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“We Can Use This Crisis to Reconceptualize the Economy”

Tim Kennedy

Australian workers are finally being addressed in the government’s rescue packages, but the measures go nowhere near far enough. National Secretary of the United Workers’ Union Tim Kennedy argues that the crisis offers an opportunity for genuine pushback and transformation.

A general view of The Sydney Opera House which is currently closed due to COVID-19 on March 25, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Cameron Spencer / Getty

Interview by
Daniel Lopez

The United Workers Union (UWU) was formed in 2019, as a merger between United Voice and the National Union of Workers. With 150,000 members, the union organizes horticultural laborers, logistics workers, manufacturing workers, entertainment, hospitality and tourism workers, cleaners, and many others who are among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis. The UWU has a strong commitment to organizing undocumented and seasonal workers. It stands in a tradition of militancy: its predecessor unions having organized a number of successful strikes in processing plants, warehouses, and distribution centers around Australia.

Just five days after Scott Morrison released the details of his second pro-business bailout, the UWU replied with a plan of their own. The union is calling for a jobs guarantee and a universal income fuarantee, set at the minimum wage. Importantly, this demand goes far beyond Morrison’s recently announced “Job Keeper” wage subsidy, which leaves many workers unprotected and many more at risk of unemployment or poverty. They are also demanding a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments and protections for undocumented workers, including the extension of Medicare and a visa amnesty.

Daniel Lopez spoke with Tim Kennedy, the UWU’s National Secretary, to discuss the union’s call to nationalize essential industries and hand workers democratic control over decision-making. As Tim argued, “the system is broken. It’s not good enough to patch it up and sail on through. … Unless we use this crisis to reconceptualize the economy, we’ll be here again before we know it.”


DL

Let’s talk about the workers who make up the United Workers Union. Could you explain which sectors the UWU covers and how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted on them?

TK

The workforces we cover fall into three main groups. We’ve got what we call front-line people, who are working to contain the pandemic. That includes cleaners, aged-care workers, early childhood educators, and also health workers who make sure hospitals are kept clean and in good nick.

Other union members are also in the front-lines in the sense that they manufacture food and process dairy and poultry, so that supermarket shelves are stocked. The UWU also organizes workers who manufacture chemicals and pharmaceuticals, as well cleaners who work for buildings services — for example, school cleaners. We cover teachers’ aides in schools in Queensland and Western Australia. As a union, we’re deeply involved in the fight against coronavirus.

As a union, we are also built around hospitality, entertainment, and tourism, where many of our members are facing unemployment. This is the second group. Just this week, ten thousand members were stood down in one day when the casinos closed up shop.

And thirdly, we’ve got a large section of workers in the middle, who are at risk. We have members in manufacturing, as well as in logistics, which includes warehousing. The work they do is vital to keeping things running. Australia is fundamentally a consumer economy; as the shopping centers and the big retailers shut down, there’s a risk that many will be out of work.

So, we’ve got the front-line workers, who we want to support to keep going. Then there are the service workers, many of whom have already been thrown out. And lastly, we’ve got a big group in the middle, who are on a precipice and could go either way. We have a total of about 150,000 members out in the field, but I would say as many as tens of thousands of them could soon be out of work.

When we looked at this, we sat down and thought that we need to respond in a way that defends all these groups. It’s not just about jobs and conditions, but also health. If we don’t find a way to guarantee workers’ security through this crisis, we won’t be able to build the social solidarity needed to stop the spread of the virus and to look after one another.

DL

It seems like UWU members are being hit from every direction. Many are out of work while others who remain in work are often exposed to danger — for instance, some cleaners are facing shortages of protective equipment.

TK

That’s a good point. On Friday, at 5:45 AM, around 250 members walked off the job at one of the Coles [one of the two major Australian supermarket chains] cold logistics sites, out in Laverton. You might know it by its old name, Polar Fresh. It’s a critical warehouse because it keeps supermarkets supplied with perishables. Those warehouse workers struck for six hours over safety concerns.

For one, Coles was not maintaining one-and-a-half meters distancing on the floor. They weren’t providing staff access to hand sanitizer, or as often as it was needed. And they weren’t taking basic measures to stop the virus, like checking temperatures on the way in.

When the workers walked out, Coles rang the leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) as well as the state Labor government. They asked them to ring me, to pressure the union to halt the strike. I had to disabuse them of the notion that the walk off was illegitimate — it was a responsible action taken by workers fearful of maintaining their health and avoiding COVID-19. It was about health and safety.

