The Burner Episode #229: the Cause of Labour Is the Hope of the World
James Butler delves into the strike wave prompted by the coronavirus: might the pandemic mean a stronger position for workers? Plus, we hear from a participant in Oxford’s vaccine trial. And James wishes a happy birthday to Resonance FM.
- Published 1 May 2020
- Subscribe to Podcast
Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Friday May 1, Mayday International Workers’ Day. And we are still in lockdown.
So, Boris Johnson returned to the podium at the daily press conference yesterday and had this to say:
Boris Johnson: And I can confirm today, that for the first time, we are past the peak of this disease and we’re on the downward sleight. At no stage has our NHS been overwhelmed, no patient went without a ventilator, no patient was deprived of intensive care. We have five of the seven projected Nightingale wards. It’s thanks to that massive collective effort to shield the NHS that we avoided an uncontrollable and catastrophic epidemic where the reasonable worst-case scenario was 500,000 deaths. […] But what I think Sage is saying, and what I certainly agree with, is that as part of coming out of the lockdown, I do think that, face coverings will be useful – both for epidemiological reasons but also for giving people confidence that they can go back to work.
JB: Now, none of that is especially surprising. In fact, most of it is saying nothing particularly special or interesting at all. It has been increasingly clear over the last few weeks that we’ve reached the peak – and at least a plateau in terms of Covid-19 deaths. The observation of the lockdown has very much slowed the rate of transmission.
That’s going to be the next phase in the government’s communication strategy. We’re going to hear, as we did yesterday, a lot about R. But why? Well, because the government wants to bring transmission rates down, but why? I’m not just imitating a particularly obnoxious toddler here. Obviously, the government wants to bring down the R in order to reopen society and especially businesses to some extent.
My point is that the lack of clarity over how they’re going to do that, and especially how they’re going to impose, in the absence of a vaccine – on which more later –, adequate social distancing in workplaces and especially how they’re going to get buy in and commitment for them as society reopens – it’s one thing to get people to observe a lockdown, which is effectively a binary state. You’re either locked down or you’re not.
But it’s quite another to try to reopen society in this quite complex, granular way. That requires really strong, really clear communications, and far stronger and far clearer than has been the case so far. And that’s communication about why it’s being done in this way and what you need to do. Above all, why it’s important.
And Johnson’s trademark erratic presentation isn’t really up to the job on that. Even yesterday, he tortured some metaphors in order to muddy the point. Nonetheless, he says “a menu” of options to be to reopen will be presented next week, and we’ll see how clarifying that actually is when it comes.
More interesting, perhaps, was his response to a question on the recovery from Robert Peston, where he appeared to dismiss another round of Cameron/Osborne-style austerity. He added: “Well, you know what my instincts are Robert”. Well, yes… That’s what we’re worried about now.
JB: It is indeed International Worker’s Day, which would normally be a bank holiday here in the UK though it’s been moved this year to the May 8 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day – which will doubtless be an exercise in jingoistic fervour.
That of course was a clip from Paul Robeson, singing the old IWW Anthem by Joe Hill. You could do worse things today than go and listen to some Paul Robeson.
In fact, a lot of things that would usually happen today aren’t – like the usual annual Workers’ March, which usually gathers parts of associate’s left and trade unionists on a March to Trafalgar square, red flags and banners and all. Now, I am, I will admit, only a sporadic attendee at those marches as I usually feel something of an ambivalent, ambiguous relationship to the sea of red flags and socialist nostalgia it is usually bedecked with. I find it important, but I also find it a melancholic experience and often quite a diminished one. There can often be something at times sad about its size, even while I think it’s important to engage in the active work of counter memory to ensure the struggles, of which we are the inheritors, aren’t forgotten and are kept alive in the movement today.
So, it’s a curious time in which the standard and almost reflex actions of the labour movement – gathering together, marching together, taking action together – are made extremely difficult or impossible by the pandemic restrictions.
It’s also a time when the value of labour is being made abundantly, dramatically clear; its centrality to the entirety of the production process and the basic functioning of society, especially those forms of work traditionally devalued or classified as a low skilled, unskilled, or in which wages are continually and sharply depressed.
