Solidarity is at the heart of our COVID success
The pandemic shows that when union voices are listened to, the country benefits.
To beat COVID, Australians have put individual needs aside to protect others, to protect strangers, to protect the whole, says ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus.
“At the heart of Australia’s social contract is a commitment to collectivism – a notion that when any of us stumble, the rest of us will be there to help them back up,” she told the National Press Club (NPC).
“And Australians overwhelmingly did this – we did this together. The success of the Victorian lockdown, in which 6.5 million people committed to collective action that would protect not only themselves and their families, but the whole of Australia, is testament to this.”
Sally said the response to the pandemic had also given us “a glimpse of what is possible”.
“For a brief period of time we came close to eliminating poverty by lifting JobSeeker; we cancelled punitive work for the dole in indigenous communities; we introduced free childcare for all, ended homelessness by housing people in hotels, and radically increased job security for the majority of the workforce with JobKeeper,” she said.
Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister of Greece, says this hitherto hidden capacity of the state is an important insight coming out of the pandemic.
“What we discovered in 2020 is that governments had been choosing not to exercise their enormous powers.
“Governments that proclaimed their impecunity whenever called upon to pay for a hospital here or school there, suddenly discovered oodles of cash to pay for furlough wages, to nationalise railways, take over airlines, support carmakers, and even pop-up gyms and hairdressers,” he wrote on the Project Syndicate website.
The heroism of nurses
Sally McManus told the NPC that, for her, the heroes of 2020 were essential workers: “hard working, brave and humble”.
Even though they could see what was happening overseas “with ICUs full and health workers getting the virus, and many dying. They knew what they were facing and yet they kept calmly planning, preparing and turning up for work”.
Sally spoke of the many nurses in Victoria who came out of retirement and “volunteered to go into the aged care homes when the crisis was raging, people were sick and dying, and existing staff had been put into isolation”.
“What (they) experienced was horrifying and traumatic – but day after day, nurses put their hands up to step into these roles. They are absolute heroes. Their bravery is something we must never forget as a nation.”
Union reps step up
Sally said that union reps in workplaces all around the country also deserve praise for the way they have stepped up during the pandemic “to protect not only their members but the whole community”.
“They worked with their employers to make the necessary changes to see through shutdowns and adjust to the new COVID reality – to make workplaces safe, fairly manage reduced hours and rapidly transition to working from home.
“During this pandemic, the voice and role of unions has been central to the national interest.”
Sally says Australia’s unique industrial relations system “delivered when needed”.
“It balances fairness and flexibility, and it showed it was capable of changing rapidly and delivering both. This is something we should pause to acknowledge.
“The next time an employer lobbyist wants to say the system is inflexible, it should be understood that this is demonstrably untrue.”
Paid pandemic leave helped stopped the spread
Early in the pandemic, unions recognised there was a huge hole in our pandemic defence. On 3 March – before any restrictions or shutdowns – the ACTU called for paid pandemic leave for all working people.
“We knew that people would not have the leave needed for this crisis – leave to stay at home when sick, or when waiting for test results, or because a close contact was positive, or when required to quarantine. And because they did not have this leave, the virus would be spread in workplaces,” says Sally McManus.
“The only way to address this was to give all workers paid leave to isolate. This was the way to significantly reduce the risk of the virus spreading with sick people going to work.”
Subsidising wages: a union idea that saved jobs
Similarly, on 25 March the ACTU publicly called for a wage subsidy. The federal government initially rejected the idea.
“We got together a coalition of economists and academics who argued our point – that the only way through this pandemic was to commit to a historic level of government support for workers in the form of a wage subsidy to keep them in their jobs during lockdown and downturns,” said Sally McManus.
“Over 3.5 million workers and sole traders have kept an income and kept their jobs because of JobKeeper.
“I hate to think what this year would have been like without JobKeeper, without paid pandemic leave, without the protections of our safety net of awards and workplace rights.”