Workers in the gaps: The place of essential workers during the pandemic and why we should stand with them

By Gayaal Iddamalgoda

I am a solicitor working for FIRST Union; a union which represents many workers who have been deemed essential for keeping society running during the current pandemic. 

Before the pandemic, all of us had been taught  [and many of us had internalised] all kinds of justifications for why the most productive workers in society are only worthy of low wages and poor job security.

We live in a society and a capitalist world that reinforces the notion that if you do hard, dirty, unpleasant work, you deserve the lowest wages and the least job security. If you work in sanitation, waste management, storing, shelving, distributing food, cleaning, and deliveries, the message has been loud and clear: you deserve the least, you are unskilled, unimportant and menial. If you have bargained on behalf of low wage workers, you will know that bosses are not shy of regurgitating these tropes.  

“Your workers don’t deserve anything more than minimum wage, unlike me. They chose not to get an education.

[This is an actual quote from a bargaining agent used by a certain supermarket owner].

It is interesting that now, these very workers who have been constantly run down, are now the most essential workers in the country! The truth is of course, that nothing has actually changed, these workers, the hardest working people in our society, have always been essential. Without them, our society would crumble. 

Class society has always insisted on treating the most important workers as the least important people. From slave labourers, to indentured workers, to wage labourers: the people who do the work that ensures food is placed on tables and the ruling class don’t wallow in their own filth, are always given the lowest status. Isn’t this counter intuitive? Of course it is. We instinctively socialise our children to respect people who clean up, who make the food, who do the chores and who are not lazy. Yet our economic system treats the people who ‘own’ the wealth as being worthier of respect and power than the people who make it.

In a time of crisis, when the foundations of our society are shaken to the core, this hypocrisy becomes completely obvious, as do the reasons behind that hypocrisy.

The workers who keep us fed, clean, safe and healthy can wield tremendous power. If ever they realise just how important and powerful they really are, they wouldn’t put up with being exploited. They wouldn’t support a system that keeps them poor while allowing their labour to profit the wealthy.  If they withdrew their labour or channelled it in a different way, society would be turned on its head. These workers already have the social and economic power to topple the systems of inequality. The next step is to realise that power and gather the tools to wield it.  

Already, the pandemic is leading many of these workers to re-assess their position in society. Not only are workers around the world beginning to demand safer and better conditions for themselves, they are beginning to demand that the economy serve the needs of their communities over the profits of the wealthy. Just think of the successful strike action taken by General Electric workers in the United States; their demand was that their factories be repurposed to create much needed ventilators instead of aeroplane parts. This and actions like it are truly inspiring.

They present us with a glimpse of a world where workers aren’t subject to orders and commands, but where they themselves run the economy, democratically and in the interests of their class. 

This vision is surely wonderful for the vast majority of human society and for the bulk of us who do not own most of the world’s wealth and resources. However, it is a complete nightmare for the ruling class, and those who cling to capitalist delusions.  My fear is that as workers become more and more confident in themselves, the forces used to stop them will also mount. The threat will come from the bosses, who will use whatever coercive tactics at their disposal to keep workers in line, but also from the conservative sections of the ‘left’.

Ideologically, the Labour government has never disavowed the neoliberalism it enacted in the 80s and 90s. Time and time again, when the Labour party has been challenged on why they will not restore workers’ rights to strike to what existed before the 80s they simply and resolutely refuse. 

‘Why should ‘good employers’ suffer?’ I heard MP Iain Lees-Galloway once say this when he was asked what he thought about political strikes. What hypocritical rubbish! Over decades of neoliberalism, Union power has been smashed, unemployment driven up, wages driven down. Did the Labour Party ever stop to think about the ‘good workers’ who were left to suffer at the hands of bosses who used their economic and political leverage? 

When bosses use their campaign donations, unequal bargaining power and financial institutions to exert their power in society, it is described as exercising their ‘legitimate freedom.’ But when workers use their leverage politically, that’s too frightening for the Labour Party. What is really irksome about Labour’s fear of workers power is that it is the first to rest on the laurels of what politically active workers’ movements have achieved in the past. 

If you go to any Labour Party conference [I confess, I have done this], you will hear about Bastion Point, about land rights, you will hear about the nuclear free movement, you will hear about anti-apartheid struggle; all struggles that were won through political action of organised workers. You will hear the Labour Party describe itself as the union movement’s political wing, yet you won’t hear much about the fourth Labour government and how it smashed the power of workers’ unions. 

We shouldn’t be fooled by the government’s pro-worker rhetoric. Yes, it is taking some steps to support workers, but this is a pragmatic step, not an ideological change. Essential workers aren’t called essential for nothing and the government is keenly aware of this. 

Real change rests in the independent power of workers and their ability to exercise it.

My prediction is that if workers do become more confident, we’ll see opposition from the government as well as from the conservative leadership of the trade union movement. We need to be prepared for this. We need to resolutely oppose it. Worker’s power is not to be feared by working people. It is what is needed to turn this rotten system over. It is what is needed to address all the global challenges faced by the international working class, from climate change and global poverty to the current pandemic.

Capitalism, a system that struggles to provide for human needs at the best of times, is buckling under its own inefficiency. The cracks are showing and they are widening. But in those gaps, the working class can build something new and better. Let us not be afraid!

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