From delivery work to agricultural work to care work, these jobs are revealed by the crisis as being essential to the running of our societies; far more so than the advertising executive or corporate PR man or newspaper columnists – or yes, podcast creators.
You might wonder if this might be an opportunity to hammer out the division between so-called high skilled and unskilled labour, a distinction that anyone on the left should be wary of. Nonetheless, it’s also a strange time for labour in another way – I mean, labour workers here, not the Labour party, which is also a strange time though for other reasons – because, at least theoretically, the pandemic crisis ought to increase the strength of labour’s position, the dependence of capital on labour, and strengthen labour’s bargaining power.
That’s especially true in those sectors on which so much has now been revealed to depend, including in Amazon fulfilment centres and delivery warehouses. That strength is not only in the immediate and obvious sense of greater impacts from work stoppages or working to rule, but in a more diffuse and unusual moral sense: from both our exposure to the virus and the centrality of that kind of work.
Indeed, today in the United States there is due to be a wave of walkouts from workers at Amazon, Instacart, Wholefoods, Walmart, Target and FedEx, where all of those say their employers are making record profits at the expense of worker’s health and safety during the pandemic. Amazon in particular haven’t been forthcoming about the true number of Covid-19 cases in their centres. That’s the latest in a wave of strikes and walkouts both in the United States and elsewhere.
Workers in the US have already won concessions in some local struggles, for things like paid time off and are now demanding sick pay, hazard pay, as well as protective equipment. And those demands have surfaced among bus drivers, meat packers and sanitation workers across major urban centres in the United States. Teen Vogue, the workers dreadnought for the internet age, is advocating [for] a general strike.
And if there’s one thing that the lockdown actually indicates, it’s just how effective a real general strike could actually be – in a world where, in the West at least, most strikes had been hobbled or limited to individual workplaces.
But, of course, you don’t get to the level of a mass social strike just by wishing it into existence. Strikes – largely wildcat or spontaneous walkouts – have sprung up outside the United States as well, including in Italian factories and French delivery centres. Here in the UK, there have been unofficial walkouts by postal workers in Scotland and workers in ASOS warehouses in Yorkshire – over a failure to enforce adequate social distancing – as well as by hospitality workers demanding recognition and support from big hotel chains.
And why [are] those unofficial? Well, unions like the RMT and CWU have made clear that they’ll support workers in their sectors who walk out and have even issued guidelines where they think that might be appropriate. But Britain’s incredibly regressive trade union law makes it very, very difficult for them to do much more than that at the moment.
There is no right to strike in British law. And, of course, the balloting needed to take industrial action has to be conducted by post through specific recognised bodies and from home addresses processed by those particular bodies. Now, those bodies aren’t actually able to work at the moment because of the pandemic. That means that all walkouts and stoppages have so far been unofficial and possibly even unlawful, although walk outs over health and safety do have some legal protection.
But the unions can’t designate these as official disputes because unions risk being found in contempt of court and heavily fined if bosses take out injunctions against them. Even if balloting were to take place electronically, there’s no provision for that at the moment although trade unions have been pressing for it for some time, the lead-in time currently 14 days would make it very difficult to act against immediately dangerous workplaces.
This is just one of the many, many situations which highlights how backward and dangerous anti-union law is. The UK has some of the worst and most repressive trade union legislation in Europe. And it’s exactly why there needs to be a protected right to strike in the United Kingdom.
Perhaps this is also the place to mention that in various places, collective bargaining is also under threat during the emergency, including among workplace security firms in Germany which have unilaterally decided that they’re going to pay just the minimum wage to staff working there – as well as laws being pushed in Poland’s lower house to eliminate all social dialogue provisions – those are mandatory negotiation over terms and pay.
Here in the United Kingdom, as the lockdown wears on, it’s worth noting that this is the time of year where most pay settlements in unionised workplaces are traditionally concluded – in a moment where options for protest and action, if those are insufficient, are extremely, extremely constrained.
