The Greater Good
by Antony Mann
Art by Allen Davis
I met Rich Semple at a Workers’ Day demonstration in Sydney. It was a beautiful autumn morning of bright skies and sunshine in the city centre. We happened to be marching near each other as we made our way through Hyde Park, though that was hardly a surprise. The demonstration was so small this year that everybody was marching near each other. Forty or fifty was a fair estimate, but who’s counting?
I recognised a few of the mob from around the traps—local students with pro-union placards who had somehow contrived to retain a social conscience, some colourful and motivated souls from the women’s collective, even a handful of old codgers who had long hung up their overalls but who still believed in a better world, or something like it. I’d been chatting with a few people as we walked down the avenue of Moreton Bay figs, but this guy beside me I hadn’t seen around before.
He was about thirty, a short-haired, serious-looking bloke in a white business shirt and black leather shoes. He trudged along on the edge of our group wearing a sullen, almost dyspeptic expression. We had reached the outdoor chessboard, where the old Slavs were continuing the perpetual argument between black and white with the giant pieces, when a Japanese man, attracted by the novelty of us, broke away from a nearby tour group and started clicking his camera in this bloke’s face.
“Hello!” said the tourist, who was in his early forties. “What is this? Why you walking for?”
“Why am I walking for?” responded the man. “Actually, I’m walking for you.”
“You walking for me?” The tourist frowned, trying to get his head round the English. “No, no, you no walking for me. Why you walk?”
“Yes, for you!” the guy replied, clearly irritated. “You work, don’t you? You have a job?”
“Yes, job,” nodded the man. “Good job in Japan.”
“So you have rights at work, yes?”
“Good job,” the man repeated, not having a clue what was being discussed here.
“Well, where did those rights come from? Ever think about that? How come you can afford a nice holiday in Australia? How come you’re not an indentured wage slave trapped in a no-future job in a factory somewhere on the outskirts of Tokyo? Why aren’t you some old-before-your-time, frail and bent-over peasant cultivating rice fifteen hours a day for your feudal lord and master? The struggle for decent pay and conditions, that’s why.”
“No, no,” said the Japanese man, shaking his head. “What you walking for? Me take photo?”
“Get bent,” the guy said.
“Get bent!” the Japanese man smiled, bowing slightly as he took one last picture before turning back to his friends. “Get bent!”
“See what I have to deal with?” the guy muttered to himself.
“Yeah, I see,” I said.
He glanced over at me in surprise, then sized me up for a moment before extending his hand in a quick motion.
“Richard Semple,” he said. “Disgruntled protester.”
I accepted his hand and smiled.
“Aaron Wilson. Likewise frustrated, but enjoying the sun.”
We had reached the northern boundary of Hyde Park now, and so the group of us turned around and headed back the way we had come, leaving the city traffic behind us again. There weren’t enough of us to apply for a permit to close any roads and march on them; that would have been ludicrous. So we confined our marching to the park, back and forth, back and forth. At least we were out there in nature.
“Look at us, will you?” Semple went on grimly. “It really eats away at me. Fifty of us, being laughed at by the bums and ignored by everyone else. We’d need thirty, forty times this number to get the TV cameras out here. Unless we were part of the Muslim debate, of course. All you need then is five blokes with beards to make the six o’clock news—or five blokes who hate blokes with beards. But if you’re supporting workers’ rights and conditions? Nothing. You may as well be pissing in the wind.”
Semple had a sharp, piping voice and a strident, unforgiving tone. If I’m honest, he was actually pretty irritating. But he made a decent point. And his rant wasn’t over.
“You know what the problem is? The modern world. Everything is fragmented. The media, people’s lives. There are too many choices. It’s impossible to get traction for an unfashionable cause when everyone has such a short attention span. You’re always in competition with a hundred shiny, transient stunts or celebrity launches, so it needs to be a story with real impact to cut through the static. The twenty-four-hour news cycle, social media, smart-phones, Twitter. Modern clutter that serves no purpose but to distract from what really matters. To get any oxygen these days you need a narrative, a hook that people can latch onto and identify with.”
“You some kind of media student?” I asked.
“Nah, I’m just not a complete idiot,” Semple grinned. “A part of my brain is still functioning like a brain. You want to know why? I spend some time during the day away from screens. I think. Unlike most of the drones out there. And that’s another problem. The drones are happy! And why are they happy? Because they’ve been told that they’ve won the battle! But complacency is the enemy at the gates, my friend. Evil walks while good men slumber. Our rights are being eroded day by day. One day we’ll wake up in chains and wonder how it happened.”
It sounded like the voice-over from a postmodern horror flick. Evil was walking abroad in the secret boardrooms and on the exclusive golf courses of the rich while the naive workers slept through life, glued to their tablets and hi-def televisions.
“We need more people who want to make a difference,” Semple sighed. “People who don’t mind giving up something for the greater good.”
“I want to make a difference,” I said.
He glanced at me.
“Really? Because a lot of people say that but they don’t actually mean it.”