As one of the organizers told me, these workers are working between ten and fourteen hours a day, every day. They can’t sustain that. They need to come home and make provisions for their families. Given the conditions they are working in, they can’t do it. This is the kind of issue we’ve been having — a whole lot of people are overworked and are in danger. And at the same time, a lot are being thrown by the wayside.

DL

In Scott Morrison’s bailout packages. we’ve seen that the Job Seeker Allowance has been doubled but, as analysis by the Australia Institute shows, only a fraction of bailout money is going to workers. Over two-thirds of the package has been directed to business, with virtually no strings attached. What’s your response to Morrison’s bailout and wage subsidy? And what measures are the UWU taking to safeguard the livelihoods of workers?

TK

The federal government has failed to understand the purpose of government. Economies are only there to serve people. But the government puts it the other way around; they think that people are there to serve the economy. That’s the fundamental problem.

Of course, they had to do something — but when they directed 70 to 75 percent of stimulus funds to business, it was a desperate attempt to keep this old banger of a capitalist economy on the road. Employers will bank most of that money or return it to shareholders while letting their workforces go.

Our response is predicated on helping people. The Job Keeper measure is a step in the right direction but it must be universalized to include all casuals, temporary visa holders and non-visa holders. There’s also the issue as to whether it will be enough. We are in unchartered waters here, approaching a recession or even a depression. The minimum wage won’t be enough to support many workers through this.

We are not only calling for a jobs guarantee, but also an income guarantee that applies to every single person in the country. And when we say everyone, we’re not talking about restricting it to citizens. We’re talking about everyone in the country right now, including people who are undocumented. Anyone who’s here, they need to be looked after now.

There’s no doubt capital will be bailed out — take Qantas, for example [which stood down 20,000 workers after receiving AU$714 million]. By allowing so many to be laid off, Morrison is trying to reduce workers’ bargaining power. When jobs are created again, he hopes the crisis will force them to accept worse conditions. We saw how this played out after 2008–9: it was an opportunity to ratchet down workers’ earnings and power.

A jobs and income guarantee is a two-pronged counterattack against this. We want a jobs guarantee because we believe no worker should be retrenched as a result of this crisis. The only way a jobs guarantee can work is if it is backed by a federal wage subsidy. Unless you put money in people’s pockets now, the economy will fall over and you’ll throw a whole generation to the curb. This is also the key to defending workers who have lost their jobs already or who are at risk of unemployment. It helps guarantee that when business comes online again, instead of hiring unemployed workers on the cheap, they rehire their previous workforce, guaranteeing continuity of conditions.

Morrison’s Job Keeper payment doesn’t guarantee this. For example, if workers have already been fired, the onus is on them to negotiate with their employer to put them back on the books. Expecting employers to agree puts too much faith in them, particularly in industries where wage-theft scandals have eroded that trust.

An income guarantee, on the other hand, also defends workers who either weren’t working or who didn’t have enough work before the crisis. This includes casuals, labor hire workers, freelancers, and sole traders. It includes artists, gig workers, and contract workers, who are often forgotten. It should apply irrespective of citizenship or visa status.

You know what it’s like; everyone says Australia is a great economy with over twenty years of uninterrupted growth, but the last few weeks show that a large proportion of Australians are on the bones of their arse. It didn’t take much to knock us down. That’s why you’ve got huge queues outside Centrelink. So, we believe the income guarantee payment should be equal to the minimum wage of $740 a week.

This has been presented by some as a Universal Basic Income, but that’s not quite right. Our income guarantee is targeted to help those who won’t be covered by a jobs guarantee. As a cash payment delivered on an individual basis, it may be a first step to a UBI.

A universal, individual payment is important for other reasons. Too often, people in Centrelink queues are knocked back because their partner has a job. This is just another way of attacking wages and conditions. Instead, a wage guarantee has to be unconditional. You shouldn’t be required to work or even show a willingness to work. It should be a right.

Your income support should not be predicated on how privileged you were before the crisis. The problem with only focusing on a jobs guarantee — a danger the union movement could fall for — is that it entrenches the divide between workers who were in secure work before the crisis and those who weren’t.

This speaks to our other demands, including a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments. We are supporting calls for a rent strike. We also want to open Medicare up for everyone in the country and introduce an amnesty for workers without a visa. And we want to raise the tax-free threshold, so that lower-income earners can cope.

This is the way to build the social and economic solidarity needed to safeguard everyone and defeat COVID-19. But more, it’s an opportunity for us to recast a system that is not working.

DL

The UWU has also called for the nationalization of a number of key industries, including energy, health and care work, early childhood education, communications, transport, and logistics. But you have also argued that we should not replicate the command structure of nationalized economies in the twentieth century and instead push toward a model that gives workers and consumers democratic control in the management of publicly owned industries. Could you say a little more about what this would look like and why it is important?