A couple of last things on this. One is on the split consciousness of essential workers in national emergency, between awareness of their status as workers and recognition, especially in health and care sectors of the real essential nature of their work. That can sometimes manifest as a kind of split between class consciousness and a sense of national or collective social duty. It’s not enough to say, even if it’s right, that one is important and the other just isn’t. Although trade unions are of course right to think that their job is to think first and foremost about just one of these.
The point is that a lot of workers also feel that pull and feel that their work is genuinely nationally and socially important. So, the point, I think, is to find a way to bring those two feelings together; to recognise that both are true. And a split between those two imperatives – the imperative of yourself as a worker and the imperative to act in the course of your work in the interest of the collective, of the national interest but perhaps social collective interest as well – suggest that something needs resolving socially. That it needs to be recognized as such in the way that we organise our society, what we value and what we prioritize and indeed what we pay for.
The second is this. A lot of the conversation at the moment basically focuses around welfare; protection at work, the ability to withdraw from work when it’s unsafe and for that withdrawal to be recognised as legitimate and protected. And it reminds me of just how contested the concept of welfare has been. Recognising that it’s both important, but that it’s also often deployed in ways that discipline the workforce. In fact, lots of the argument around welfare, at the time of its introduction, mirrors many of the arguments now had around universal basic income; that it will effectively operate as a wage subsidy to employers that it sustains, undergirds capitalism as it already exists or that [it] effectively defangs the workers movement.
These arguments are not without merit actually. Although I wonder a bit. In historical retrospect, whether it also suggests something about the inadequacy of binary or maximalist arguments, i.e. everything except total social revolution now is dangerous acts of compromise or betrayal.
And in particular, I think this is true of some of the reflex analysis on parts of the left when it comes to welfare – that it’s just an act of compromise, that it’s bad for organizing that it can take some of the impetus away.
And, sure there are arguments to be had about rethinking welfare as split into something that comes from above – so that’s in the interest of employers because it’s necessary for the labour force simply to reproduce itself so it can turn up and go to work. And that which comes from below, like demands for greater protection in crises like this one, not just in terms of personal equipment, but the ways in which people’s lives are geared entirely towards work.
I think, in one way, the wider premise is also simply untrue. There’s a very plausible argument that a strong welfare state, protections for working class autonomy and a degree of freedom, all of these things actually increase the ability to act and form strong political movements in the first place. That’s one interesting perhaps counter-reading of a more traditional left-wing reading of the course of labour relations in the 20th century.
More on that of course, as we go on, but for now, solidarity to all those taking action today. The cause of labour is and remains the hope of the world.
Alright. As we know, the eventual response to all this needs to be, can only be, a vaccine and huge amounts of money are going towards accelerating that effort across the world. Some are going on right here and right now in England, so what are they like? Here’s a little look at that.
Marco: Hi James. This is Marco speaking from Oxford. I wanted to talk to you about vaccines, specifically the Oxford’s ChAdOx1 nCov-19 vaccine. This is the UK vaccine that began phase one human trials at the end of last week. I’m a fourth-year medical physics student here and a volunteer for this trial. Just this morning I was one of the first handful of people to be vaccinated on this trial and so I thought I would share my experience with you guys first. Just very briefly on this specific vaccine, I was not injected with coronavirus or any version thereof. Instead, the vaccine contains a weakened version of a common cold virus from chimpanzees, which is genetically modified to make the coronavirus spike proteins – these are essential in the coronavirus infection pathway.
The hope is that, after vaccination, the body will recognise these spike proteins in real coronavirus, and it will prevent infection.
The vaccine development has been particularly fast because prior to this crisis, the Oxford team was already working on a vaccine against a different coronavirus causing MERS, also known as camel flu. From around the early 2010s, the trial itself involves over a thousand volunteers in phase one all aged 18 to 55 afterwards.
Phase two will extend this vaccination to people over the age of 55, which is crucial as the older are amongst some of the most vulnerable. And then, the final phase, phase three, will be a huge 5,000 people trial.
