Coronavirus: Union response inadequate

by Don Franks

As economic downturn bites in the wake of Coronavirus, workers stand at particular risk. Those working in the tourist industry especially, also the low paid. Those thousands who just make it from paycheck to paycheck.

These are times when workers organisation will be tested. Current Council of Trade Unions policy suggests unions are unready.

“We are working closely with working people, their unions, the Government, Ministry officials and business groups to try and ensure that the COVID-19 virus is contained and that people are supported appropriately,” CTU Policy Director and Economist Andrea Black said.

We are pleased that the Government is has removed the ‘stand-down’ period for people needing financial assistance through welfare payments. It’s also good that the Government is working with banks to ensure they can help support customers.

We are welcoming the Government’s wage subsidies to keep people connected with their workplaces, training for affected working people, support for employers.

The CTU is pleased to see the Government preparing for future eventualities, engaging with unions and business and being prepared to take decisive action.

At a minimum, we see that the following things are necessary –

Practical support for people displaced from their jobs including supporting unions to work with members if there are workplace and industry closures.

Increased statutory sick leave. Income support for all working people who are casual or contractors who can’t work or are self-isolating.

Support from welfare system to be on an individual basis – as many low and medium income households require two incomes to avoid hardship.

Working for Families payments to continue for people who lose their jobs. Increased benefit levels and action Welfare Expert Advisory Group recommendations that are relevant to the threat of the virus.” Black concluded.

The CTU statement is long on government praise and short on practical demands.

The “things seen as necessary” are so vague that they’re meaningless. What might “practical support” for those displaced from their jobs actually mean? Government financial assistance? Rent/utilities bill payments? “Increased statutory sick leave – to what extent?” “Income support for casuals or contractors” – how much?

It’s not likely that employers will see the same things as necessary. There will be sharp clashes of interest during this crisis, probably sooner rather than later. To protect them and their families’ interests, workers need to do more than make hopeful suggestions. On what unions could do if workers’ needs aren’t met, the CTU statement is silent.

The spreading Coronavirus may attack people from every social class, but classes aren’t equal in resources. The way New Zealand’s capitalist society runs, workers will be badly hurt by this episode – if we don’t use our capacity to organise. Polite union office “engaging” with government and employers will not cut it as things start cutting up rough. Workers’ only chance to assert themselves is using their numbers in action. That can and should be preparing for right now.

The Council of Trade Unions should call a special nationwide conference (could be by video) of job delegates to help prepare our side. A conference to shape specific workers’ demands and begin organisation on the ground to fight for those demands.