Liberal voices in the media are preaching that a new social settlement will emerge from the pandemic crisis. In a series of notes, Lorcan Mullen argues that the moment is in fact a dangerous one, with threats to the working class multiplying on many fronts.
The weekly claps and stunts for healthcare workers, the song requests and hearty salutes to other essential workers on FM radio – we know they won’t last, and if they do last, it will be because they have curdled into something useful for the ruling class.
British trade unions have a responsibility to quickly shape this sub-political phenomenon into something substantive, something that usefully endures. This is a moment that must be seized.
Unions have to make clear demands on safety, pay, staffing, sick pay, retirement ages and reversing privatisations. These demands must be simple and chime with the best of corona-culture, but must be ambitious enough to encourage high-risk worker engagement with union campaigns at a time of mass unemployment and acute uncertainty. These demands must be formed, articulated and repeated before the decisive ruling class pivot to ‘let’s pay this back, let’s get back to normal’. This decisive move is weeks away at best.
Trade unionists are already working beyond capacity to fight for PPE, serious hygiene and social distancing measures for those still leaving the house to work, no-detriment furlough, access to government schemes in the worst employers, no-rush-to-redundancies, plus re-emerging ‘business as usual’ tasks like disciplinaries and restructures. All this comes before necessary communications with union members, and basic branch administration. It’s more difficult than usual to meet members, and it’s more difficult than usual to take new representatives through formal training and accreditation processes.
Too many unions have built a transactional ‘insurance’ culture where a tiny number of reps carry thousands of members at a time. Some volunteers are burnt out, or caring for loved ones, or shielding, or ill themselves. It’s not easy to act on a strategic, history-making level when this is your immediate, teeming reality, but we can no longer stop at addressing the symptoms. This is a moment to be seized.
If you’re on the left, it’s not enough to ‘join a union’ in this moment. You must do all you can to make yourself useful to your union and organise your colleagues and peers.
It’s a cruel and bitter irony that this crisis came immediately after the movements of Corbyn and Sanders were crushed by organised and brutally effective ruling class campaigns.
Instead of stubborn, humane socialists insisting on the equal importance of the lives and welfare of workers and the poor, we are left with the militant cowardice of early Starmerism. Our American comrades are cursed with the senile, putrefying Democrats. There is a sense of precious, precarious openings to a bright future rammed shut.
We shouldn’t underestimate the psychological impact of these defeats. The most politically advanced workers and the best of their middle class allies entered this crisis feeling exhausted, bunkered, sometimes disgusted by their peers. We have seen the establishment bare its fangs, and collided with the strength and depth of its power.
Perhaps the extremity and fluidity of this situation will shock the left into new life, before we’ve had time to fragment and drift away, before we’ve collapsed our organisations and networks through pique and fatigue. That’s my hope. This is a moment to be seized.
There is much talk in all walks of life of the ‘new normal’, assertions that we cannot return to austerity, talk even from the more enlightened ruling class mouthpieces that a new social settlement is necessary. We will see how much of this warm talk survives an economic depression ravaging in tandem with an uncontrolled virus.
In local government, in universities, and of course in industries unable to operate in lockdown, the rapidly emerging reality is austerity, red in tooth and claw. The Scottish Government has engaged well with trade unions and has little appetite for continuing austerity, but the real fiscal and monetary firepower to meet this moment is, for now, at the UK government level.
Even if their analysis is necessarily complex or nuanced, economists on the left must articulate, in the simplest terms, the alternatives open to us, so they can be the foundation for a new common sense among organised workers. Devolved governments must be shown how to stretch every sinew of their power to make good on progressive statements.
Trade union negotiators in the hard-hit sectors are already dealing with genuine employer crises that must be met with precise, credible demands. It is crucial that these demands are also intelligible and persuasive for workers facing redundancy and attacks on the few benefits they still hold.
Where employers are sitting on cash hoards or have splashed on dividends and executive pay, comrades skilled in research must help us identify the real, material resources of our adversaries.
The danger isn’t just ten more years of austerity beyond the hospitals and police. Even if we force the UK government to continue unprecedented protective interventions in the economy, there is a real danger state resources will be exhausted attempting a rescue of, or return to, a shit normal.
This would be a perfect ruling class pretext – if one was even needed – for continuing inaction on climate change, hunger, resource crises, poverty…
The argument isn’t just about whether to spend, it’s about how to spend, how long to spend, why to spend, where to spend, when to – if ever – ‘pay it all back’.
On that question, we need sharp answers now, and ways to communicate that answer that don’t sound foolish to workers who mostly know defeat. This is a clear lesson from the 2019 general election, and if we are to seize this moment, we must rapidly find a new way to bring necessary ideas to people who sincerely believe things can’t be better.
I’ve said this is a moment to be seized, by the left, by trade unionists, by all those who want a future where every life matters. We sometimes forget we are not the only alternative to the status quo, and if we do not seize this moment, the far right will.
Lockdown has barely existed for many working class people, but as the official lockdown is further diluted or ended entirely, we will face a difficult moment. If and when the national trade union line of ‘no return until it’s safe’ is breached, yet more private sector employers will tell workers ‘your money or your life’.
In workplaces with no serious hygiene or distancing arrangements, with little or no effective PPE, unions will have to argue for health and safety stoppages on an unprecedented scale. Many employers will make – often with some material justification – direct threats of redundancies and wage cuts in response.
If the UK government decisively turns its face against protecting workers and their families, this confrontation will arrive in tens of thousands of workplaces, repeatedly, and unions will risk appearing feeble (dangerous production continues, members die in greater numbers) or destructive (dangerous production stops, but members go hungry and the union is to blame) as they get nowhere saying “neither”.
By contrast, the emerging right-wing alternative of “I’ll take my chances, fuck the victims” has an obvious, libidinal appeal, particularly for those at low-risk. It may even be the hegemonic feeling of our times, underlying the success of Johnson and Trump.
We urgently need a politics and set of tactics that can decisively defeat this tendency. Knowing what we know about the worsening mega-crises of this century, we cannot, cannot allow the total victory of a politics that normalises mass death, misanthropy and nihilism.
This is a moment to be seized, before it seizes us.