Unions and worker’s rights in the pandemic: an interview with Godfrey Moase

Unions and workers rights in the pandemic: an interview with Godfrey Moase

Simon Copland: I want to just start off with a really broad question, which is how do you think COVID-19 has changed the way that unions operate in this past year?

Godfrey Moase: COVID-19 has really increased the prominence of organising around safety for unions, and also safety more generally as a set of issues for workers. With COVID-19 coming basically immediately after the Australian bushfire season and the horror summer, we’ve seen a rolling set of issues around safety. For workers we’re really down to the bare bones; fighting to protect physical and mental safety. I think there is something in disaster organising as a framework going forward that plays out not just on the terrain of pandemics, but also around climate disasters.

Simon Copland: Could you give me some examples of what you’re talking about in terms of safety organising?

Godfrey Moase: So, the underlying legal responsibilities employers have for COVID-19, extreme heat, smoke, or other sorts of weather disasters and climate disasters are the same; to provide a safe working environment. So an example would be, our union ran training for members in COVID hotspots remotely, on digital platforms. It was basic training for members about dealing with COVID-19 safety. We’re running a similar agenda to prepare people for this summer, although hopefully, it looks like this summer will give people a bit of a break compared to last summer.

The underlying legal frameworks, sources of rights and responsibilities are the same for climate disasters and COVID-19. Investing in member education and basic rights and responsibilities in COVID-19, I think played a really critical role in the Victorian second wave outbreak in bringing that wave under control. Because we had a number of workplaces where health and safety reps, union delegates, and workers in different ways, depending on how the issues occurred in their workplace and according to the industrial organisation of those workers, that they took various forms of action from seeking consultation meetings through to cease works, depending on the nature of the issue, that really brought to the forefront for a number of employers that they had to take control measures.

Some of the more prominent issues are already in the public domain. We estimate that in Melbourne, we had about 12 of those. But I think you can draw a thread between, for instance, the MUA workers in Sydney walking off the job because of poor air quality in the bush fires this year, through to workers at Spotless Laundries in Dandenong walking off the job because of positive cases. There is a thread of workers organising to protect the very basics of their physical safety.

Simon Copland: You mentioned the kind of legal frameworks and that they’re set the same for extreme heat, climate disasters, and a pandemic. Can you talk a little bit, though, about some of the deficiencies that might exist in our legal system, in terms of protecting workers in these kind of events?

Godfrey Moase: Yes. Well, it’s a complex interaction here between industrial relations laws and health and safety laws. And, to a certain respect, the migration system of the country and the way that it tends to marginalise people or make people non-subjects in various forms and attempts erase them as subjects. So, essentially, what we’re coming up against is an industrial relations framework that is designed to contain and control workers in order to reinforce managerial prerogative, coming up against a health and safety system that, at its heart, is okay (is the technical term I would put to that) about reinforcing the need for employers to provide a healthy and safe working environment for workers.

So, what I found really interesting I think is that COVID-19, in particular, in that peak or coming up to that peak in Victoria, really exposed the very fundamental limits of managerial prerogative as an organising system to respond to crisis. We had a whole lot of managers, without comment to what they are like as individuals, who would often think that they knew better than the sum total of the experiences of all the workers in the workplace. And even if you say, “A manager, he’s the best person for that job,” I just don’t see how it is physically possible for them to have more knowledge about matters of fact than the sum total of everyone in that workplace. And that was what it really rubbed up against at that juncture.

So you could see that play out in the Spotless Laundries dispute, where the first response that we dealt with was falling into using the industrial relations system to police workers rather than the health and safety process. The employer brought an action against the union to ensure that the Fair Work Commission ordered the union to get all the workers to go back to work. That was the substance of the action. What ended up happening was that the action ended up being withdrawn by the employer, so there was never any resolution. The individual member hearing the case was never forced to make a legal resolution about the limits of controls around action on workers and where that comes up against health and safety, and it ended up not being determined. And that is a question mark, and that is a gap in the existing system. Although it being a gap, I think, I can’t see any other way around the system having critical support. I can’t see it being anything other than a gap, because if you answered that to say, “Workers don’t have the right to cease work in order to protect their basic physical safety,” if that question was determined in that way, you would cut out the very hegemonic basis for the labour market, where people are rational actors that have the ability to enter and withdraw from the labour market. And there would be very little legal autonomy for workers that would differentiate them from slaves, other than you get a wage. You don’t have the right to participate as a rational market actor. That could have instituted a more fundamental process in the system. But it’s hard to know how that would play out. 

