Unionising democracy

Last week, people gathered around the Opera House in Sydney, disgusted by how politicians had allowed a World Heritage public space to be sold off to the destructive and predatory gambling industry. As the protest swelled, the Sydney Morning Herald reported how ‘the whole kitchen staff from the Bennelong restaurant gathered at their windows and gave the protesters a standing ovation.’ While a worker takeover of the Opera House seems unlikely, it also seems instinctively no less fair to give them a say in how their workplace is run, rather than handing it over to our politicians, who in turn, do the bidding of Alan Jones and his racing industry mates.

In an excellent analysis of both the potential and limitations of the Change the Rules campaign run by the ACTU, published in this magazine, Shane Reside asked:

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 broad, national, class-based demand of the union movement is to change the rules, this may be the moment to think about how that might look not just in the workplace, but also outside of it, in society more generally.

Increasingly, numbers of Australians feel we live in a democracy deficit. That is, many of us believe elected representatives make the rules in ways that do not reflect the views or interests of large sections of the electorate. Yawning gaps have opened up between people’s social and political aspirations and the conduct of their elected officials, such that the average voter would be right to wonder who exactly their representatives are working for.

Can unions and workplace organising be a method through which we can make society more democratic? Not via electoralism, but through an organised demand for policy change as workers?

Some of the most explosive and exciting moments in Australia’s labour history have come when unions have dared to step outside of the narrow confines of the employment relationship, and provide living examples of the possibilities of a more expansive idea of democracy. The Builders Labourers’ Federation will always be remembered for its heroic defiance of the wishes of developers who sought to demolish buildings that were highly significant to people for social and environmental reasons.

In 1999, numerous unions across the country took all sorts of inspirational action in solidarity with the East Timorese in their struggle for democracy, including refusing to unload freight from Indonesia by air (the TWU), or by sea (the MUA), or process its oil (the AWU) – often in defiance of union leadership. Garbage workers refused to pick up garbage from the Indonesian Consulate. The ASU – Sally McManus’ old union – joined other unions in imposing bans on Garuda flights.

Such actions might similarly be possible today in a slightly different context. Imagine, for example, if workers in the transport industry joined growing international calls to stop deportations of refugees. Qantas faces a resolution about transportation of asylum seekers at its next AGM. Could unions get on board with this effort?

The treatment of refugees is yet another topic where politicians appear to be persistently, and increasingly, at odds with the concerns of many in their electorates. Refugee policy has occupied an outsized space in public life for the last two decades, disproportionate to the material impact of the policy on the majority of people’s lives. Polling remains mixed on the topic, though hardly as negative as the long-standing bipartisan consensus would suggest. According to recent surveys, for example, it would certainly be possible to win a majority to a campaign to evacuate everyone detained on Manus and Nauru to Australia. But this seems highly unlikely while the Coalition takes a hard line and the Labor Party remains convinced it is electorally unviable to do anything other than toe the line.

In these moments of political paralysis, when the costs of dysfunctional electoralism are shown to be high, organised workers might have something to offer. Michelle O’Neill, President of the ACTU, has publicly stated that, ‘no person should be forcibly removed from Australia into a situation where they face being harmed or killed’, and called on airlines who are transporting refugees to take seriously their responsibility to respect human rights. Momentum is growing around the call for companies like Qantas to refuse to deport refugees to danger. Natalie Lang, Branch Secretary of the ASU, NSW and ACT Services Branch, has said: ‘We also have members in the airlines industry who are gravely concerned about their employer’s role in forced deportations to danger.’ If the politicians won’t act to defend human rights, might unions be in a position to do so?

The ACTU represents forty-six affiliate unions, with a combined membership of 1.8 million workers. The Australian Labor Party, meanwhile, has around 50,000 members. In other words, organised workers retain potential as a real social force for progressive change in the era of the democracy deficit. Instead (or at the very least, in addition to) rallying around electoralist causes, organised workers might also think about how they can use their power to advance policies that support working and vulnerable people.

The other obvious example is climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Report, released last week, threw down a profound moral challenge to the world: to act collectively and urgently to avoid anything more than a 1.5 degree temperature rise. This was met by the Coalition with disgraceful carelessness: they rejected the significance of the report, and they continue to back the coal industry. Bill Shorten also refused to commit to phasing out coal. These representatives responded in this way even though a poll taken just weeks ago found that 73 per cent of Australians are concerned about climate change, up from 66 per cent last year; a further 49 per cent support banning new coal mines (only 20 per cent were opposed to the idea).

Addressing climate change will require a reorganisation of our economy, and some people will lose their jobs, while other opportunities will arise. The union movement needs to have something to say about this; it can start by calling for a just transition for workers in the industry, without giving into the rhetoric of the fossil fuel companies. In her documentary This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein talks to workers on the tar sands in Canada who want to transition to clean energy, even as they work on an environmentally destructive project. After all, says one worker, ‘the renewable energy industry would employ exactly the same workers that the oil sands does … Pipefitters, boilermakers, electricians … There’s absolutely no reason to not make the transition.’ Unions, in other words, could take a lead on this issue rather than allow representatives to remain paralysed while we canter towards climate catastrophe. Indeed, it is not only necessary, but urgent.

The Change the Rules campaign already contains the possibility of this more political orientation. One demand of the campaign is the removal of restrictions on bargaining, albeit this is cautiously worded (‘presumably a way of saying “right to strike” without saying “right to strike”’, as Reside puts it). But to win this demand, we need more than fancy footwork in a policy document.

We will need to convince members, and demand that the leadership of unionised workers adopt the more expansive and democratic possibilities presented by the crises of our representative system.


Image: MUA’s Mich-Elle Myers, Change the Rules rally, Melbourne, 9 May 2018

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

More by Lizzie O'Shea ›

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