I’m a construction worker. The protesters don’t speak for me

24 September 2021
Ryan Stanton

I’ve worked in the construction industry for the last three years and know several of the men who attended this week’s rallies. Indeed, many of the thousands of people who attended the protests were construction workers and trade union members. I am shocked and disgusted by what they are doing.

There are around 7,000 active COVID-19 cases in Victoria right now. And the numbers have been rising relentlessly.

What do the protesters have to say in response to this crisis? “Fuck you.”

“Fuck you” to my friends, family and loved ones; and “fuck you” to yours as well.

“Fuck you” to their own workmates and to the friends and families of their workmates.

“Fuck you” to our sisters and brothers in health care, who each day plead with increasing desperation for us to spare them from being completely overwhelmed by the sick and the dying.

These selfish, petulant clowns are militantly hostile to the most basic health measures designed to combat an outbreak of a pandemic that has killed as many as 18 million people globally.

It’s anti-human and abhorrent. They deserve nothing but contempt from the trade union movement and the working class.

Why did the rally march up the West Gate Bridge on Tuesday afternoon? Footage indicates that at least some of the leading elements mistakenly thought that construction union Secretary John Setka’s father died in the notorious bridge collapse in 1970—the worst industrial disaster in Australia's history. They went there to troll Setka.

While Setka’s dad didn’t actually die on that day, 35 other construction workers did, and eighteen more were injured. What did they do when they reached the top of the bridge? They threw a party; literally singing and dancing on the graves of dozens of dead building workers.

Not everyone who attended these rallies is a fascist. I have no doubt that if the story about the West Gate was widely known by the workers there, many of them would be appalled.

But the workers who went to these protests were duped. They’ve been inspired and/or galvanised by the paranoid conspiracy theories of the far right. Whatever legitimate anger they might have felt towards the bosses, the government or the CFMEU officials has been completely coopted and absorbed into a mass mobilisation of reaction that is antithetical to everything that the trade union movement stands for.

After all, what is the union movement without solidarity and health and safety on the job? During a pandemic, these core principles mean supporting vaccination efforts. They mean the closure of non-essential industry during an outbreak to slow down or stop the spread of the virus, with workers stood down on full pay. They mean fighting for health measures on the job—including proper ventilation, air filtration and face masks.

The anti-vax garbage peddled by the far right clearly has resonance in at least some sections of the building industry. Why?

I was employed on a large, unionised building site in the city last year when COVID was beginning to reach Australian shores. Much less was known about the virus, but it was increasingly clear how dangerous it was.

A space opened for more militant responses to the threat of the virus. People were outraged that we were forced to work and expose ourselves in an industry that obviously wasn’t essential. Many wanted the building sites to be shut down. Keep in mind that this was before the JobKeeper wage subsidy had been introduced and when the world economy looked like it was on the brink of collapse, which gives a sense of how concerned people were.

This space snapped closed when the CFMEU leaders came down decisively on the side of the bosses. The union has, in the words of Setka, “tried to do everything we can to keep our members working”, no matter how many might be exposed to the virus. Indeed, Setka and the CFMEU leaders were on the hard right of calls to keep things open, threatening to sue employers who closed a site when a worker tested positive for COVID.

The logic of this argument was that we accept or adopt selfish, sectional and anti-social ideas. If the polls that show consistent support among the broader population for health measures and vaccinations are anything to go by, most people feel at least some responsibility to look out for the greater good.

We construction workers, on the other hand, have been taught the exact opposite lesson—that our jobs, rather than the good of the whole working class, are the most important thing.

But we’re not like the nurses or workers performing the essential tasks to keep food and other necessary goods and services being produced and delivered during this crisis. We build things regardless of whether they are of any social value or required immediately. We could be building a school, a hospital, a prison or a nuclear missile siloit is completely irrelevant. We build things to make money for our employers.

The logic of our union leaders has been one of cruel economy and profit. Business, pay packets and the sectional interests of our “industry” (that is, our employers) are of supreme importance. Social solidarity is not. The seriousness of the virus is downplayed. No wonder so many think that the vaccine is unnecessary and invasive.

Of course, it’s not just the CFMEU. The ruling class, including the Andrews government in Victoria, now agrees that the needs of business owners outweigh the need for serious public health measures to protect workers. Many construction workers have clearly been won over by this argument.

There are doubtless many other factors as well. The decline of the left-wing traditions embodied by the Builders Labourers Federation has left a hollowed-out union machine, devoid of politics, ruled by bureaucrats and increasingly disconnected from the struggles of its own members—easy pickings for obnoxious, right-wing shit-stirrers.

Likewise, almost all construction workers are men. Sexism in the industry is clearly a problem. It drags virtually every break room conversation to the right. Misogyny makes it more difficult to win people to positions of human empathy and social solidarity. This certainly is not helped by the fact that the CFMEU is led by a man who pleaded guilty to harassing his former partner, and that the membership is regularly called on to defend him from allegations of abusive behaviour.

So, was this disaster inevitable? Of course not.

What if our leaders had not spent the last eighteen months demanding that the building industry be kept open regardless of the number of COVID cases?

What if we had spent that time mobilising to shut down construction and have workers paid to stay home?

What if we had toured victims of the virus, nurses, doctors and health experts around the building sites to explain how serious the virus is and how important it is to get vaccinated?

What if we had fought for the ideas of social solidarity, rather than economy and narrow self-interest?

If we had done some of these things, we might not now be forced to figure out how to dig ourselves out of this catastrophe.

Socialist class politics still matters. It is, in fact, the only thing that I’ve found that can consistently cut through the right-wing nonsense that all too often comes out of my workmates’ mouths.

I recently had a conversation with my workmates on a non-union building site. One of them is on the far right of the spectrum when it comes to vaccinations and COVID. I have no doubt that he will be sympathetic to these rallies; he might have attended them. An abridged version of the conversation went something like this:

Him: Hey, I heard you support vaccines?

Me: Yep

Him: But do you think they should be mandatory?

Me: Yep

Him: But what gives you the right to tell me what I have to put in my body?

Me: What gives you the right to give me a dangerous disease? Or give it to your mother, or your daughter, or the old guy you pass at the supermarket?

[Period of circular debate ...]

Me: We should just shut the construction industry down and have everyone paid to stay home.

Him: Well who’s gonna pay for that? You happy to have your great-great-grandchildren paying off the public debt?

Me: No. There are plenty of billionaires in Australia. We should just tax them more.

[Silence ...]

Him: Yeah, that’s actually a pretty good point.

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