In a speech on 21 March at the National Press Club, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Sally McManus read the riot act to the Australian ruling class. If you forgive a couple short forays into lazy jingoism (‘the Australian Way of Life’), she presented an incisive and wide ranging attack on the ingenious ways that the powerful and rich have made conditions very good for themselves and increasingly difficult for the rest of us. It was a call to action addressed to all workers (not just union members), along with a stirring ‘we will be out there fighting for it.’
This speech was part of the staged launch for ‘Change the Rules’ (CtR) – a broad, ACTU-led campaign to intervene in and transform the terrain of class politics in Australia.
It would be hard for anyone engaging seriously in union organising in Australian not to largely share McManus’s analysis. Former ACTU heavyweight turned consultant, Tim Lyons, recently penned a paper along similar lines, arguing that economic and regulatory settings in Australia from the eighties onwards have made it increasingly difficult for workers to organise collectively. Subsequently, the material conditions of most people are systematically diminishing. Inequality is growing, job security for many is a distant memory, wages are frozen and intergenerational wealth is returning to party like it’s 1908, and all of this served with an explosion in the cost of housing where most people live. If you also add into the mix the gradual privatisation of healthcare, the polarisation of education, and the fact that the rich pay less tax every year, it’s clear that ordinary people are losing ground fast in contemporary capitalism.
What are the barriers to more effective working-class organisation in a rich, increasingly migrant, polarised, modern-day Australia? Amongst other factors, enterprise bargaining and contracting have had the effect of dividing us into ever-smaller collectives of workers, of making it harder to aggregate sufficient collective power to resist ruling-class prerogatives. Automation means that even though manufacturing output continues to grow, traditional, unionised, manufacturing employment continues to shrink. The consensus amongst the economic elite has become to shift production where possible to global-south jurisdictions, and to create ingenious ways to force migrants and the poor to work for depressed wages in the industries where you can’t. To accumulate staggering wealth on the back of the growth enabled by mass migration while blaming refugees for social and economic problems, and torturing them in retribution for crimes never committed. We are left with mere remnants of regulatory protections for people acting collectively in the workplace. Taking the smallest collective actions outside ever-narrower circumstances unleashes the hell and fury of employers in the form of multi-million dollar fines on individuals and their unions, and even criminal sanction. The recent attempt and failure of the Sydney train drivers to strike over pay and conditions demonstrates that just the threat of employers opening fire is enough for some unions to self-police, and pull back from collective action before it begins.
McManus’s speech and subsequent ‘blueprint to give Australia a pay-rise’ was a demand for an open-ended transformation of industrial law. The demands include: change the conditions under which workers can organise into unions; limit casualisation and contracting; make it possible for workers to negotiate and engage in struggle directly with their ‘economic employer’ (e.g. farm-workers with Safeway, rather than a medium-sized farm owner); allow for workers, where relevant, to collectively struggle for an industry wage rather than a collective agreement (that just sets out conditions in a single business); for permanent workers’ migration to be privileged over temporary; the ability of workers to reject the terms of free trade agreements; ensure equal pay for women; raise the minimum wage; and to make ‘bargaining rules’ fairer, presumably a way of saying ‘right to strike’ without saying ‘right to strike’.
These proposals flow from the understanding that if conditions are more conducive to workers organising into unions, then more workers will join, and will commence exercising their newly found collective muscle. That if the state uses its power to protect workers from employer retribution when they take strike action, then workers will strike more and wages will go up, re-distributing wealth back to the working class, and fuelling economic growth in Australia through consumer spending.
It’s important to take a moment to consider McManus’s statements on ending the practice of ‘importing exploitation’ through temporary migration, and instead switching to a permanent migration scheme. There is now the permanent presence of a cheap, racialised, migrant working class in Australia, and this section of the working class grows every year. That the number of these workers is largely determined by the needs of capital is the key dynamic. That they are exploited at a different, higher rate than most Australian-born workers is considered a nice, extra bump for productivity.
Anti-non-white migration and racism have long been close to the heart of the Australian unions. As Dave Eden has pointed out, limiting the size of the labour market through restrictions to migration is one of the key planks of Australian Laborism. This is one of the mechanisms through which white labour has been made an intrinsic part of the colonial project.
But temporariness is only one mechanism through which migrant workers are rendered exploitable at rates differently to those with citizenship. Thus permanence is not a complete remedy. This position jumps over the complex experiences and resistances of migrant workers. It also conveniently dog-whistles to those predisposed to hear it, while being defensible to an anti-racist critique at the same time.
Perhaps a sharper departure point would be for the ACTU to demand that migrant workers become entitled to the same conditions as every other person working here (i.e. to be exploited at the same rate). While in effect, ‘permanence’ does not imply people must stay – Australian passports enable high levels of mobility – CtR’s foregrounding of this reinscribes the role of Australian labour in regulation and policing of non-white people, rather than generating a politics of solidarity and internationalism.
