Mark Blackham: Workers shoulder civilisation’s burden again

Mark Blackham: Workers shoulder civilisation’s burden again

Mark Blackham
Mark Blackham

The Covid-19 crisis has revealed once again that society relies on the working class, and once again only the working class can get us through.

Covid-19 has stripped the fat from society. If you are newly unemployed or still go to a place of work, you’re likely to be working class.

If you are still employed and ‘working from home”, you’re middle class, and likely to be doing something we can live without.

The early call on people to ‘work from home’ to reduce spread of the coronavirus disregarded the reality of the working class and the mechanics of how our society works. That goes double now we are in a police-enforceable confinement to our homes or “bubble”.

In every crisis, we have needed workers to man the front lines, or to continue to go to factories, farms, food and hardware producers and retailers. But in most other crises, the middle class continue working, even in new work more directly related to production, or shift their contribution to productive community efforts.

This time the middle and ruling classes have been told to go home and work from there. All but the most essential businesses have to close.

The working class cannot work from home. They staff the accruements of our society – restaurants, cafes, accommodation, service. They also are needed in construction and related services. The order to retreat home has closed these businesses, which did not have margins or accumulated profits that allow them to employ non-working staff. Their workers are now unemployed, or will be within the next few weeks.

Many others of the working class have had to continue working. Whatever the difference between the perceived and actual risk of the coronavirus, it is the working class who face it. They must work in groups and interact with other people and the things they have touched. Everyone else can shelter at home and fret about whether the neighbour’s dog is carrying the virus.

This is the lot of the working class. Hardship is something they understand – however much they would wish it different and try to escape the trap. When a crisis occurs, they turn up to work, turn up to fight, and to rebuild. Their relatively low incomes mean they cannot afford to run and hide at home. This truth underpins much of the history of human resilience.

You couldn’t blame the working class for some stridency right now. The ruling class brought the virus here by allowing tourists to keep coming for two months, and the middle class brought the virus back from their overseas holidays and business trips.

I’m embarrassed by the reaction of unions. They are pathetically tipping off media to shame factories and retailers who are still operating to keep supplies going, or who are among the many who can’t source personal protective gear. They should realise the power of their members’ position. This is a time for workers to work but demand recognition for their central role in keeping going – to wrestle better money, to organise their effort on the nation’s behalf, and to insist on a role in national decision-making.

The Government is asking people to unite against Covid-19. War time analogies are common. But it doesn’t feel united when two thirds of the population are getting paid to stay at home, and one third do the work and task the risks.

The unemployed and under-employed will have to be hired for new types of work as soon as we realise this won’t be over quickly.

The call to ‘work from home’ feels like a call to give up. This isn’t what workers do.

For more, listen to Mark Blackham on this week’s Democracy Project podcast.

Mark Blackham is the director of Wellington public relations consultancy Blackland PR. From 1989-1993, Blackham worked under Mike Moore as press secretary, speech writer and leader of the Labour media unit.

Featured image by clement127 on / CC BY-NC-ND