Letter to a friend

by Don Franks

Hi David,

Nice hearing from you, I’m glad to hear you’re getting by okay in these grim times.

You asked how’s it going for us back here in New Zealand. You would have heard that the whole country is locked down and with breaks for exercise and shopping, we’re all living under a sort of voluntary house arrest. The start of the lockdown triggered in me an old feeling from past years.  From those car assembly strikes we took back in the ‘70s. The feeling at the strike’s onset; after our vote to stop, the conflicting feelings, the element of excitement, dare I say it, of fun. The usual boring routine suddenly wiped away, all of us together on the brink of an adventure, with a strong sense of collective purpose. A feeling of being vibrantly alive. Then, as days passed, bills came and arguments at home increased, anxiety. The ‘shit, how will we come out of this one ‘ feeling.  Well, this time we can’t hand the dispute over for the Trades Council to save our face, we can’t even call a mass meeting and agree to go back on the bosses’ terms. We can only stay staunch and hold out for a win.

The third Labour government under Norman Kirk enabled employers to take out injunctions against workers withdrawing their labour; Northern Drivers Union leader Bill Andersen was jailed 1974 for his union’s defying an injunction; the jailing sparked massive workers’ protests

Of course a factory strike analogy goes only so far, like the analogies with World war 2 several people have cited.  Today we’re not in a strike or a war but confronted with international spread of a frightening virus with no known antidote.  Yes, hunger, wars, alcohol, tobacco and existing influenza kill millions more than this virus every year, that’s still no reason to take Corona virus lightly. The disease spreads quickly from carriers before they show symptoms, it’s incapacitated and killed many people. It’s devastating major cities worldwide.

So the authorities here have chosen to impose a lockdown, to try and break the chain, a strategy which so far seems to make sense.  It’s been quite a ride and we’ve found out some interesting things, even after just three days. It’s possible to get by without organised sports, Friday drinks, Sunday drives, restaurant dinners, trips to the Op shop. We are apparently quite able to live without the TAB, without McDonalds, without prostitution.

Some of us are much better placed than others. Despite government relief measures, thousands of workers will be struggling desperately. Some will lose their homes, many workers won’t get their jobs back.  The more conscientious union organisers are working harder than usual, from home, fielding calls for help. Hotlines for domestic violence calls are also on the up.

The situation in some deprived overcrowded New Zealand homes right now doesn’t bear thinking about and its still just early days under lockdown.  At the moment there’s understandable faith in the authorities line of march and positive response to the Prime minister’s injunction for everyone to be “kind to each other”. Some people angrily dismiss any questioning of our government over this.

I think at such a time we need our critical faculties more than ever. As a friend of mine put it:
“The state is made up of a network of institutions and those institutions are simply not basically “nice.” Asking questions about the response also does not amount to minimising the threat that COVID-19 represents or thinking it is a conspiracy, or even that it’s being purposefully exploited right at the moment or whatever. The destructive systems we live under are bound to produce epidemics, and it’s surreal but it’s not really surprising to be facing a global pandemic. It would be weirder if we didn’t experience that, really. The thing is that it is totally possible to realise it’s reasonable to adopt extreme measures because of a pandemic, while still seeing that those measures have their own relationship to other political trends, and also have their own momentum and possible long term implications”.

Already in the short term, different class interests here have sharply asserted themselves. For example, some employers have insisted on unsafe work practices and there’s been workers strike action in response.

In the new circumstances there’s a sudden social awareness of low paid workers’ vital importance. Society’s dependence on rubbish collectors, drivers, cleaners, hospital workers and, not least, checkout operators.  Today the working class is in from the margins, it’s value strongly apparent.

When we get through the present stage of the drama, will these realisations translate into a revived socialist current? During the last few weeks, the capitalist class has shown they can make radical decisions. I’m hopeful that our side can too.

Best to your and yours,

Don

2 comments

  1. Excellent letter, Don. Situation is much the same in the US, except that there will be huge numbers of workers and working class families impoverished, driven to despair, or dead when this is over, because of the lack of health care, benefits, paid sick days, and miserly unemployment benefits. The health care system, bad as it is, will be severely damaged by the burnout, exhaustion, and deaths of untold numbers of doctors, nurses, and other health care workers who do not have masks, gowns, and other protective equipment, and who are working double shifts because of understaffing. And thousands of low-paid workers whom the capitalists won’t even grant a measly $15 an hour, who are now considered “essential” will die of the virus because they don’t have minimum protection such as hand sanitizer and masks. There have been some strikes over these unsafe conditions, but without a class-conscious union leadership or a working-class-based political party, I can’t really foresee a mass upsurge as a result of this crisis. I hope I’m wrong on that.

  2. Thanks for that Phil it does sound really tough for many workers in the USA at the moment. Here in New Zealand we are also without a working class based party and a class conscious union leadership. For some years now the union movement in this country has been largely living off the echoes of past workers struggles. The remains of a nationwide union centre, the NZCTU are at the moment little more than cheer leaders for the government. I do think its possible to have a mass upsurge without good union leadership and a workers party. I know very little about the USA not enough to speculate on how things might go. As the crisis deepens here class divisions will become more apparent and the shine will wear off our government. If things get a lot worse people may see no other recourse but to take matters into their own hands. At the moment the NZ army is on two hours stand by, in anticipation of future civil disobedience. Keep in touch and good luck!

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