But the Australian response around workers taking action needs to be seen as part of a more global working class response about how workers deal with the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a whole bunch of other internal crises of capitalism, which is a real issue. I think the last that I heard, the best evidence that we had, was that within the United States, there was about 1000 different cease works in relation to COVID-19 this year. I don’t know how many might’ve come up due to their West Coast bush fires and wildfires, but even some noises coming out of the States around unions and workers organising to carry out a general strike, should Trump lose the popular vote and/or the Electoral College and seek to hold on to power, should be read as a continuation of an underlying trend where workers will take action. Increasingly not so much around terms and conditions of employment, but about the basics of being subjects in a liberal democracy, where they have the right to safety and very baseline civil liberties.

Simon Copland: Yeah, I guess it’s interesting because safety is such an integral part of what you could consider a workplace condition, in many ways. But I think at the same time, maybe this is just my own reflection of my experiences with unions, and maybe it’s primarily because my experiences with unions are with white collar unions. Often safety isn’t one of the first things that’s brought up as, of the work that unions do. It’s around wages and things like that. But safety is such an integral part of the work of a union. And, particularly in these contexts, it seems to be becoming such an increasingly integral part and it’s about these external factors that impact on the workplace: bush fires, smoke, pandemics, but that interact with the workplace at the same time, in that the way a workplace is set up has the capacity to spread a pandemic faster. Or, the way that an employer enforces that people continue to come to work when there is a pandemic, can result in further spread, etc. So there’s this interesting interaction between these global forces and these localised workplaces.

Godfrey Moase: Yeah, exactly. And I think the present moment raises safety as an issue whether the people are blue collar or white collar. I think that the present moment heightened safety as an issue for blue collar and white collar workers, definitely.

Simon Copland:  Yeah, absolutely. I work at the Australian National University, and we’ve had multiple safety issues with the bushfire smoke, with offices that just aren’t able to deal with that then following on with the Coronavirus, and all of those sorts of things. It certainly is something that is impacting all sort of workers. I wanted to touch base, and you mentioned something about the current industrial system policing and controlling workers. I was thinking a little bit about how, particularly maybe around Victoria’s second wave, there’s two really central parts of how the virus has spread. And one is in aged care homes, which has received a lot of coverage. And the second is in workplaces. I remember in the early parts of this development of Victoria’s second wave, it was things like meat works. And you have mentioned the laundry dispute, for example, where this has happened. Yet at the same time, often this has been ignored, I think at least in a lot of public press, and we’ve seen instead pictures of people at beaches, and a real focus on social gatherings and things like that, with an assumption that individuals are doing the wrong thing, and that’s what’s causing these waves to occur. Do you have any reflections on that and how the narratives around workplaces and spread in the workplace has played out, and potentially how the state or employers have tried to deflect away from workplaces as being causes of the spread?

Godfrey Moase: Yeah, I think that the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses and social fissures endemic to the neoliberal system. At the same time, this is neoliberal system and the public discourse will tend to a neoliberal narrative in the absence of workers doing things collectively. It is when workers do things collectively that that is pierced, and there is a razor-like focus on issues of precarity, risk shifting, and the unethical extraction of profit from systems. So, it’s not surprising to me that the pandemic in the public discourse is once discussed in a neoliberal manner, but also undermines or exposes the weaknesses in neoliberal systems, and that bias occurs at once. It’s really only people doing things collectively that end up piercing through that. If we didn’t have workers taking collective forms of action, broadly defined, I shudder to think what the actual discourse would be like in relation to COVID-19.

And that goes to not only blaming individuals and taking an authoritarian response, taking a policing response to a social health crisis. It also changes the way that capital and sections of capital relate to the state’s public health response. So at one time we could criticise the state for policing individual behaviour too much, while also doing many good things around public health measures that are critical for fighting the pandemic, while at the same time, recognising that the state itself is under pressure from sections of capital to just open up the economy and let people die for the sake of profit. Arguably not economic growth, because people dying is probably not great for economic growth. Separate from the issue of what sort of growth is good or not. But definitely for some people to make some profit. 

That is all, the only thing that brings coherence and balance to that is the collective organisation of workers forcing their lived experience of the shop floor, of the front end of their essential services, to be exposed into the public domain and adequately either considered by the state and capital, or at least one section or the other section to silently or more solidly let either the state or capital coherently respond to those worker concerns.

