IWMD 2020: Remember the dead, fight for the living


Thomas Finn, 1886-1926

CW: Suicide, mental health issues

(with thanks to Shelagh Scott who did all the primary research on Thomas Finn)

International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) has had a higher media profile this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the inescapable reality of the deaths of nurses, doctors, healthcare workers, transport workers, retail workers, and workers across society compelled to work in unsafe conditions in the time of the virus. The meaning of IWMD has also been constrained by a media and political culture desperate to ‘depoliticise’ COVID-19; going by some of the news coverage, you’d struggle to know this is an annual day of remembrance, for all workers who die as a result of their work.

The depoliticisation of the pandemic by government and politicians beyond government is, of course, fundamentally political. In a society which increasingly moves towards a political culture where questioning power is demonised as treachery, where performative clapping is privileged over holding people to account for shortages of PPE, IWMD’s ‘message’ – that no-one should die because of work, that no-one – no-one – is expendable, and that the fight for this is innately political, is being deliberately obscured.

The reality, of course, is that people are expendable under capitalism, at least to political elites and the commentariat. That’s why we see the discourse of ‘trade offs’ between higher mortality and ‘avoiding economic catastrophe’; it’s why so much focus is being placed on reopening schools, even though workers in them will then be vulnerable. It’s why the government hesitated so long – and with disastrous consequences – to close schools in the first place. And for those of us who work in higher education, it’s why universities didn’t shut earlier, as they should have done. A higher education policy culture which simply ignores the suicides of Stefan Grimm and Malcolm Anderson as collateral damage, and which chooses to treat a mental health epidemic amongst HE workers as a fact of life and an opportunity for ‘resilience training’, thinks its workers are expendable. Human capital theory by its nature treats people as commodities. Academia and higher education work generally ask us to be ‘entrepreneurs of the self’. In such an environment, the idea of fundamental human dignity, and with it the unquestioned right to life, and more than life, well-being, is lost.

Sometimes as a relatively-privileged worker – as an academic on a ‘secure’ (ish) contract in my case – it’s easy to think that this doesn’t apply to you, that you have somehow opted out of the labour-capital equation. But you haven’t. Precarious workers are never, of course, unaware of this dynamic, however much secure (ish) academics might choose to be (and let’s be clear; this isn’t because people don’t know – it’s because they choose not to know).

Today we remember the dead, as we fight for the living.

Thomas Finn, bo’sun, foreman rigger

In 1927 my great-grandfather Thomas jumped ship in Sydney, Australia from the SS Benicia. He was a man with a plan. As his daughter Chrissie remembered in an account found in her papers after she died: ‘He was to save up and then send for my mum and the children. We were to settle there. But it was not to be.’

Thomas died working on a construction job in central Sydney at a road junction between Bridge Street and Phillips Street; family legend had it he had fallen from the Harbour Bridge, which I’ve only now found wasn’t true. In Chrissie’s account ‘he blew the whistle for his men to start work and then dropped down dead’.

His wife Honora was left in Liverpool with four children, and the agencies of the state to deal with. They refused her a widow’s pension; the letters between her and Sydney authorities, and then the British authorities, reflect the callousness of the state and the desperate circumstances she found herself in.

The Public Trustee in Sydney, whose responsibility was the discharge of the estate, blithely informed Honora that the ‘estate of the abovenamed, who died recently from natural causes…has been reported to me for administration’. This was eight days after Thomas had died on the 10th October 1927.

On the 31st January 1928, the Registrar General’s Department wrote asking for money, 2/6. They wrote again to ‘direct attention’ to the outstanding fees on 2nd July. The family were receiving ‘outdoor relief’ from the parish guardians. In 1928 Honora was refused a widow’s pension, which she appealed. Though she eventually received the pension in 1929 after a long battle, the family broke up. Her son Tom went to the naval training ship Indefatigable, and one of her daughters – Chrissie – went into the Liverpool Seaman’s Orphanage aged eight. On 7th August 1929 the City Markets Department wrote to Honora to tell her that her ‘application to sell second hand clothes…had been approved by the Police.’ Honora sold the contents of her home.

The cause of Thomas’ death was listed as natural causes but no information beyond that was forthcoming. There was a brief mention in a couple of Sydney newspapers, though the age was wrong (he had died at 40, the age given was 45). Was it a heart attack or something else? Honora would never know.

Life and well-being after COVID-19

1927 might seem like a universe away, but it is the same system, that uproots people, destroys families, makes going to work even when you are ill a priority. It is the same system – capitalism – which refuses to accept people’s right to life, let alone well-being.  In 1892, in one of my favourite passages, Peter Kropotkin wrote the following:

The ‘right to well-being’ means the possibility of living like human beings, and of bringing up children to be members of a society better than ours, whilst the ‘right to work’ only means the right to be always a wage-slave, a drudge, ruled over and exploited by the middle class of the future. The right to well-being is the social revolution, the right to work means nothing but the treadmill of commercialism. It is high time for the worker to enter into [their] common inheritance, and to enter into possession of it.

Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (1892)

The passage has come back to me a few times recently, because Kropotkin also says we need a revolution that ‘considers the needs of the people before schooling them in their duties.’ In this pandemic the rhetoric about saving the economy, the refusal to consider UBI, the demands from Tory ‘grandees’ that the lockdown be lifted so Britain ‘can get back to work’, the discussion of national service – constant reminders of duties; duties to capitalism.

Now, and in what comes after, we need to think about needs. Needs means prioritising every life, and in post-pandemic society not reducing our demands to the right to work, but expanding them to the right to well being.

Honora’s family were scarred by Thomas’ death, just as millions of families have been scarred by the consequences of the gig economy and austerity.  When Corbyn –  a rare parliamentarian prepared to broach those scars – did so in the House of Commons he was demonised and ridiculed by the commentariat.

The right to life means the right to PPE for all workers who need it; the right to well being means the right to somewhere decent to live for everyone, not a Labour Party scaling back proposals for renters during the pandemic so as not to worry the landlords. And it doesn’t stop there.

We have a huge fight on our hands as we always do. But COVID-19 isn’t apart from the normal inequalities and battles we face. The impact of a pandemic reflects human choices, choices which on a daily basis are made in the interests of capital and not workers, as they have always been.

Remembering the dead – and remembering what connects them to us today – is part of the fight for the living.





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