It is easy to conflate the various, sometimes contradictory, overlapping forces that together can be loosely be called ‘the unions’. This conflation can lead to mistakenly assigning blame for all problems in class politics to the unions’ most visible actors, most notably the ACTU. Similarly, it can lead to looking towards those at the pinnacle of these institutions for solutions.
‘The unions’ are constituted by various parts. They include those who sell their labour for money as their only form of survival, less than fifteen per cent of whom hold membership cards. There are unions-as-institutions: declining, and largely organised around frantically pulling levers that no longer exist in the labour arbitration system. There are those who hold positions of power in these institutions. There are unions-as-breathing-collectives, which are deeper in some industries than others, and usually come into life in sporadic and short-lived ways around particular struggles, receding again when the urgency or high point of struggle has passed. And there and cross-class networks of activists built around ideology, a political program, or shared frustration in lack of opportunity to become active within their own union structures. These layers of union overlap and lie atop each other, and within them are multiple sites where new collective subjects can emerge swinging.
For those union activists who have spent the last decades suffocating under the blanket of narrow, electoral, corporatist, national-level unionism, McManus’s leadership should be a boon. With CtR, the ACTU has generated a progressive, assertive series of open demands that point toward the possibility of a genuine solidarity across the working class to emerge. These demands are not being made in private factional discussions inside the Labor machine, but are loud and public. It is a clear strategy not just to win marginal seats, but intervene in the national discourse of class politics.
How exactly we found ourselves in our current predicament, however, is the family secret making everyone squirm. It is now a point of virtual consensus that the unions and ALP together played a leading role in disorganising the working class through the processes of the Accord. Signed in 1983, the Accord was an agreement that the ACTU forged with then PM Bob Hawke to constrain wage demands, tying them to inflation, and to stop union members from taking strike action. In return, the ACTU negotiated a ‘social wage’ of better healthcare, moderation on prices, and progressive tax policy.
Liz Humphrys argues that while neoliberal reforms were being smashed through by Thatcher in the UK, in Australia during this period the ACTU and the ALP were the agents that introduced a swathe of equivalent policies, including deregulating the financial and banking sectors, dismantling tariffs and promoting ‘free trade’, widespread industry deregulation, and, over time, the introduction of a ‘deregulated’ labour market – enterprise bargaining.
The ALP wanted the Accord because capital was facing a crisis of accumulation that had been building throughout the 1970s. Since its inception, in the wake of the defeats of the great strikes of the 1880s, the ALP’s strategy has been to ‘mitigate the conditions of the workers by trying to arbitrate the relationship between capital and labour through the state in the name of a shared national interest.’ Australian Laborism has always tied itself closely to colonial capitalism, taking as its aim ‘push[ing] up wages through increasing productivity and limiting the size of the labour market via restrictions on immigration.’ In early 1980s Australia, productivity was severely faltering, and wave upon wave of strike action was not helping.
The ACTU wanted the Accord because even though there had been a decade of unprecedented strike activity exploding out of high membership density, the high levels of union-as-collective and a conducive organising environment (exactly what CtR is currently pushing for) had massively increased take-home pay for the bulk of workers, and the value of wages was being undermined just as fast by inflation. Union leaders were faced with a genuine crisis: the strategy of driving up wages through collective action was proving very successful, yet redistribution was failing.
So these leaders made the decision to repress their own collective power in order to put the state in a position to restore accumulation, and to save capitalism from itself – and from us. Instead of working-class power: rely upon the state, under the ALP, to do the work to make life a bit better for most people most of the time. Whether intended or not, the combination of neoliberal economic transformation and the Accord put union-as-collective into a terminal decline, from which it has never recovered. Its turns out that unlike union-as-institution, a movement is not a machine but a muscle, and it must be constantly worked to thrive. In the absence of action, union-as-collective withered. When Liberal PM John Howard stepped up to the plate in the 90s, union leaders frantically went out to the shed to wheel out their machine and dust it off, only to discover it was never a machine to begin with.
Against this backdrop, many are wary of Change the Rules constituting as yet another largely narrow political mobilisation. As a marginal-seat campaign that elects a Labor government, then subsequently adopts an insider ALP advocacy strategy to try and re-invigorate the promises of the Accord, accepting the realpolitik limitations of power in Australia as currently constituted. Not an unfounded concern.
For decades many union leaders have found it difficult to resist the seemingly irresistible momentum and urgency of ALP electoral cycles. The electoral fate of the party and the personal trajectory of many leaders is tightly entwined. The practice of appointing promising, young Labor activists into union jobs then doing the numbers to get them elected into leadership positions commonplace. This weight of history is constantly reproducing itself. There is no direct line to be drawn between this unavoidable reality and the failure of union leaderships to really invest in – and take risks to achieve – reinvigorating thriving workplace democracy. That this is a major factor in the current constitution of a failing labour movement is certain.
A sense of urgency and a realpolitik analysis about what is achievable now are often powerful factors constituting the centrifugal electoral force. These are real, material considerations. Think the choice between the strengthening or weakening of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), or the state funding pay increases for childcare workers or not. If the question is the immediate, narrow material threats, or partial alleviations, then the answer comfortably overlaps with an institutional machinery geared for an electoral battlefield. What is often left unchallenged is the assumption that small regulatory victories secured through electoral machinery necessarily contribute to building working-class power. Often it does not. History would suggest that the opposite is just as likely true.
