The UWU steps forward
Just a couple of days ago the National Secretary of the United Workers Union (UWU), Tim Kennedy, released a discussion paper on behalf of his members that described briefly the ingredients for a very different way of dealing with the economics of the pandemic to that being pursued by the Morrison government.
The UWU is one of the biggest union affiliates to the parent body of the Australian union movement, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).
The UWU proposes 3 sets of measures, as follows.
What Australian workers need:
– A jobs guarantee to be upheld by all employers; no layoffs during this time even if shifts are unavailable. Workers to resume work when shifts are needed again.
– An income guarantee payment of $740.80 per week (minimum wage) to everyone except those covered by the jobs guarantee, or others who have not been financially disadvantaged by COVID-19.
– The provisional tax-free threshold to increase from $18,200 to $25,000 to assist the lowest income earners in the country.
– A moratorium on rent and mortgage payments.
What our country needs:
– A visa amnesty for migrant workers and an end to visa enforcement and detention actions by the Department of Home Affairs.
– Medicare access to be extended to everyone currently in Australia including visa holders and undocumented workers.
– A commitment to zero tolerance for xenophobic nationalism or attacks on migrant communities as a result of the crisis.
What our economy needs:
– New renewable energy generation and export infrastructure to be included as a vital component of any COVID-19 stimulus package going forward.
– Don’t bailout essential sectors—buy them. Bring public goods back into public ownership.
– Bailout necessary industries only—with strict conditions of worker co-determination, ethical labour and environmental standards.
In the preamble to this programme, Kennedy emphasised a universal Jobs Guarantee backed by an 80 per cent wages subsidy, and the Income Guarantee to be set at $740.80 per week for the duration of the crisis, the current minimum wage. (He was silent on the current Annual Wage Review – AWR20 that is due to announce in May whether there should be an increase in minimum wages, and if so, how much.)
The UWU is “also calling for the tax-free threshold to increase to $25,000, and a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments.”
Impressively, Kennedy emphasises an anti-racist stand in general and in specific features of the programme: a visa amnesty for migrant workers, and an end to visa enforcement and detention actions by the Department of Home Affairs, and extended Medicare access to everyone currently in Australia, including visa holders and undocumented workers.
Then, in a critical strategic break, the plan integrates proposals that tackle the climate crisis simultaneously.
What does this mean?
First and foremost, we have a major union putting forward a programme that registers the connections between the economic, climate and pandemic crises. The UWU proposal points towards transition out of the necessary immediate measures into the urgent ten years of a democratic and just transition that tackles climate change by reducing carbon emissions. One serious omission of immediate import is the ACTU claim for a 4% increase in the minimum wages now before AWR20.
The LNP government, through Morrison, and on behalf of the big corporations, is messaging the public to separate and remove two of these crises in the public mind. Thus, they can get back to economic management after the pandemic is defeated based on “business as usual”, an approach that was marching the society to a recession before covid19 unleashed.
Second, from the point of view of 90 % of the population, the UWU approach is conceptually sound and attractive in detail. However, it does not yet belong to the people. It is not even clear how much it belongs to the UWU membership, although you would have to be surprised if they were not embracing it.
Thus, it fills a gap given that the ACTU has not been able to act in this way. The ACTU has focussed effectively on the immediate demands of workers: paid special leave, the wage subsidy (no less than the median wage), health and safety rights, and access to other information about the virus and workers’ rights.
We need much more union and people’s power that drives the development of the programme.
The UWU proposal can and should be seen as a discussion paper. On a couple of urgent measures – the dovetailing of the wages and welfare payments – there may not be much opportunity for that. The immediate priority there is digital campaigning. This is where the ACTU has done very well.
And, the physical distancing and home isolation requirements can be turned to tactical advantage for our movement and its leadership of the 90%.
We have the digital tools for big and deeper union education and discussion on line about the UWU programme and how it can be improved so that it could morph into a widely understood popular people’s programme.
Discussion is necessary because he UWU proposal does have weaknesses. Deep and broad union education and discussion can help deal with these.
First, the laudable anti-racist emphasis does not, so far, address the precarious situation faced by our First Nations Peoples. Racism, born in our colonial origins, is what underpins the failure to “close the gap”, revealed in the recent update on that programme. Our First Nations peoples know what is needed and their hierarchy of urgency in the face of the pandemic.
The second and third parts are silent about food manufacturing and water supply. Whatever happens in anyone’s management of this crisis, the most essential industry is food and water supply, including the maintenance and repair work on the machinery and equipment in that, and the electricity supply and transport to points of sale. Then there is the health sector, in its broadest sense, including the manufacture of the hardware that nurses, paramedics and doctors need to deal with this pandemic and others that will follow.
Deeper thinking about food manufacturing can take us closer to understanding the deep cause and origin of this corona-virus pandemic and others that have been happening and will happen again. Food manufacturing, in all its dimensions, is dominated by giant agri-business corporations whose pursuit of new products (wild and exotic foods, for example) requires the destruction of the lungs of our planet.
Ironic isn’t it? It is not the small businesses in the Wuhan wet markets that unleashed the release of the virus into human life, but the decisions taken in New York and Beijing that impel the destruction of natural resources whose ecology was once a shield for human life. New York is now a very dangerous place to be.
Also, the proposal, as it stands, leaves the stock exchange intact. Before and since the pandemic the stock exchange ups and downs enabled some to make gazillions while others lost heaps. Those who have acquired more are in the boardrooms of or fund managers for the agri- business corporations.
Stock exchange activities have made zero contribution to deal with the crisis. They are socially useless, yet extremely destructive, but left untouched. It is a locus of destructive corporate power that must be cut away.
A people’s alternative programme can integrate an economic and political direction that puts workers, their unions and other peoples organisations in greater control of the urgent and necessary just transition to renewable energy systems and food and water supply that nourishes the soil, the oceans, and the flora and fauna that live in them. Thus, we start from within the crisis of the present to create the power that enables human life to exist in harmony with nature, rather as its primary threat.
Is a peoples’ democratic programme possible?
The UWU proposal is an immediate example of others that have come before it, in every country on the planet, including Australia. An overseas example: the Freedom Charter originated as an idea in the organisations of the ANC, but became the benchmark for the decades of struggle after it was developed and endorsed by a massive gathering of peoples organisations. Right now, in Australia, with the Uluru Statement, our First Nations peoples are working through their strategy for a powerful voice in the Constitution. They are searching, on an independent footing, for allies as part of their strategy, as they have done in big breakthroughs before. The Statement itself came out of tens of thousands of informal and formal discussions, distilled through disciplined and democratic consultations, before being thrashed out against the odds at Uluru.
The big lesson is that a unifying peoples programme is necessary. Our times demand it. Nothing the LNP has to offer will solve the problems it can solve. It can be done and must be pursued.