TK

Well, if 70 percent of all support is already going to business — and it should be focused on essential sectors — then the government, which is supposed to represent the people, should insist on having a say over how those businesses are run.

On the issue of ownership, we can’t return to the top-down model established in the United Kingdom after the Second World War. We also can’t repeat what Roosevelt did in the Great Depression, where the government temporarily took ownership of banks and railways and, when business as usual resumed, transferred it back to private ownership.

There are two reasons why this won’t work. The first is that the old top-down institutions won’t work anymore. We need a plan for the times we find ourselves in. Workers have been excluded for decades, so there’s no guarantee that top-down management will protect us. Instead, cooperatives and democratic co-management could put workers back at the center of society.

The system is broken and it’s not good enough to patch it up and sail on through. We’ve seen these crises keep coming; after 2008–9, they said it was a once in fifty-year thing. Ten years later, a pandemic knocked capitalism over very quickly. Just look at the way it is unfolding in the United States. And on top of it all, we’ve got a climate crisis that keeps ratcheting up every year, which also threatens the system.

We are in contact with workers every day who know in their gut that we are just lurching from one crisis to another. After this is over, we just can’t go back to the old ownership structures. They don’t work and they don’t include people.

And anyway, we already have socialism for the rich. Only, they don’t derive income through labor, but rents. For years, we have transferred the social ownership of things, the commons, across to them, so they can rent our social wealth back to us. This has got to stop. Unless we use this crisis to reconceptualize the economy, we’ll be here again before we know it.

So we’ve got to break that ownership model and take back the commons where it makes sense and is important to our ongoing environmental sustainability. This means democratic ownership of production, including co-management with workers. We want to propose a fundamental question to society: Do we value maximum return to shareholders or a sustainable planet where there is a fair share of our common wealth? Do we value profits or a commitment and responsibility to our environment and sustainability?

A revaluation like that can’t happen under a structure built to make money for shareholders and executives. That system guarantees everyone else is thrown to the curb. The only way to turn things around is to actually give workers a say in how the wealth we generate is shared.

DL

Your criticism confirms a pattern we are already seeing internationally. Societies that went the furthest in the direction of privatization and eroding public goods are experiencing worse catastrophes simply because there’s less generosity built into the system. There’s less capacity to cope with crises like this — and the consequences will be terrible.

TK

Look at the last ten years: In 2008 and 2009 they nationalized banks, car companies, and rail companies. And then they gave them all back. And what are we doing now? Italy is renationalizing its airline. Ireland is taking steps to buy back private hospitals. Now that private capital can’t make money, governments are absorbing all the risks back onto citizens. And when this current crisis passes for what becomes the new normal, governments will be prevailed upon to transfer the assets back to private hands while imposing the debt on us. And then capital will lecture us, saying “mate, you got to get your house in order. We need austerity.” Well, we tried that ten years ago. The approach from our government is from that playbook again.

DL

In a recent Jacobin article, Alison Pennington argued that we need to build union strength in order to have a say over the nature of state intervention and rebuilding after the crisis, and she made a particular call for sectoral bargaining. That’s something the UWU in particular has championed. What makes this approach important and do you think it can be generalized?

TK

Alison is right. We need a whole new framework for collective bargaining rights. We have to remember that Australia’s enterprise bargaining isn’t legitimate collective bargaining at all. It’s an optional framework that employers can use if it suits their purpose. They pick the group they negotiate with and they set the rules. And once they make an agreement, if they don’t like it, they can opt out. They just contract out the labor, and there you go: it’s no longer bound by the agreement. There are no binding or closed collective agreements in Australia.

We’ve been arguing for a number of years that workers should be able to determine who they bargain with and the issues they bargain about. That way, an agreement can cover a whole industry, corporation or sector. The key is that bargaining should occur with who has the economic power and decision-making power, and workers have the right to determine their collective. This is a more mature approach to collective bargaining framework, and we’ll continue fighting for it.

In the current crisis the risk I see for the union movement is this: we’ve got a moment in time where we can articulate a different system and a different way for wealth to be distributed. And there’s plenty of wealth in Australia; our social wealth should be an asset for everyone.

The state, acting on behalf of the capitalist class, sees risk in the short term. In the long term, their outlook is good. But right now, they are worried that workers will push back. So in the short term, they will try to envelop the union movement, or what’s left of it, bringing them into the fold. That will make the union movement feel relevant again. It hasn’t felt particularly relevant in the political state for a generation — and there is a great motivation to recapture the political legitimacy that has been lost as our membership has declined.

