The colossal health and economic crisis brought on by the pandemic has been a serious test for Australian unions. unfortunately, despite a few bright sparks, any honest assessment can only reach one conclusion: the union movement is failing badly.

The most important indication of this is the debate about whether to implement widespread shutdowns of non-essential workplaces. Faced with the incompetence and cost-cutting that mean Australia’s testing and tracing regime is far behind other countries such as Germany, South Korea and Singapore, widespread shutdowns are one of the few measures available to slow the spread of the virus.

As ABC health reporter Norman Swan put it in mid-March: “Each day that goes by we’re going to lose control of this. We have been too late in banning large gatherings. We have got to stop, we’ve got to shut down schools ... My feeling is, to be blunt, we’re dicking around and we’ve just got to shut stuff down now”.

By the end of March, around 10,000 doctors and other health care workers had signed a statement, initiated by Sydney emergency department doctor Greg Kelly, calling for “a shutdown of all services that are not absolutely essential to provide for the necessities of life and functioning of the health care system”.

On the other hand, prime minister Scott Morrison, large sections of industry, and the state premiers have all pushed hard to continue a “business as usual” approach (when it comes to work at least) to maximise profits.

Shockingly, and overwhelmingly, Australia’s major unions have also been on the side of “business as usual” in this crucial debate.

Most prominent among these have been teachers’ unions. For most of March, public sector teacher unions marched in lock step with the state governments. Faced with a rank and file revolt – manifested in motions passed at a school level by teachers demanding a shutdown, and by increasingly furious comments on union Facebook pages, most teacher unions doubled down. Union organisers and officials in several states refused to visit schools on public health grounds – even while their members were stuck at work in these same schools!

Eventually, facts on the ground changed. As the trickle of parents withdrawing their kids from school became a flood, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews finally broke ranks and ended term one a few days early. It was only at this point that the teacher unions started publicly calling for school shutdowns in other states.

The construction unions – the most powerful unions in the country – have also stridently supported a business as usual approach. In this they are joined by the Australian Workers’ Union, which praises Morrison’s ludicrous contention that “every Australian employed in this economy is an essential worker”.

Unions have pushed for some progressive measures, such as paid pandemic leave, though little has been done at a workplace level to win them. And at the same time, there has been a queue at the Fair Work Commission of unions making joint applications with employer bodies to reduce workers’ conditions.

The Australian Services Union and the ACTU jointly applied with employer bodies to reduce important conditions in the Clerks Award, which governs the minimum conditions of more than a million workers.

“Ordinary” hours have traditionally been Monday to Friday, 7am to 7pm (and Saturday mornings), with hours outside of that attracting a 50 percent penalty rate for the first two hours and double time after that. The variation means Monday to Friday, 6am to 11pm, can now be counted as ordinary hours with no penalty rates paid. Minimum shift lengths for part timers working at home can be reduced from three hours to two hours.

These provisions apply only “by agreement” of the worker. But there will be enormous pressure on each worker to go along with these attacks, now that the usual legal minimums don’t apply. A vote of 75 percent or more of employees can allow employers to cut the hours of full-time and part-time workers by a quarter.

A variation to the Hospitality Award, negotiated by the United Workers Union and the employer body the Australian Hotels Association, doesn’t even allow a vote: employers are permitted to unilaterally reduce a worker’s hours by 40 percent. A “full-time” worker can find themselves getting only 22.8 hours per week.

These serious attacks on workers’ minimum conditions haven’t just been allowed through begrudgingly by the union movement – they have been carried out at the joint request of employers and the unions, a truly appalling situation. And as the Australian Financial Review notes, a series of employer organisations are queuing up to apply for similar concessions. Though the variations expire on 30 June, they will no doubt be extended as the crisis develops.

Many years ago, British Marxists Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein observed that, in any serious crisis, the trade unions will side with the state. This has proven to be true in a range of historical cases – and again over the past few weeks.

Workers are going to have to fight in the unions to defend their own safety at work, as well as the safety of society at large. In many cases, they'll have to fight the union leadership itself.

Against this generally bleak picture, there have been some important sparks of resistance.

University workers have closed counters as part of the struggle to shut down their campuses. Teachers have encouraged stayaways from school, in defiance of the murderous “business as usual” approach of governments.

Logistics workers organised by the United Workers Union have stopped work to enforce health and safety regulations at a series of workplaces. Unorganised call centre workers in Queensland walked off the job in protest at overcrowded conditions.

Publicising and building on this resistance is crucial – both in the short term, to survive, and in the long term, to rebuild our unions as fighting organisations. As part of this, Socialist Alternative members have launched Workers Organising Resistance in the Pandemic, a Facebook page designed to serve as a forum and organising hub for workers during the crisis.

The page has attracted more than 2,500 likes, and 1,000 people have signed up to its discussion group. The page has launched a “beginner’s guide” to workplace organising, has been an active part of the school boycott campaign, and every day sees dozens of workers – socialists, militants and those who just want to organise and fight – swapping stories and organising strategies.

In a life and death situation, it’s an inspiration to see workers all over the country take the first steps towards organising and fighting, starting where workers have our only strength – on the workplace floor.