We, the volunteers, are to receive either the vaccine or a control, which is a standard meningitis vaccine. Due to the nature of double-blind studies, I can tell you which of those are received, but I can shed some light on the trailing itself.
So, the whole process took just over an hour – they’ve set up a pipeline snaking through the building so that they can process over a hundred people a week. In the first room, my vital signs are checked, and some blood was taken. Then I was taken to a second smaller room for the vaccination itself. The nurse had oddly bright orange gloves because it turns out the shortage of BP had hit them just like everyone else. And when they put out a community call, someone donated orange gloves and they’ll have to do.
I wasn’t allowed to film the vaccination itself. Apparently, they’ve already had negative experience with information spread. Someone was claiming that the first woman to receive the vaccine died, which she didn’t, she’s fine. The vaccination itself was less than a scratch and then I was off to the final room.
Here I was in a conference room, which was turned into a second reception, and I spent about 30 minutes on observation. The whole team was really nice. They work weekends and long hours. One person I spoke to had been there since 7am today.
But there was a real sense that these people are committed to getting this stage done as quickly as possible. When I talked to them, they said they were hoping to have phase three results by late autumn.
It’s manufacturing that is the issue. Currently the UK has no way of making the millions of doses that it needs. Oxford has received over £4m pounds in research grants into studying coronavirus. One part of it is precisely researching how to massively increase our manufacturing capability when it comes to this chimpanzee called virus necessary to make the vaccine. The most optimistic numbers are that there are 12 to 18 months until mass deployment, that you’ve probably heard. The bottleneck seems to be mass production, not the trials – assuming the vaccine works.
Related to that, I spoke to them about the animal results so far and they’re really promising. Both mice and monkeys showed development of antibodies and they didn’t have any significant side effects. So, that’s all good. In terms of myself, I can happy report I’m feeling fine. So far I’ve had no symptoms. I’m keeping an electronic diary and so I have to record my temperature for seven days. I’ve got several follow-up visits throughout the next six months. The goal is basically to see if this vaccine is safe and if I am less likely to develop Covid-19.
Currently no one is talking about purposefully exposing us to coronavirus, but this means that getting results of this trial will depend on the general rate of transmission of coronavirus in our society. You basically need some people to get the virus in the control group and hopefully none in the vaccinated group. It could take up to six months to have clear answers about this vaccine because the rate of transmission appears to be slowing down.
But yeah, that’s basically it. A massive thanks for Novara for really stepping up and providing such good coverage during these difficult times, especially with The Burner and the daily Tysky Sour, with some amazing guests. You guys are really helping to make sure that the world on the other side of this pandemic is one [that is] more just for everybody and that’s really appreciated.
JB: My thanks to Marco for that contribution.
There’s a lot in there that’s really interesting. Not least the speed with which it’s happening, which is far in advance of what you’d normally see in work for a vaccine, which is normally pretty slow. But, as Marco suggests, one of the real bottlenecks we’ll see is simply in production of that vaccine if and when it comes about.
That’s the question that is important at a global level simply in terms of funding, production, availability and so on. And that, of course, throws this back on questions of ownership and whether – as I think is obvious – essential medical goods like this need to be produced and owned for the common good.
There are important historical examples here, like the refusal of those who discovered early antibiotics or vaccines for polio to patent them and make vast amounts of money from them by making them privately owned. There’s no question here that isn’t political, especially when it comes to human health.
But until the vaccine is developed, what happens?
There are also trials underway for various drugs and therapeutic regimens, which may allow society to function to some degree until there is a vaccine. And one thing that points up is a question about what we put in place socially until the vaccine arrives. I think we can think about this by thinking about the options or possible outcomes, in a kind of pure abstract and theoretical way, while acknowledging what actually happens – the actual outcome is likely to be a mix of these.
So, on the one hand you have the possibility of a very effective, or quite effective, therapies which allow a return to the norm of, say, three months ago, with everyone back at work or mostly everyone back at work. Or you could see a modified version of that, with seasonal adjustments, perhaps for the most vulnerable, or very moderate lockdowns as waves of infection crest. Even that latter case will entail some quite sharp economic damage as well.
