Today, 11 November 2019, two influential trade unions will officially come together to create the United Workers Union – 150,000 members strong and gearing up to transform the world of work in Australia and beyond.
The merger of United Voice and National Union of Workers signals a shift in the Australian trade union movement, one which recognises that it is not enough to merely persist – we must grow. For both unions this means scaling up the values that have historically made us strong: our diversity across membership groups and industries, our appetite to take industrial action and strike, and our commitment to always struggle with workers at the pointy end of exploitation.
Together we form the backbone of productive life in Australia. We are farm workers, early childhood educators, paramedics, supermarket supply chain workers, warehouse and logistics workers, call-centre workers, manufacturing workers, aged-care and disability workers, cleaners, teacher’s aides, hospitality workers and more.
We span generations, cultural and linguistic groups, blue- and white-collar professions and the divide between the cities and regional towns. Members are united by a common experience of work which is low paid and precarious.
In fact, many members experience a depth of precarity akin to structural violence. For labour hire casuals – for whom the employment relationship has been outsourced to a third party – this can mean waiting every night for a text message to confirm tomorrow’s shift, potentially for years on end. Alternatively, the text message may place the worker on unpaid standby for an indeterminate period of time. Worse still, no text message arrives and the worker knows they are not technically fired – they were never employed to begin with – but rather they have been discarded without explanation. Such a complete erosion of the standard employment relationship is perfectly legal under Australian law and impervious to unfair dismissal protections afforded to directly employed casual workers.
For migrant workers who must navigate a visa system designed to create conditions of exploitation, precarious employment may look like having your passport stolen, incurring illegitimate debts and wage deductions, and being forced to work to pay it back. Or it may mean labouring under a piece rate arrangement that puts your earnings well below the minimum wage. While this situation may not be not legal, it is exceedingly common in Australia’s horticulture industry.
Best-case scenario, the precarious worker may give years of her life to a company and never receive a cent of superannuation, sick leave, annual leave or other entitlements that only decades ago were the foundation of Australia’s industrial system. As these norms were eroded and faded from the social memory, the Australian trade union movement also began to lose sight of a progressive vision for the world of work.
Setting a bold new vision
In this political climate, we made the decision to struggle with casual workers, labour hire workers, and migrant workers no matter their visa status. The ‘Jobs You Can Count On’ campaign is the red thread of our union, grounded in the decision to organise in spaces that have been ignored or abandoned by the union movement at large. For our members, organising across employment types – from permanent to precarious – is core union business.
Economist Guy Standing has characterised the precariat as a ‘dangerous new class’ distinct from the traditional working class, one ‘fuelled by fear, stress, insecurity and debt’. However, it is not clear such a distinction can be drawn. Growing levels of precarity can be better understood as a return to pre-World War II norms rather than a fundamentally new phenomenon. Marx argued that piece-wages are the most ideal form of wages under capitalism because they so efficiently exploit labour productivity. This trend persisted even throughout the era of postwar exceptionalism, when a narrow segment of the workforce was granted relative wage gains and social protections. While Standing seems reluctant to attribute positive agency to precarious workers, in Australia at least the last twelve months alone has witnessed waves of industrial action led by precarious workers supported by more traditional sectors across the union movement.
In March this year, Chemist Warehouse distribution-centre workers went on strike to dismantle the company’s business model of precarity which kept 80 per cent of workers in indefinite labour-hire arrangements. Years of organising culminated in a sixteen-day strike, for which workers won an 18-22 per cent wage increase and permanent jobs for every casual who went on strike. Even the minority who didn’t strike can now convert to a permanent position after six months of regular work. The significance of this victory cannot be understated. Casual workers not only went on strike alongside their permanent workmates: they completely transformed the structure that had kept them – and any future workers – in precarity.
Last month, more than eight hundred United Workers Union delegates marched on Crown Casino in Melbourne to escalate their campaign for secure work. Since its inception, Crown Casino has promised to create decent jobs in exchange for tax breaks, an unchallenged monopoly status, and an annual rent of $1 to lease public space of 510,000 m2. Despite this cozy relationship with government, 70 per cent of Crown’s workers are trapped in part time or casual work. At the time of writing these workers are preparing for their first strike in sixteen years, led by demands for income security.
