The sun is an orange-red fireball. It hangs menacingly in a shroud of thick haze. Sometimes the dense ashen fog merges with the blazing incandescence of the sun and everything from the ground up is aglow. Intermittently, the sky rains ash over the metropolis from fires all along the NSW coast. Three immense fires north of Sydney have joined up to create what has been called a “mega-blaze”. The city feels like a giant crematorium.
Casting our eyes out over the Anzac Bridge near Sydney Harbour, a co-worker and I seal windows and doors because smoke is penetrating our office building. A friend who’s an occupational therapist working in a public hospital in western Sydney, says that the internal fire alarms were triggered. The smoke from outside was so thick it came inside the building, and the entire place shut down while the firies came. Thick smoke triggering false alarms across the city has now been widely reported in the media – and over-stretched firefighters have to attend each one.
“It’s like Armageddon”, my workmate says. If you venture outside, you chew on the air, now like a paste of grit that sticks in your throat. So you stay inside, but the smoke gets trapped there, creeping in under doors and around window frames. We stock the first aid kit with paracetamol because people are getting headaches. We’re talking about clothes reeking of smoke, fatigue, itches, coughs and nausea. Everyone is talking about all of it.
Someone mentions face masks. Should we wear them? Which ones are best? This is what workers all around Sydney are mulling. The EPA says being exposed to the toxic haze is equivalent to smoking 30 cigarettes a day and that there are dangerous levels of PM2.5 particles in the air. Last week we knew nothing about PM2.5 particles; now we’re talking about how they can trigger asthma attacks or even heart attacks for people with respiratory and heart problems, and how inhaling them could cause cancer.
Parents at work are agonising about their children and what exposure to the toxic atmosphere means for little bodies. There was a spike in emergency department presentations and ambulance call-outs in the first week of December. New South Wales Ambulance fielded 2,330 calls for help with asthma or breathing difficulties, which is 30 percent more than in an average week. Over the same period, there was a 25 percent increase in presentations for respiratory issues at hospital emergency departments, with the biggest spike in the areas worst affected by smoke.
What sorts of air filters could we use inside at work to mitigate against the dangers of toxic smoke and its particles entering our bodies, and how on earth are outdoor workers coping with all of this? The EPA keeps advising people to stay indoors, so our conversations turn to the blatant contradictions involved in workers being able to follow these instructions. How do you do that when you are forced to turn up to work each day?
What do the state and federal governments think millions of workers should do in view of the mass poisoning of people taking place in Sydney and NSW right now? What plans do they have to accommodate and care for thousands of people evacuated from fire areas, or people who lose their homes? What about the dead? How will the state government explain to the families of the dead that, according to the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union, $12.9 million was cut from Fire and Rescue NSW in the last state budget and $26.7 million from the Office of NSW Rural Fire Services?
It’s not as if they hadn’t been warned – and by the most knowledgeable sources. Twenty-three former fire and emergency leaders tried for months to warn Scott Morrison that Australia needed more water-bombers to tackle bigger, faster moving and hotter bushfires. He couldn’t find time for them.
The New South Wales Fire and Rescue former chief, Greg Mullins, made clear the unmet need. A giant water-bomber is on its way to Australia from the USA. “We’re only going to have seven of those [aircraft] this year. I’ve just come back from California and they had about 30 on one fire.” He also fears that it will become increasingly difficult for Australia to get firefighting help from the US, as climate change means the bushfire seasons in the two countries begin to extend and therefore to overlap.
While governments refuse to acknowledge that this crisis has anything to do with climate change, United Firefighters Union vice-president Mick Tisbury says there are “no climate sceptics on the end of a fire hose”. Scott Morrison, he said, “likes to make out that he supports firefighters. Supporting firefighters is not bringing lumps of coal into parliament and denying climate change. Let us get on with the job, give us the help we need”.
This was far from Morrison’s mind. As fires raged around us, the prime minister attended the lavish annual Christmas party of Australia’s richest and most powerful people at the harbourside mansion of Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch. “Le Manoir” – the Murdoch’s $23 million Bellevue Hill mansion – hosted a who’s who of the Australian ruling elite, including Gerry Harvey of Harvey Norman, Crown Casino boss John Alexander, Sky News chief executive Paul Whittaker and NSW former premier and now banking charlatan Mike Baird.
No doubt there was plenty of chatter as the Moet flowed; but when it comes to a real response to the human and environmental crisis of the fire tempest engulfing the state, there has been deathly silence from the federal and state governments (and very little from the Labor opposition as well). Nonetheless, during the crisis of fire and smoke, the minister for coal, Matt Canavan, and his Labor shadow Joel Fitzgibbon, found time for a photo with World Coal Association CEO Michelle Manook.
