Omicron: As inequalities grow unions must fight back

South Australian health workers with the United Workers Union walked off the job in December to demand better conditions. Photo: UWU/Facebook

Workers have been forced to bear the cost of the COVID-19 recession while corporations raked in huge profits. Although the gap between workers’ incomes and corporate profits rose during the pandemic, workers’ share of the national income has been plummeting since the mid 1970s.

More than 60% of the gross domestic product (GDP) went to wages in 1975. Today, the wages share is just 50% — its lowest point since 1960. Now the greater share of GDP goes to corporate profits, with $6.5 trillion shifting from wages to profits since 1975.

Wage growth rose only 1.4% in the 2020–21 financial year, while corporate profits rose by 15.1%.

The transfer of wealth from workers’ pockets to corporate coffers has been helped by successive federal government cuts to organising rights on the job and the privatisation of public assets.

The federal government has doled out $10.3 billion in corporate welfare to fossil fuel companies over the pandemic. A whopping $13 billion in JobKeeper supports and subsidies were handed to businesses which either didn’t have any downturn in revenue or became richer through the pandemic.

It is not surprising that COVID-19 has hurt workers, but benefitted businesses. This is because part of the wage’s bill was transferred from the private sector to the government as part of the JobKeeper program. Casualisation and insecure work has grown allowing employers to dismiss sections of the workforce without having to pay redundancies.

Casual and precarious workers

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures, in August roughly 2.4 million casual workers did not receive paid sick leave or holiday leave. They are supposed to receive up to 25% loading on top of their hourly wage rate in lieu, depending on their industry award.

Economist David Peetz reported in November 2020 that more than half of all casual workers do not receive that loading. Peetz said a large number of casual workers are working regular, full-time hours and calling them “leave deprived” is more accurate.

Many casuals work full-time hours — plus overtime when needed. They are expected to be available for full-time work, but with less pay, fewer rights and no leave.

The ABC’s Australia Talks National Survey 2021 found that 88% of respondents said job security was a problem, with 27% indicating they were concerned they might lose their job within the next 12 months.

Casualisation is growing and is made easier due to changes in the definition of casual made to the Fair Work Act last year. Despite working regular, set hours (often equivalent to full time), workers can be classified as a casual, if they were employed on that basis, which means they do not qualify for leave and other rights are restricted.

Union action

Casual and precarious workers, as well as those in lower paid industries, have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This workforce, here and overseas, is unionising and pushing back against bosses.

Despite being considered “essential”, casual, precarious and “gig economy” workers are often denied safe workplaces, fair pay and secure work.

Work health and safety (WHS) has become critical under the pandemic and the numbers of casual and precarious workers taking strike action to demand safe workplaces is rising. “If it’s not safe we stop,” was how United Workers Union’s Tim Gunstone put it.

The strike wave in the United States last October mobilised workers in nursing, healthcare, coal mining and higher education, as well as those working for Amazon and John Deere. There are inspiring accounts of workers at Starbucks and Amazon trying unionise, with a recent successful attempt at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York.

The objective conditions for unions to take action in the streets are ripe in Australia too, as the Omicron outbreak continues to surge. The government’s redefinition of close contact to exclude workplaces — as well as the exemptions to isolation for close contacts — are a threat to workers’ health and safety as well as communities.

Workers are not only at higher risk of catching the virus at work, they are also unlikely to be able to claim compensation. The winding back of PCR testing also means there is less genomic sequencing, which also making it harder for workers to prove they contracted COVID-19 at work.

The relaxation of isolation rules for close contacts in essential industries may mean asymptomatic (or even symptomatic) COVID-19 positive workers go back to work — undermining entitlements to paid sick leave for those who have it. Some bosses are already arguing for this.

Governments and the corporate sector want workers to carry the risk and wear the cost: it is clear that state and federal governments, as well as businesses, are actively undermining the workplace health and safety practices and principles.

Managing risk

The best way to manage risk is not to force COVID-19 positive workers back to work. We already know that 4171 healthcare workers contracted COVID-19 in Victoria in 2020 and that up to 80% of the infections occurred in the workplace.

A further 5843 healthcare workers contracted COVID-19 last year despite better PPE and vaccination take-up.

What are the alternatives when faced with food and other essential supply shortages? One solution is to employ more workers. Measures to help with this include abolishing youth wage rates and actively recruit older high school and university students.

We also need to demand that governments provide free childcare for essential service workers (including free care for primary school aged children) and for employers to provide free Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) in all essential industries. We need guaranteed paid sick leave for all workers and, if necessary, a redeployment of workers from non-essential industries to essential ones.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) on January 17 criticised the government’s “let it rip” strategy and called on employers to provide free RATs. It also wants N95/P2 masks and the restoration of financial support to businesses and workers.

While the ACTU said “union members will take whatever steps are necessary in their workplaces to ensure they are as safe as possible” exactly what it plans to do to lead remains an open question.

Since well before the pandemic, the ACTU has been reluctant to mobilise its base except with an election in sight. There have been no large-scale union mobilisations since the Change the Rules rallies in 2018.

Since then, union splits, some exacerbated by COVID-19, have not helped rank-and-file members. Pressure to not organise rallies, or get out on the streets over the past two years has meant conceding political space to the far right.

It is time for the union movement to go back to the streets and force governments to ensure the safety of workers and the community. The large Black Lives Matter rallies in 2020 show it is possible to organise large-scale COVID-safe mobilisations. We also know that our workplaces and communities will only be made safe if we fight for it.

[Sarah Hathway is a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance. This article is based on a presentation she gave to its 16th national conference.]