Australian unions first focussed on work health and safety in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In some workplaces unions won improved health and safety conditions, and teachers and parents have protested online against schools being kept open.
Union attention quickly moved onto incomes and jobs, when Qantas stood down 20,000 workers on 18 March. The unemployment benefit was doubled on the spot, from $550 (£270) a fortnight to $1100 a fortnight, and the onerous work test was stopped.
By 22 March thousands of workers who had lost their jobs were queuing for hours outside Centrelink [equivalent of DWP] offices around the country, and its website had crashed.
The government’s first moves were to rescue business with capital grants, which were irrelevant when there were no customers. The government at first resisted lobbying by unions and employers for a wage subsidy scheme, along the lines of other countries, then introduced a new “JobKeeper” payment (paid via employers) of a flat $1500 (£730) a fortnight. It says it expects six million workers to claim the payment.
Sally McManus, secretary of Australian Unions, has spoken out for the inclusion of groups initially excluded from JobKeeper payment, including over a million casuals who have not been with their current employer for 12 months, and visa holders. The government has said it will consider extensions.
Unions are also opposing the government on changing laws that would allow employers to compel workers to exhaust their accumulated leave. This problem follows from an earlier measure billed as a union victory, that workers can access two weeks of unpaid pandemic leave and double the amount of leave they can take at half-pay. Employers could potentially claim the $1500 a fortnight JobKeeper payment, without passing it on to workers on leave on lower pay.
Disappointingly unions have not said much on topics not directly related to work, particularly about demands rent, eviction and mortgage suspensions, despite the threat of deepening indebtedness and homelessness for many.
Other surprises from the government include taking over of private hospitals into the public hospital system, and making childcare free.
Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison has said: “There are no more unions or bosses now, there are just Australians.”
The labour movement can’t afford to be taken in by this claim of class peace. There are rights and needs to defend now, from employers, landlords, banks and governments. And the government fully intends to “snap back”, and take back the benefits announced during the crisis.
The shut-down of parliament proposed to last from early April to August shows that the government would prefer less public scrutiny.