There are other possibilities as well. One might be an intensely biomedically surveilled state, with the population divided sharply and strongly authoritarian measures stepped up to segment the population into those permitted to leave their houses – through health certificates and mandatory test and trace apps and phones and so on.
Another might be the rise of a therapeutic state with enormous social changes undertaken; vast amounts of money and social priority funnelled into health infrastructure to undergird a return to work but with intensive treatment regime for those who contract Covid-19. That would entail enormous social and political change, of the kind that perhaps doesn’t look especially likely.
Another perhaps might be the rise of a strongly reactionary social Darwinist polity, or at least a strongly social Darwinist political movement. Effectively, let the weak die, but let the economy roll.
Now, I think it’s important to note that none of these will happen in their pure state. That’s not really how politics works.
The point of thinking through in those terms is so that we can think politically how to act and how to choose between all those possible alternatives; to bend towards one rather than towards the other.
Do let me know if you think there are states, or the possible end states or abstract States that I haven’t thought of there.
[Clip: The next show may contain words or images which may offend.
Please approach with caution.]
We have declared revolutionary war enemy of the people.
JB: Something just a little special as we head into the weekend. What you’re hearing at the moment is a clip from the first series I participated in on Resonance 104.4 FM – the London radio station which gave Novara its very first slot and on which Novara FM still continues.
But this, well… This wasn’t Novara and it’s from way back in 2006.
Yes. This show is something quite different – somewhere between music, art, social commentary sprung out of The Horse Hospital, still London’s most interesting art venue. Also by the way, under threat from gentrification.
Why are you hearing it now? It’s not just a nostalgia trip, but it’s a way of marking Resonance’s 18th birthday, which is today.
Resonance continues to me, to my mind, to be the most interesting thing to listen to in the UK. Back when I was first involved, we used to do the show in Resonance’s old studio, in a tumbling down old building with a studio on the top floor in Soho. In fact, I think the floor fell in just as Resonance moved out of that building. That’s London life.
But this is just a small way of saying thank you to everyone at Resonance for believing in us and continuing to do the hugely important work of adding something genuinely interesting, provocative, and frankly often beautiful to airwaves otherwise congested with blandness stupidity and dullness.
It’s a very, very special organisation and you could do worse today than simply sit and listen to its special programming for his 18th birthday. 18 years old… What a time to come to metaphorical adulthood.
You can go and listen to that on FM and DAB in London, or in 104.4 FM and on Resonance.fm across the globe via the internet.
JB: Real 2006 vibes there… That really was a long time ago. Christ.
Ahead of us today and going into the weekend, questions over everywhere the UK will hit its hundred thousand tests continue, but I think there’s a lot of unhelpful government PR waffle over what is a very large and largely arbitrary target.
As I said at the top of the show, what matters is what hitting test capacity will actually mean. So, that, I hope, is what the government would be pressed on today.
[Questions] on how the UK will emerge from its lockdown without doubtless be the focus of the press throughout today and over the weekend.
Questions too, I think, over cancer referrals as well, as elective procedures will now come front and centre for the NHS. And whether the efforts to cope with the coronavirus means there’s a backlog of pressing emergency cases, which urgently need dealing with, and what the knock-on effects of the delays will mean.
Labour’s NEC meets today to decide who will chair the inquiry into the Labour leaks report. It’s not an enviable job, but it is an important one. We remain clear that full, clear, far-ranging inquiry needs to tackle not just who leaked it, but what was actually contained in that report. Some really awful and scandalous revelations in there. A lot will be revealed I think by the choice of chair for that inquiry. Our eyes are peeled.
But that’s it for today and that is it for this week. My thanks to everyone who’s contributed and [has] been involved this week.
Please, please do get in touch on [email protected] I really do want and need to hear from you on every aspect of this crisis.
As ever, still, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands and, you know how it goes by this point, don’t be a prick. That’s it. This is The Burner.
Try to have something like a weekend and I’ll see you on Monday.