Master Grocers Australia, which represents independent supermarkets and other shops, is a straw in the wind. It wants a one-year wage freeze for workers on retail awards. That’s its response to the COVID-19 pandemic before it has even taken hold.
We’re all in it together. That’s what the government says. It’s a lie. The rich and the capitalists are already thinking about how the burden of the crisis can be put on workers and the poor. Our side – unionists, students, the poor and people from oppressed groups – has to keep organising to resist what could be a huge wave of attacks in the coming months.
The Victorian state Labor government has used the opportunity provided by public panic – when the climate crisis has been temporarily been eclipsed by this new one – to lift the moratorium on onshore gas exploration. More environmental destruction in the name of corporate profits slipped in through the backdoor. Never let a crisis be a missed opportunity.
The federal government has shown that its priority is not to massively expand medical capacity and prepare for the worst of the infection, but to give handouts to big companies, who are crying more about the potential disruption to their operations than about the potential human cost of the pandemic and the economic fallout for the people who do the work.
If there is no medical breakthrough soon – if they can’t figure out how to kill the virus in people carrying it – there likely will be mass layoffs to protect company profits. But the executives will keep their mansions. Workers not sacked will be under pressure to work longer, harder or for less to keep their boss in business.
If the virus can’t be contained and the economy craters, the media and politicians will focus more and more on moral panics to turn us against each other. Those with the power to direct to economy to provide for human need will refuse, while telling us that our panic-stricken neighbour with an extra roll of toilet paper is a mortal threat.
The rich and powerful always think about how to turn a crisis into an opportunity to entrench their power or to augment their wealth. Our side needs a similar attitude – but instead of the selfish and self-serving calculation, we have to think now about how we come out of the other side of this crisis with a world that is more, not less, equal; in which workers have more rights, not fewer. We have to organise now for a public health system that comes out of this strengthened, not subject to more privatisation and cuts.
We are being given a false choice at the moment – kill the economy to save lives, or risk lives for the sake of the economy. But when government and business say “the economy”, they’re talking about profits and power, not useful things being produced and circulated for the majority of us. We need to reshape the economy to save lives and reshape the future; to create an economy run for human need rather than profits. All of our organising needs to keep that vision.
It won’t be easy to continue organising while keeping ourselves and others safe in the middle of a pandemic. But the starting point is understanding that the rich and powerful have a head start. They are planning and they are organising as best they can. We have to follow suit.