Simon Copland: I have two more areas of exploration, and I think the first one is, maybe this is just a reflection on my situation at the moment. As I said, I’m at the ANU and part of the union there, and we’re facing, and I think a lot of people around the country are facing the prospect of slashes of conditions, slashes of jobs, in particular, ranging from the university sector, to airlines, travel companies, etc. We’re in a recession and in this unique economic crisis that has been caused by COVID-19. And it, from my experience, takes away a lot of the potency of how unions can respond. Cuts should be something that unions can easily fight against, and attacks on conditions. But, the potency of the response seems to me very difficult at this point in time, because of the unique nature of the situation. Do you have any thoughts on that and how unions are able to properly engage with attacks on jobs, job cuts, attacks on conditions at this point in time, given the circumstance we’re in?

Godfrey Moase: That is a really good and challenging question. I think part of what we need to recognise is that safety is an essential part of the response, organising around safety and disaster organising, is an essential but not sufficient part of our response. So, there are still nonetheless issues of capital withdrawing from certain places. To a certain extent, that is an intensification and a creeping into new areas of the dynamic that’s been playing out since the ’80s around declining investment. The trade union movement matured as a really effective and powerful way to distribute some of the wealth generated through capitalist relations and investment. And it achieved incredible and has achieved, and will in certain respects, continue to achieve really impressive gains that changes the lives of millions of workers, not just in Australia, let alone the world.

However, what that is predicated upon is the assumption that capital will continue to invest. And at moments in time where capital goes on strike, or just ceases to play a social role as the investor, it does lead to a dilemma. If your bargaining setup, if your organising setup is organised around a fair share of the gains of productive investment, what do you do when the productive investment is not there? And that’s why organising around our rights is a really critical piece of the puzzle, and that can look like many different things. It is not a prescriptive thing. That can involve political organising, community organising, and industrial organising. It could involve organising to put the pressure on the state to step in and bring socially necessary services further under state jurisdiction. So, being re-nationalised or re-socialised from being privatised.

It could look at forcing the state to invest properly into a sector, whether that’s education, anywhere from early education through to tertiary education. It could, in some instances, look like coherent economic plans to assist workers to transition enterprises and businesses to cooperatives and mutuals. Dealing with that dilemma of what do you do when capital ceases to invest, it is at one time, a very difficult and scary task, because there’s no models off the shelf that you can say how that works. No one has worked through how you deal with that in a situation where you’re still in a functioning liberal democracy, short of a total social crisis, which arguably no one has really worked that out in a really ethical way that builds human freedom either.

So it’s a very scary thing, but it’s also a very exciting thing, because if being union is about helping workers to reach their full human potential and human freedom, then being able to sufficiently step in and take on more of the social responsibility for production and social replication that some sections of capital would have done in terms of organising production and investment, is probably, in retrospect a necessary step to renewing society and helping our society reach its full promise, That full promise is predicated on every single person being able to reach their full capacity and potential as human beings, rather than just being limited to being widgets in a productive process, whether that stunts people’s growth mentally and physically, and physically and mentally exhausts people.

So, that decision point, no one has worked that out, I haven’t worked that out. But it’s an incredibly momentous time where things could go really well or really badly, or probably quite a mixture of both.

Simon Copland: One final question for you. And you mentioned this very briefly a little earlier, is one of the things that I think also COVID-19 has really highlighted in Australia is the reliance on migrant labour and the lack of conditions and security that is afforded to migrant workers. And so we’re seeing this particularly happening now, debates around fruit picking, and concerns that basically we’re not going to have enough people to pick the crops that we have in Australia, and that’s going to cause major issues because we can’t have these migrant workers coming in. But also at the start of the pandemic, and I think this is ongoing, there was a lot of migrant workers who ended up being stranded, with no conditions and no safety net at all to fall back onto. I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit about this because I know this is something that you’ve organised around, and how unions can organise around migrant workers who are often undocumented, etc. What can unions do in that area?

Godfrey Moase: I think the first starting point is that we need to seek to organise the working class as it is. Rather than how it was or how we would imagine it to be. And the working class as it is in Australia is diverse, and there’s a mix of temporary migrant labourers, temporary migrant workers, workers who come from all different parts of the world and who have all different experiences. And that organising the working class as it is, is an incredibly enriching process and that diversity makes us all stronger, and that diversity allows us to be better global citizens in the trade union movement. So, that’s a really simple thing. It’s more of a structured attitude towards the situation.

But, if we treat every single worker as a subject who can do something to shape their own lives, rather than than like some objects of charity, that leads to exciting places where workers change what we might think is possible. That is a really key point. Then what do you do after that? Well, ultimately, it’s the basics of organising, there’s no shortcuts around that. And those workers will have really great ideas and really great claims that will take the labour struggle in different directions that the union leaders like myself might think of in the abstract or prior to that work happening.

Simon Copland: Excellent. Godfrey, I really appreciate you taking the time.