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Workers Have Carried Australia Through A Pandemic Once Before 

[Image description: rows of hospital beds in a large open space with nurses and other figures walking between them]The Royal Exhibition was converted into a hospital during the 1919 influenza epidemic

[Image description: rows of hospital beds in a large open space with nurses and other figures walking between them]

The Royal Exhibition was converted into a hospital during the 1919 influenza epidemic

Some things never change. The capitalist class has always been willing to risk the lives of workers. It was not the sons of landowners that were overwhelmingly going to be conscripted into national service had the plebiscites of 1916 and 1917 been successful. Working men were going to be sent to die, but working people stood up and resoundingly defeated the proposition. 

As the war came to a close, a new threat emerged that once again demonstrated that it is working people who are expected to carry the heavy burden of keeping society functioning.

The Spanish Flu (also known as the 1918 influenza pandemic) had ravaged Europe, and as military personnel returned home, they brought the flu with them. The great majority of returning men and women were working men and women, now having to deal with the reality of terror at home. Through their unions and by sticking together, they shouldered the burden of keeping Australia safe through yet another dark time.

Girt By Sea, Protected by Seafarers 

Sea ports were very much the point of entry into the country in 1919. Maritime workers were already dealing with harsh conditions, which were effectively mandated by the government under the guise of an emergency. 

Industrial tensions had been bubbling already, with rates of pay being not nearly sufficient in the eyes of the workers, but when the Victorian government granted its tacit approval of what the union dubbed “dog kennel accommodation” of 24 seafarers to a room, even at the height of a pandemic, a strike quickly broke out. It lasted through most of 1919. 

In April of that year, an offer was made to a Conference of the Seamen’s Union in Sydney. At this conference the company's decision regarding the men's demands for extra pay and a £500 insurance each against influenza when infected ports were touched was announced. 

In addition, the company guaranteed that in the event of any members of the Seamen's Union in the company's steamers trading between the ports contracted influenza that their wages would continue until fit to resume work, and further, that in the event of any member of the union dying from influenza the sum of £500 would be paid to whoever the man might authorise to receive it.

The offer was rejected, as it did not meet several other demands. 

In several instances, waterside workers were pressured to unload ships that had not yet completed their quarantine requirements offshore. Had workers not refused, it is certain that infections would have spread much further and faster in the community. 

The pressure from reckless conservatives occasionally led to violence. One such incident took place in Fremantle. The Premier of Western Australia had ordered that a cargo ship, the Dimboola, be unloaded before its quarantine had run its course, but wharfies (WWF members to a man) refused. They were threatened at first, but the Premier quickly changed tack. “Volunteer labour” was recruited to unload the ship, but when they attempted to do so they were blocked by the established workforce. 

In the ensuing clash, a returning military vessel signalled to the union workers asking if they required assistance. The strikers were surprised, and appreciative, but fearing influenza exposure from the navy ship just as much as the cargo ship, they declined. 

Had the offer been accepted it would have been the first and only instance in Australian history of military intervention in support of striking workers.

For some, high risk meant a demand for higher pay

Rather than taking a back step, several unions instead made a case for pay increases. The reasoning was simple: as frontline workers putting themselves in harm’s way, they were entitled to compensation for the risk. 

The Age reported that owing to the risks run during the influenza epidemic, “members of the Operative Bakers' Union doing casual work in the baking trade have decided that they will not start work after Saturday next unless they are paid at the rate of £1 per day, with 3/ per hour overtime.” 

In a morbid but demonstrative turn, the Undertakers’ Assistants’ Union was able to secure double their rate of pay for working on bodies that had succumbed to influenza. 

Sanitary conditions in many mortuaries were substandard at best, and the risk to these workers was significant. 

Nurses, truly the frontline workers of the pandemic, were able to secure a pay rise out of the overwhelming demand for their labour. The conditions they had to endure were certainly among the most strenuous of any workers. 

[Image description: two rows of nurses in white gowns and a third row of men in black suits pose for a group photo in front of a vehicle marked “R.C.C. Ambulance”]Staff and ambulance outside Richmond State School emergency hospital

[Image description: two rows of nurses in white gowns and a third row of men in black suits pose for a group photo in front of a vehicle marked “R.C.C. Ambulance”]

Staff and ambulance outside Richmond State School emergency hospital

Victoria’s hospitals were quickly overwhelmed. Between February and August 1919, the Victorian Government commandeered the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens for Spanish flu patients. There were too few nurses and doctors to care for patients as many were still with the armed forces overseas or ill with flu themselves.

Inside the Royal Exhibition Building, the initial 500 beds were increased to accommodate 2000 patients. Over 4000 people were treated there in six months, 392 of whom died.

In 2020, nurses organised quickly and effectively for their health and safety, and that of their families. Many moved out of their homes temporarily in order to protect their families from potential infection. In 1919, however, many didn’t have a choice. 

The nurses working in the isolation ward at Warrnambool Hospital were paid four shillings a week and slept in quarters separated from the rest of the facility and were not allowed to go home.

JobKeeper’s Lost Ancestor?

Unions in 1919, just as they did in 2020, pushed for the government to cover lost wages due to either sickness or loss of work. 

As reported in The Age on March 25th, 1919:

“The local branch of the Victorian Railways Union has passed a resolution to the effect that it considers the action of the Government in not granting sick pay to employees… during the influenza epidemic, harsh in the extreme, and totally lacking in sympathy for men who are called upon daily to run the risk of infection. The council of the union was urged by the resolution to do all it could to obtain some relief for the employees concerned.”

However, no such JobKeeper-style payment appears to have been implemented. Jobs were callously cut, or casualised, and the rate of unemployment spiked. Union data shows that the unemployment rate for union members rose by 3 percentage points to around 8% during the Spanish flu; attributable to workplace shutdowns due to restrictions and workers being unable to work while sick.

Some occupations fared better than others. 

Following an application by the Residential Establishments Association, a judge ordered that employees in hotels and other establishments be paid only for actual time worked instead of on a weekly basis. Their jobs were casualised without their consent, and they were left without work since there were no guests staying in hotels. 

The Vaudeville Artists’ Union were encouraged by the Minister for Health to perform outdoors in order to continue earning money. 

The epidemic began to subside in late 1919. There was a successful mass vaccination effort carried out by the federal government *cough* (Oh no, should I get tested?) but some also speculate that the virus may have mutated itself into something less virulent. 

100 years on, the same struggles persist. Frontline workers are keeping us safe, yet conservative governments offer nothing more than empty gestures in appreciation. When workers inevitably stand up and fight for their needs, industrial disputes during times of disaster are painted by bosses as workers being “greedy” or “not in the national interest”.

Bosses and conservative governments would do well to remember that anything that is good for the working class is very much in the national interest.