because it was the right thing to do, or because we asked for it. They make concessions when they’re forced to.”
Gooden said it was important for union leaderships to talk with their members about action. “Mass delegates’ meetings would allow rank-and-file members to discuss the demands and the campaign.”