United Workers Union: ‘Now is the time to fight back’

The system is fundamentally cactus, and we need to find ways to organise to make certain that workers, once again, have their voices heard.

United Workers Union national secretary Tim Kennedy  the union representing frontline workers — said that the COVID-19 pandemic shows that the system is cactus and there needs to be a new vision. He delivered the following comments to an online forum “Workers fight back: no worker left behind”, hosted by the Socialist Alliance and Green Left on April 29.

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The United Workers Union formed from the amalgamation of the National Union of Workers and United Voice on Armistice Day last year. We had hardly got going and were hit with the bushfires. We staggered out of those and were hit with COVID-19.

We are a large private sector union, but with a big public sector base — about 30%. We represent workers who are impacted by this health crisis which, right now, is moving to an economic crisis.

The system is fundamentally cactus, and we need to find ways to organise to make certain that workers, once again, have their voices heard.

We represent workers in care — mainly feminised industries — including aged care, early childhood education and care, home care and people on the frontlines. We also represent workers in hospitals and paramedics — the workers at the pointy end of the COVID-19 crisis.

We also represent workers who make sure that the things we require — toilet paper comes to mind — are on the shelves. We represent workers in logistics and food manufacturing, dairy and poultry.

All these workplaces have continued throughout this crisis and our warehouse workers have been flat out. The two biggest employers doing very well — Woolworths and Coles — have been profiting quite well.

But a huge group of workers have been absolutely smashed. We represent casino workers and in just two days, 9000 of our members were stood down. We were able to use our industrial muscle to get them paid right up until JobKeeper kicked in, but many will not qualify.

We also represent workers connected to retail, manufacturing, logistics and the food delivery service.

Three big parts of our membership, where health and safety is primary, have been impacted.

Where health and safety is also just as important, we represent workers who kept the supply going. They’ve been working flat out.

Key demands

We’ve always known that the status quo is fundamentally unequal in this country, and this crisis has revealed it is fundamentally untenable. This rupture requires us to advance an alternative vision where workers can get a better say and noone is left behind.

The union has come up with key demands around three major ideas: income, ownership and investment.

In short, we need to make certain that our ability to function in society is not always tied to performing labour, or having a paid job. There should be a guaranteed income for everyone in this country.

Until about two months ago, the government said it was impossible to afford an increase in Newstart. That has now turned into about $1000 a fortnight.

We came up with two claims to organise around: an income guarantee set at the minimum rate of pay at $750 a week and a jobs guarantee, that is 100% government backed and that goes directly to the worker.

We’re trying to move the country’s share of wealth back towards people who need it.

The other element is income: how people survive.

We have “universal” health care, that doesn’t apply universally. Everyone should have access to universal health care. People need security of housing, so there should be a moratorium, or a rent strike, until we get through this crisis.

In terms of ownership, we learned over 2008–09 about governments bankrolling “banks that are too big to fail” and, when things got going, they left the debt on the public balance sheet and went on their merry way, making profits. We’ve got to learn from that, because that is what leads to austerity.

Buy, don’t bail out

Don’t bail out the essential sectors, buy them and bring them back into the commons. We think we have great opportunity to do that in early childhood education. People talk about it being “free”, but it’s not; it’s just publicly provided by all of us. That can happen in energy; it could also help in the various areas of health and care.

We don’t just want to bring them back into public ownership, we want to change the nature of how they’re governed.

We want to make sure that workers are on those boards, and that workers representatives have a say about how those companies are governed.

The last thing is investment. You’ll see that the federal government responded to this crisis in a way that was completely at odds with what it believes in. As a result, it was completely at sea.

Seventy to 80 per cent of everything the federal government has done has been directed at business, trying to sticky tape this clapped-out banger of a system.

If we’re going to have investment, let’s invest in the next generation; let’s invest in new sources of energy and let’s use the crisis to confront the climate crisis.

The Earth is getting a breather, but let’s make certain that when we do go into the new phase, we invest in creating a sustainable future.

We want to build alliances. We’ve been organising workers who haven’t had citizenship rights, but who pay taxes and contribute. Migrant workers are working the fields, making certain that our fresh food gets to us. Because of the capricious way our borders are regulated, visa workers and undocumented workers have no protections.  

Leave no one behind

We want to make certain that noone will be left behind.

For early childhood education and care, we’ve come up with a six-step plan to protect workers, including temperature checks. If the childcare centre or early education centre do not agree, we are encouraging our members to walk off the job.

Likewise, in logistics where some employers are in a rush to make a lot of money. A few weeks back, across Melbourne and Sydney, more than 10 sites walked off the job until things were fixed.

One was at one of our biggest warehouses, a Coles facility, in Laverton, west of Melbourne. We held that place up for eight hours. Coles tried to bring the major parties in but the workers won that day — spacing, hand sanitiser and time to wash their hands. They were not going to be intimidated. Their safety is important. Strike action that day meant that those standards have flowed on to the entire sector.

Despite the lockdown, we’ve been able to have significant conversations with members. We called a mass meeting of our members in the first week of the lockdown, and 2400 people attended a webinar. We had a great discussion.

We’ve been doing that in each sector and spoken to tens and tens of thousands of people directly that we wouldn’t otherwise have done before this crisis.

We have also learned that giving workplace leaders the space to run on issues, with union support, has won some things.

So, while this has been an extraordinarily difficult time to organise, there’s some good stuff happening. We are building a movement. We are winning the ideological debate. This is the time to really put pressure on.

We know that the government and conservative forces never waste a crisis: they are getting geared up to crack down on workplace rights, to move the cost of this crisis onto individuals.

They want to privatise the cost of this crisis — they’re forcing workers to dip into their own superannuation — and we need to find ways to push back.

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