“No, I mean it,” I said, and I did. I wouldn’t have been on the march otherwise. Sure, it was little more than a token effort, getting out there and subjecting myself to ridicule and indifference, but I hoped that my heart was in the right place. I agreed with a lot of what Rich Semple had said. It was contrary to the prevailing wisdom, and not the sort of thing you’d ever see in the mainstream media, but there was something to it. Unemployment was on the rise—and how many of the nominally employed had real jobs anyway, and not just insecure part-time posts with no future? The hard-won accords between employer and employee were being steadily eroded, and you never heard a peep about that in the papers. It was easier to get the sack, harder to claim holiday and sick pay, and employees had no choice but to take what they could get. Trouble was, they couldn’t afford not to—not if they had kids and a mortgage.
“Well, if you mean it,” said Semple, “there might be . . . no, never mind.”
“What?” I said.
“There is something . . . but I don’t want to hassle you. You don’t even know me.”
“You’re not hassling me,” I said. “Frankly, I’d like to do something concrete for a change. Something with a demonstrable effect. Marches and petitions and e-mail campaigns are all very well, but I wonder sometimes if they do any good at all.”
Semple was nodding eagerly.
“You see it like we do!” he said. “I was hoping you would.”
“I’m a part of something new and exciting. Something that might actually be able to make stuff happen. There’s a few of us involved already. Interested?”
I met up with Rich Semple next evening, at The Civic on George Street. He was sitting at a table out back, drinking with a woman a few years his junior who looked like the younger, more lugubrious cousin of Morticia Addams.
I sat down with my boutique beer and Semple introduced the girl as Amy. She smiled me some emo darkness from behind her shiny black hair and offered me her hand as though she thought I should lick it. The way they were cozied up, they could only be boyfriend and girlfriend.
“So this is where you meet?” I said.
The Civic was an old workingman’s pub that had been caught up in the gentrification buzz and turned into a new working person’s place for dining and other civilised activities like pouring your wages into poker machines. I wondered if Semple had chosen it because of the irony.
“We live round the corner,” said Amy.
“It’s just for now,” Semple explained. “When things take off and we get some funds and so forth, we’ll hire a local auditorium.”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Anyway, thanks for coming,” he said. “We weren’t sure you would.”
“Yeah,” Amy nodded. “You look likely. I mean, I don’t know you or anything, but you do. You look likely. What it is, see . . .”
“Shouldn’t we wait for the others?”
Amy and Semple glanced at each other.
“There are no others,” he confessed at last. “It’s just me and Amy at the moment—and you, now. But don’t worry, it’s going to get bigger. A lot bigger.”
“We even have a name,” said Amy. “The Justice Society. I looked it up on the Internet, and guess what? There’s this American comic-book series called that as well, so we’ll probably get some extra people by accident who think it’s all about Batman and Wonder Woman.”
Semple must have seen that I was looking a little doubtful, because he waved that one away.
“Actually the name’s not so important. We may even change it to something good.”
Amy shot him a look, but Semple ploughed on.
“What matters is doing something concrete for the workers, getting the word out there. Cutting through.”
“Especially the concrete workers,” I said.
“Although, it’s funny you should say that,” said Semple.
“Though not actually funny,” Amy added.
Semple glanced around, as though he suspected he might be important enough for someone to be listening in.
“It’s this new building project down at the Haymarket, you see? That’s our first target. A huge office tower. They demolished half a dozen priceless heritage properties to build it, of course, but that’s standard practice in Sydney. They’d blow up the Opera House for backfill if there was a buck in it.”
I knew the building Semple was talking about. I walked past it every day on my way to my job at the bookstore. It was near enough to finished now, fifty storeys high and putting the world beneath it in shadow.
“Anyway,” he went on, “the consortium backing the project is Wheaten Associates. They have an abysmal track record all over the world. Been successfully prosecuted multiple times in the U.S.A. and Europe. Their favourite tricks are employing contractors without proper benefits or work guarantees, the use of underpaid immigrant labour, and disregard for basic health and safety. There have been accidents already, in fact. Plenty of them.”
“What are you getting at?” I asked. “How do you know all this?”
“Because we work there!” said Amy gleefully. “We got jobs there on purpose! We’re on the inside. We see this stuff every day.”
Semple nodded vigorously.
“We got work on the construction side of it! We did! Look at us! Do we seem like builder types to you?”
Frankly, they didn’t.
“And that’s the thing,” Amy said. “They’ll employ anyone, as long as they don’t mind working for peanuts in poor conditions. We’ve seen it all. Lack of safety equipment and adequate training. Long hours, which leads to tiredness and poor decision-making. Threats of retaliation for anyone who has a union affiliation. Got it all on video too.”
“YouTube beckons,” nodded Semple. “But that’s just a part of it. There’s more. Lots more. Wheaten Associates. Realistically, we can’t bring them down. But we can send them a message.”
“It’ll be like WikiLeaks,” said Amy. “Julian Assange couldn’t hope to destroy America, but he sure gave it a bloody nose.”
“You can be BuildiLeaks,” I said, making another joke that nobody bothered to laugh at. “All right, all right. But where do I come in? I mean, it’s legal, right? I just don’t want to end up trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy, if you know what I mean.”
“Sure it’s legal,” said Amy. “And anyway, nothing will ever come back on you, or anyone else. It’s just me and Rich. We’re the ones taking the risks.”
“Okay, well, it’s a good cause, that’s for sure,” I said. “As long as it’s all aboveboard. So what’s the plan?”
# # #
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"The Greater Good" by Antony Mann, Copyright © 2015 with permission of the author.
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