But the reality is that while the movement might feel important for a time, going along with this means that the unions will be used to maintain the system through the crisis — only to go back to business as usual afterwards.

As we know, business as usual means the disaggregation of workers, wage suppression, and insecurity. So the union movement needs to resist being co-opted. Unions need to organize workers to take action around the issues that matter to them.

DL

This leads to the question of politics. In the United Kingdom and in the United States, figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have been popularizing ideas about workers’ power and democratic socialism — ideas that the crisis has made even more urgent. But Australian politics are lagging well behind. Really, the only person in Parliament who is raising any of this is Greens leader, Adam Bandt. What do you think needs to change in politics?

TK

I think your observation about the political situation in Australia is spot on. We’re in a bad way. A lot of it has to do with the Australian Labor Party (ALP) not being able to articulate something different from the failed neoliberal orthodoxy.

Labor hasn’t recovered from its long period in government under Hawke and Keating. During that time, the ALP voluntarily (with union acquiescence in the main) involved itself with the capitalist class and implemented their program to revive capital accumulation through wage suppression.

The Labor Party became a vehicle for capitalism, which meant forgetting its base. It led to wage stagnation and suppression; insecure work started its long climb so that today of up to 40 percent of workers in some form of insecure work. Generally, the share of national income to labor tracked down during that time. I think there is still a lot of shock about that period.

You gave the example of Corbyn and Sanders. Well, these days we lag behind because our party structures ensure those voices cannot come forward to challenge the dominance of neoliberalism. I don’t see change coming out of the ALP any time soon.

Aside from Adam Bandt, the progressive side of politics is hanging on to neoliberalism like a drunk hangs onto a light pole. But I don’t see how Adam Bandt could gain momentum for his argument. His base isn’t broad enough. It’s also extremely fractured.

The only broadly based movement in Australia is the workers’ movement. That’s why unions need to help the workers’ movement run hard on these issues. We can’t allow ourselves to be dragged into the priorities of the state, whose priorities are those of capital. We need to build a strong civil society to overcome the current status quo. I would advise unions: don’t let them tickle your tummy and convince you that all of a sudden, the government is talking to us and not trying to kill us. Yes, the Liberals need our help — they need unions’ help to get back to business as usual.

This moment could also transform the way unions are perceived. If unions can say: “we stand with workers and we’re going to organize to get people looked after,” we can rebuild trust. This could also start to undo the damage of the last forty years of neoliberalism. We’ve had forty years of workers losing. The share of profit going to capital has just gone up and up. That all started with the Hawke Labor government. Just look at Elizabeth Humphrys’s book — she outlines it all there.

This all goes back to Piketty’s argument about inequality. It’s ultimately why we need to change the ownership structures. We need democratic co-ownership so that we can direct where investment goes, for example, to the climate crisis and the energy of tomorrow.

And this returns to your question about politics. The ALP doesn’t lead — it follows. So, if the union movement fights around these issues, they might notice and realize that to be relevant, they need to articulate what’s next beyond the current system —t hat’s their challenge.

DL

One of the things I take from Liz Humphry’s work is that the ideology associated with the Accord was that unions could sit down around a table and come to an agreement in which both sides would benefit. That way of thinking led to naivety; it disarmed the workers’ movement. After all, we’re dealing with a government that tried to pass the Ensuring Integrity Bill just a few months ago. They lost by only one vote. That law would have given the government power to deregister unions, to seize assets, to replace leaders, and curtail union rights at work. There’s no reason to assume they won’t try again, especially given that their economic measures all overwhelmingly benefit business. It reminds me of the union slogan, “if you don’t fight, you lose.”

TK

Yes — if we allow ourselves to be enveloped into the state, we will see a continuation of the last forty years. They will disaggregate unions, leaving us powerless and in a position where no one knows who we are. We will lose. That’s where we are today — starting from scratch.

DL

But we are starting from scratch in a context where millions have started to realize that capitalism can’t guarantee even the standard of living that we are accustomed to. That’s why the crisis also bears opportunities.

TK

Our challenge is to use the moment to really press for change. We need to take action now. I’ve worked with the union for years — what we are articulating is the product of many conversations with workers over many years. Now is the time to fight for it.

Those warehouse workers who walked off the job against Coles are just one example. We’ve had a lot of wildcat actions in the last week in the warehouses. That may be upsetting some people in the union movement who think it’s dangerous. But our view is that we need to strike at the right time, around the issues that matter to our people. That’s the way you build a movement that will fight to emerge from the crisis with an economy built for everyone’s benefit, not just that of capital.