The most recent trainwreck originating in an electoral strategy was the mid-2000s’ Your Rights at Work campaign. The ACTU and ALP rode a wave of working-class rage against the Liberals’ Workchoices legislation and with it (finally) de-throned Howard, only to secure three parts of nothing from the Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and their Fair Work laws. (The legislation CtR is now fighting to dismantle.) Even those most trained into the double-speak of the ‘realities of government’ would acknowledge this as a monumental flop and that Kevin ’07 was not really Worth Voting For.
Perhaps most significantly, since the Accord’s introduction of enterprise bargaining, elections have been the only terrain on which the unions have successfully mounted national, working-class campaigns (let alone won them). It is the only activity beyond narrow industrial struggles that the unions have collectively agreed to prioritise and resource to scale.
McManus’s palace coup at the ACTU and the subsequent CtR campaign is a response to the failures of this thirty-five-year epoch. Its substance and the way in which she has launched it have already re-set the discourse and the realm of possibility for working-class struggle in Australia. In addition, under McManus’s leadership, the ACTU has sought to harness and entwine with the momentum of organisations that aggregate otherwise frustrated progressive spirit, the GetUps of this world.
The CtR campaign however, has been conceived, gestated and birthed in the context of an upcoming federal election. Winning marginal seats for the ALP will be the actual primary activity around which broad mobilisation in support for this new agenda will be expressed in the immediate term. This is what the leaders of the affiliate unions have agreed to pay for.
The tension between an election campaign and a re-birthed social movement is palpable in its every iteration. On the one hand, the CtR mass delegates meeting held in Melbourne on 17 April was huge, energised and inspiring. On the other, the meeting refused to accept a motion from the floor. Motions were predetermined and issued from the upper-echelons as part of a careful and top-down curation of proceedings.
To build collective power through movements, rather than to mobilise short-term upswings, there must be structures in place to allow for people to have meaningful investment in direction and strategy. To have some skin in the game. Struggles need to be able to be articulated within people’s lived experience. It is not a secret that in most unions, most of the time, there are simply not the structures, processes and membership-engagement to enable this kind of union democracy. A decision has been made that building a movement-wide structure that allows for cross-class struggle beyond narrowly defined workplaces is outside the bounds of what CtR is going to do. Either it’s politically unpalatable to the affiliates, it’s too ambitious, or because committing to and investing in the democratisation of the movement – that is, building union-as-collective – is outside the political experience of the CtR organisers, and it never occurred to them.
The ACTU’s new ad launched on the morning of Sunday 10 March is a whispering insight into where we’re going in this ALP election cycle, if the renewed momentum does not eventuate into an actual break in existing union practice: the same place we went with the last one, and the one before that. The ad is horrible, appealing to fear and anxiety.
At the Australian Services Union (ASU) NSW, Sally McManus built up one of the most active and effective unions in the country in a traditionally non-union demographic. She knows better than most that this ad does not build union. Workers in struggle build union. My guess is that this ad has been focus-grouped to within an inch of its life so as to hit exactly the buttons most likely to make a swinging voter in a marginal seat vote ALP.
For those of us who break out into hives at the thought of another election-cycle disappointment, there is a live concern that these electoral tactics are an indication that CtR will fall victim to the same fate as Your Rights at Work. However, rather than raking over the campaign for secret, encrypted messages leading to Bill Shorten’s google doc with the plans for capitulation, all the different potential ‘we’s’ in the unions could be asking ourselves something else: how do we seize this opportunity, represented by the emergence of a broad, national, class-based demand? How do we participate in this momentum in such a way that builds collectives that are capable of organising on a national platform, through and beyond an election? If the ACTU is unwilling or incapable of facilitating or fostering the creation of these collectives, then who or what is?
The challenges of together building the confluence of ‘we’s’ capable of a meaningful transformation in the Australian economy remain. The ACTU campaign is not – and by definition cannot – create this transformation. Rather, the activity around CtR is an opportunity to deepen and to intensify existing struggles, and to launch new ones. Nothing in the ACTU strategy inhibits organising new workplaces, launching new union networks, or developing a new political consciousness with your friends, comrades and colleagues. The profile, momentum and openness of CtR makes this the best time in decades to launch these projects.
Why is this so important? Imagine if we were successful in forcing the state to regulate to vastly improve the conditions under which we can organise. Imagine that the unions were on an internal footing to be able to use these conditions to facilitate massive membership growth. Imagine that rates of worker militancy exploded, and we saw wages rise in the way that we did in the 1970s, creating a commensurate crisis of accumulation for capital invested in Australia.
What would we do then? Respond in the same way we did in 1983? Or would there be a political subjectivity amongst the working class with a consciousness capable of dealing with it differently? Of pushing beyond the capitalist state, instead of retreating into it?