Year after year, governments have denied the approaching climate emergency and expanded the fossil fuel industry while cutting funding to fire and other essential services and mismanaging vital river and water systems. Now the result is here: unprecedented drought and bushfires, and now a massive health crisis – millions choking, with no escape, and severe consequences for people’s immediate and long term health.
While the state and federal governments can do nothing but double down on their climate change denialism, people are rallying in Sydney on 11 December. The rally, initiated by Uni Students for Climate Justice and Greens MLC David Shoebridge, demands immediate action on the climate emergency, starting with no new coal, oil or gas projects, and a transition to renewable energy and job creation for all fossil fuel workers and communities.
Because the governments are going in the opposite direction, the rally demands increased funding for the RFS and NSW Fire and Rescue. There are obvious and immediate demands for action to address toxic smoke and protect workers. Bosses must cease operations immediately in areas where air pollution reaches dangerous levels. Extra sick leave must be made available for those affected by the toxic smoke. All hospitals, aged care facilities, schools and childcare centres must be fitted with proper air filters or air conditioning. There must be publicly funded, free P2 masks, and those particularly vulnerable to respiratory conditions need to be offered government-supplied HEPA air purifiers, or fully funded evacuation to clean areas for the duration of the crisis.
That’s a short list of the many things that could and should be done. But we know from their past behaviour – and their appalling responses to the current crisis – that the governments’ ears will be deaf to these demands unless we protest and build a radical movement able to respond to every manifestation of the climate emergency. We can’t rely on them, or our employers, to do even the basics to keep people safe right now. For that we need to rely on ourselves, not as individuals, but collectively. Environmental disaster is increasingly going to be part of the industrial landscape. To combat it, our unions are going to have to get into shape for a fight.
The Maritime Union of Australia recently provided an example of how it’s done. On 5 December, roughly 100 union members stopped work at Port Botany due to the thick smoke. Dan, an MUA member who works at DP World, was on the first shift to walk off in response to the dangerous air quality, right at the end of their shift, after the safety committee decided to act to protect workers’ health. He told Red Flag:
“We stopped 10 minutes before the end of day shift. Once the call over the radio says to go home it was pretty unceremonious ... [I’m] proud of my safety committee and the MUA today for shutting down the waterside terminal where I work due to the extreme hazardous smoke conditions. We do not have an inclement weather clause for smoke levels, but we stopped anyway. Good on the MUA for taking the lead; hopefully other unions follow suit.”
It was only the day before that the MUA Sydney branch convened the inaugural Port Botany safety committee of health and safety representatives elected from each of the three terminals. The committee opened by dealing directly with the hazardous air quality. The committee took the decision to stop work to MUA members, who walked off the job, saying that they “would simply not perform unacceptably hazardous work in unacceptably hazardous conditions”.
The MUA’s statement went on to say: “As has been the case for generations – management is pushing back, trying to force workers to perform dangerous work. Well the MUA port safety committee will not cop it. Catastrophic climate change is real, and is right now having an effect on workers on the job”.
Red Flag also spoke to Justin Timmins, who is part of the DP World safety committee and secretary of the Sydney-wide port safety committee, about what happened next. He argued that the decision to stop work was a necessity if the union were to stand up for members. “The management, some of them at least, are too concerned about productivity to see the health and safety issues”, he said. “So we have to act ... Some of them have accepted what we have done, but there’s been an attempt to push back against the union as well, threatening to take us to the Fair Work Commission, what we sometimes call the Unfair Work Commission, for illegal industrial action. We don’t accept that.”
DP World MUA members on night and evening shifts followed with a resolution stating not only that they “detest the management’s decision to order personnel out in unsafe conditions” but also that they reject the shift manager’s attempt to “stand down, off pay, any personnel not reporting to their point of work”. Instead, their resolution concluded with the demand that DP World provide a safe work environment.
The action of the MUA in taking industrial action needs to be replicated. The response from other union leaders, such as Unions NSW urging employers to give non-essential workers the option of staying home, is laughably weak. Relying on the good will of employers has never got us anywhere. Nor is it much better when all union leaders have done is make statements alerting their members that they have the right not to work in dangerous conditions. Without organisation being rebuilt on the job, who will individually stick their neck out?
From postal workers to public transport, construction, maritime, parks, health and all manner of others, we need to be calling union meetings in our workplaces, discussing the issues, proposing strategies and raising demands on employers and taking stop-work action wherever we can. This includes indoor workers whose offices and buildings are trapping toxic smoke inside. Workers using their own sick leave and annual leave because of health problems caused by exposure to fire-related hazards at work is an outrageous injustice.
We cannot be asked to pay for the bosses’ climate crisis. They’re not paying for it. Ambulance, hospital and other health services have been chronically under-funded for years. Public housing, homelessness, Centrelink and myriad other social services are already at breaking point when there isn’t a giant social, economic or environmental crisis taking place. It’s time to stop begging and hoping for the best. It’s time to start fighting back to demand real action.