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Students outline future of activism amidst COVID-19 and climate crises

The online forum united student activists from campuses across Sydney.

Students slammed public responses to COVID-19 and the climate crisis, and emphasised the importance of student unionism at an online forum on Tuesday. Hosted by the Environment Collectives from USyd, UNSW, UTS and Macquarie University, it addressed the failures of government, university management, and public institutions to adequately support workers and students amidst increasing job insecurity and public health risks. 

UTS Enviro Collective convener Anna Thieben chaired the discussion, and USyd Welfare Officer Lia Perkins opened the night, discussing the connected struggle of unemployed students and workers. Not only have young people been disproportionately infected with COVID-19 during the current Sydney outbreak, but many have lost already casual and precarious work due to the closure of retail and hospitality venues.

Earlier in the pandemic, the USyd Welfare Action group campaigned for the COVID-19 Disaster Payment to be lifted to $750 a week, and for further support for Youth Allowance recipients. “It is quite unlikely for a student to just live off Youth Allowance,” said Perkins.

“The welfare system at the moment under capitalism doesn’t prevent poverty, it actually enables it in many ways,” she said. Those who must still attend work may also expose themselves to COVID-19, while the risk has been exacerbated by limited vaccination availability for those under the age of 40 in NSW. 

Perkins encouraged all audience members to join their worker’s union, or the Australian Unemployed Workers Union. 

USyd Enviro Collective member Angus Dermody discussed the similar rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 and climate change, pioneered by the Australian government. 

“We can’t look to capitalism to solve these crises… what we’ve seen in recent years, time and time again, is a whole bunch of blaming individuals, half-measures for solutions, and anything else that cannot offset the blame,” he said. 

In particular, the over-policing of South Western and Western Sydney, areas with larger ethnic minorities and working class communities, has not stopped the spread of Sydney’s current outbreak. In a similar vein, public messaging suggesting individuals reduce their individual carbon footprint, while important, distorts the reality of the fossil fuel industry, in which 100 companies are responsible for 71% of all global emissions. 

Dermody also emphasised “the shocking treatment of First Nations peoples,” in both climate change and the pandemic, which he says is not “isolated” but symptomatic of capitalist oppression as a whole. 

Sydney-based filmmaker and UNSW student Lewis Clark spoke next on job precarity for students in the gig economy during COVID-19. Stella Babidge, a member of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) then outlined the unionisation of their workplace, Newtown bookstore Better Read Than Dead (BRTD). Apart from meat workers at Coles, the employees were the first to get a protected ballot order from the Fair Work Commission and take industrial action in 50 years. Year-long organising won BRTD’s workers a conversion to permanent ongoing employment after six months, paid parental and domestic violence leave, the abolition of junior rates, and a $25 minimum rate. 

Finally, UNSW Environment Collective member and student activist Luc Javier Velez discussed the current shortcomings and future of student unionism as a mobilising vehicle. In particular, financial instability affects the ability of student unions to mobilise. Many are afraid of being defunded by corporate university bodies, such as La Trobe University’s recent funding cuts to its student union in favour of a new ‘apolitical’ organisation, the La Trobe Students’ Association (LTSA). The system is “purposely designed to make it hard to organise,” said Javier Velez. 

After all the guest speakers had presented, the floor was opened for discussion. The audience engaged with the content of the forum, and spoke about future action.