Never be defeated

“Why are you always so angry?” she asked. “You never used to be this angry.”

They were sitting on the couch, watching Q&A, the Monday night ritual after the school lunches had been made and the weekend’s washing folded. He always spent the hour watching the show alternately swearing at the TV and furiously scrolling through his Twitter feed, retweeting profusely and making what he thought were pithy satirical comments to the 296 followers of his own anonymous account. He hated the program yet couldn’t resist being drawn into its maw each week.

But tonight had been worse than usual and a couple of times he had yelled so loudly she’d had to hush him and remind him the kids were asleep down the corridor.

“Why am I so angry?” he snorted. “I’m angry because fuckwits like him are supposed to be the progressive side of Australian politics!”

He waved his hand at the shiny-suited young shadow immigration minister who was now earnestly reciting yet another tightly scripted talking point about his party’s platform before, thankfully, Tony Jones cut him off.

I’d like to put HIM on a leaky boat and point it towards Indonesia, he typed on his phone, before thinking better of it and deleting the comment.

Tony Jones was wrapping it up, thanking the panel and announcing the next week’s guests. She yawned, stood up and stretched.

“It’s just a TV show,” she said.

They had a neat arrangement worked out so that she would begin work before sunrise to be able to pick the kids up from school, but it meant that by about 10 o’clock each night, she was starting to nod off. His day was more civilised, starting later so he could drop the kids off. Consequently, their nightly patterns were vastly different.

“Are you staying up?” she asked in a resigned voice.

“Yeah, I think I’ll read for a bit,” he said.

After she’d gone to bed, he picked up the new edition of The Monthly, which had been delivered that day, but quickly threw it down in disgust.

There, on the front cover, was a portrait photo of the shadow immigration minister tightening his silk tie, under a headline: ‘Labor’s Rising Star: the Young Gun on the Fast Track to the Top’.

Later, he lay awake in bed, rewinding her words in his head: “You never used to be this angry.”

But it wasn’t true. He’d always been angry. At university in the late-80s, he had been a self-modelled angry young man, stomping around the campus in a duffle coat and Doc Martens. He had been angry about the threat of nuclear war. He’d been furious about apartheid. He’d been incensed about university fees, the power of the Murdoch empire, economic rationalism, homelessness, Joh Bjelke-Petersen/Margaret Thatcher/Ronald Reagan . . . the depressing reality he was still living at home with his parents and leading a celibate life.

Angry Shane. There hadn’t been a demonstration or a cause too small for him to throw his weight behind.

It was what had drawn her to him: his passion. “I love how much you care about these things,” she’d told him more times than he could ever count. And not only politics, but music, books, food and wine and art, the only things they had thought had mattered back then.

As the years had passed, he had remained engaged with politics, subscribed to The Guardian and religiously watched Insiders. He tried to lead an ethical lifestyle, buying organic fruit and vegetables at the market, The Big Issue from his favourite vendor, and donating when he could to Amnesty and Greenpeace. But he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to a rally or a demo. When was the last time he had been to a gig for that matter?

No, what she was confusing with anger was frustration. Frustration at his boring, sell-out job at a large corporation; frustration at the constraints of family; frustration at the hour he spent every day on the train getting to and from work; frustration at the futility of tweeting about what some political hack said on a TV show on a Monday night.

There was no denying it: his life had become a series of compromises between beliefs and expediency, and more recently, expediency had the upper hand. Now, in early middle-age, his days ran into each other, bound by a form of moral torpor from which there seemed no escape.

He was only half paying attention as the meeting dragged on and on. Vesna from marketing was now droning on about product display placements and optimum shelf space. It was a relief when it was finally over and he could go back to his desk.

He opened his email and scanned down the list for anything remotely interesting. A message caught his eye with the subject line ‘Security update’:

Staff may be aware of recent, inaccurate media reports concerning an industrial dispute at our Brooklyn facility.

He recalled something about a strike at the huge distribution centre about half an hour from the city; there had been some scuffles at the gates, police had made arrests on the picket line. He searched his brain for more information . . . the business unit had been outsourced and the workers had been transferred to the new employer, they’d had to re-apply for their jobs and claimed their wages had been cut.

Terrible, of course, but that was just the nature of things, the market at work. He read on:

We have received intelligence that a major protest is being planned outside head office with the potential of significant disruption to access to the building and the possibility of violence.

All staff are advised to work from home if possible. Any staff who decide to come into the office should be aware of increased security precautions during this period.

Staff should not be alarmed. Our first priority is the protection of company personnel and property. We thank you for your co-operation in this matter.

As he read the last sentence, Shane became aware someone was standing next to his desk. It was Jacob Henderson, a younger project manager who was on the up and up with the company.

“Reading the security memo?” Jacob asked. Shane nodded.

“Well those pricks aren’t going to stop me coming into the office,” Jacob said. “Show me a picket line, and I’ll happily cross it.”

“I dunno,” Shane said. “It sounds like they’ve been treated pretty badly. Told to re-apply for their jobs but take a pay cut at the same time. I’d be pissed if I was them.”

“Plenty more where they came from,” Jacob snorted. “They should be grateful they’ve got a job at all. Anyway, it’s not our problem: they work for the contractor now, not for us.”

Jacob looked down at Shane, as if seeing him for the first time and wanting a response, an opportunity to continue the argument, but not getting one, switched the subject to a query about some details from the meeting Shane had just attended. But Shane wasn’t really listening; his head was swimming with unfamiliar emotions and he desperately wanted to be somewhere else.

They were watching the news on TV (the ABC, of course: he would go into a spasm of fury at the inanity of commercial TV news).

. . . more violence today at at a bitter industrial dispute in the western suburbs, when police were again required to arrest picketers angry at their new employment conditions . . .

There was footage of cops grappling with protesters blocking a truck entering the distribution centre, an inspector criticising the behaviour of the mob, and then a union official condemning the company.

. . . 55 hard working men and women, whose loyalty to this company is beyond question, and this is the treatment they get in return . . .

Shane told her about the memo at work, the extra security measures and the advice to stay at home.

“You should do it,” she said. “You hate the commute anyway.”

“Jacob says he’d cross the picket line if there was a protest outside,” he said.

“Of course he would,” she said, just a hint of goading challenge in her voice. “And he’d make sure the CEO saw him doing it. But what would you do?”

What would he do? It’s not my fight, he told himself. I haven’t done anything to those workers and they haven’t done anything to me.

But he decided to take advantage of the situation and the next morning saw the kids off to school and then, still in his slippers, settled in for the day at home. He was determined to accomplish a normal day’s work, but in between the cups of tea and loitering on YouTube it was lunch time before he knew it. The afternoon wasn’t much better, and that evening he vowed he’d go into the office the next day.

How bad could it be? And technically, he wouldn’t be crossing a picket line anyway.

The company was over-reacting, probably taking the advice of a PR expert worried how the visuals would look on TV.

He’d made the mistake of leaving the office during his lunch break. There was something he needed to pick up from a shop across the river in the CBD, and when he returned to the building he found his way was blocked by protesting workers outside the front entrance.

He considered finding a café and waiting it out until the rally dispersed, or maybe going down a side street and entering the building through the underground car park, but curiosity pushed him to the back of the crowd, standing in the gutter.

It was raining lightly, the discarded flyers already damp and softening on the ground, but there were a couple of hundred people gathered around the front steps where someone was speaking through a megaphone. Lots of men in fluro, dozens of flags waving limply in the air with acronyms that seemed to run off the tongue: ETU, AMWU, AWU, CFMEU. And there was the red flag of the teachers’ union, a couple of nursing federation banners over there. Buckets were doing the rounds, with people throwing in tens and twenties. They’d even set up a sausage sizzle and a few pimply activists from a Socialist group were hovering around the edges selling their newspaper.

Through the glass revolving doors, a cluster of security goons dressed uniformly in black suits and ties watched nervously, toying with their little walkie-talkies. They looked like nightclub bouncers who weren’t used to the daylight hours and were clearly restraining themselves from leaping into the fray for a bit of biffo.

The crowd was listening intently to a speaker who Shane recognised from TV as the secretary of the trades hall.

“… disgrace that this is happening in modern Australia. Where workers can be treated like a disposable commodity, a tap to be switched on and off whenever an employer wants to…”

Loud cheers and jeers. From the edge of the crowd, Shane looked up at the windows on the second floor where his desk was. There was a small group of workers up there looking down, among them Jacob. Shane shrunk back into the crowd, hoping not to be spotted.

The next speaker was introduced as one of the workers from the warehouse. Shane couldn’t see very well from where he was and pushed through to the front for a better view.

The man was about his age and began telling the much-repeated story about how all 55 of them had been issued with new contracts they were required to sign for two-thirds of what they were currently being paid.

“… we’ve all got kids, all got mortgages. Many of us have been with the company for a decade or more. And we’ve been treated like this, not because we’re bad workers, but because of greed. Profits and greed!”

The crowd erupted and began chanting:

“The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated! The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated!”

The mob pressed forward, people began grabbing stickers and plastering them to the front windows of the office building. The security were looking more and more agitated.

“The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated! The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated!”

The trades hall secretary had the megaphone again, and now he was addressing the people upstairs.

“… and what I say to the people inside this building, is don’t be a scab, don’t be a coward, put yourself in these blokes’ shoes and show some solidarity for your fellow working man . . . ”

“The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated! The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated!”

Such a cliched slogan, Shane thought, so tinny on its own. But you couldn’t deny its power when shouted by dozens of voices in unison.

He looked up to his floor again. Jacob was still there, smiling and saying something no doubt hilarious to the others gathered around him. But then, too late for Shane to hide his head, he saw him in the crowd. The smile slipped as their eyes locked together and Jacob seemed to recoil from the glass.

“… we’re not going anywhere. We’ll be back next week, and the week after that, and the week after that …”

“The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated! The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated!”

Shane thought about the most recent head office restructure after a business consultancy had run its eye over the place. How some good friends had been shown the door after being told their positions no longer fitted with the company’s priorities. And he thought about how few of the people now working around him were actually permanent employees; most of them were on fixed term contracts or worked for third party contractors. No-one’s job was safe any more, definitely not his own.

“The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated! The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated!”

The chanting grew in volume, but there was one voice louder than all the others, hollering distinctly above the rest.

“The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated! The WORKERS UNITED will never be defeated!”

Shane realised it was his voice. He hadn’t heard it for too many years. And he liked the sound of it.

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