Across Australia, there are the farm workers picking the fruit and vegetables we eat. Many are from Malaysia, Indonesia, Timor Leste and Vanuatu. At a recent delegates convention, a worker shared the story of a friend whose passport was stolen by their dodgy cash contractor from their accommodation, which was also controlled by the contractor. His friend was forced to pay $1000 to get it back. Such stories are the norm. These workers are perhaps the most vulnerable and precarious workers in this country, yet horticulture is the fastest-growing industry in our union. Farm workers are organised and determined, regularly speaking with the media, leading a campaign for visa amnesty and attending AGMs to hold board executives to account. At supermarket store protests, their iconic hand painted multi-lingual banners float above the steady chant of ‘treat us right or we will strike!’
During the School Strike For Climate last September, a delegate from the manufacturing industry addressed the crowd of 100,000 protestors. It was his first-ever rally. He works in the coal supply chain and at the time he and his workmates were out on strike for more secure work arrangements. With some trepidation, he explained that blue-collar workers do not love coal and that many understand these jobs need to transition because of climate change. He spoke of the need to ensure working people are at the heart of those decisions so that no-one is left behind. To his delight and utter surprise, the crowd of mostly school-aged children roared in support. As he exited the stage the Climate Strike MC – a formidable fifteen-year-old – patted his shoulder, gave thanks to ‘our comrades of the trade union movement’ and further reiterated the need for the climate movement to be class conscious. I think we are still processing the significance of this moment.
Just last week, I met a worker on a temporary migrant work visa who was forced to work up to twenty hours a day as a chef, sleeping on a pastry bench between shifts. He stood outside the Federal Court and addressed the media about wage theft and the mistreatment of migrant workers in the hospitality industry. It is estimated he was underpaid hundreds of thousands of dollars as part of the most egregious case of wage theft ever reported in Australia. His case has ignited an outpouring of support from other casual hospitality workers.
Precarity is not only economic: it is social, and it exacerbates vulnerabilities to further power abuses. Late last year I sat and held hands with women giving evidence to the Australian Human Rights Commission enquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. They spoke of women who are promised secure jobs or extra shifts in exchange for sex, ‘dates’ or – in one instance – pretending to be a manager’s slave for a week. They spoke of women who have been raped on Australian farms in broad daylight, unable to contact the police for fear of being deported. Many of these same women have since defied HR cover-ups and dodgy non-disclosure agreements to speak publicly about the crucial link between gendered violence at work and economic insecurity. One woman who endured years of abuse is now a delegate in that same workplace.
What each case highlights is the discord between conditions of work (in terms of security, pay and respect) and the social value the work creates. We do the opposite of what anthropologist David Graeber has rightly called bullshit jobs. If cleaners don’t show up to work, we don’t have safe or usable public and private spaces. Without early childhood educators, parents cannot entrust their children to professionals so that they themselves can go to work. If farm workers strike, we go without fresh fruit and vegetables, and so on.
The formation of United Workers Union has prompted a concerned response from conservative media and business groups. For instance the National Retail Association, or NRA, (yes they really use that acronym) has expressed concern that the new ‘super-union’ could leave business more vulnerable to industrial action, and that ‘the potential for coordinated industrial action causing havoc across retail supply chains should not be underestimated.’ Indeed, the formation of the United Workers Union will cement solidarity within and across crucial supply chains of the Australian economy with potential coverage of up to two million workers, or roughly one in six working people of Australia.
Rethinking social value in the world of work
So, what is the vision for re-articulating the social value of work? While the workplace remains a powerful site of collective action and struggle, we must broaden our understanding of the workplace to include all spaces that produce social value: our homes, communities, the commons and the environment at large. An important distinction must be drawn between work (our productive and creative labour) and wage labour (work profited off by an employer). Our collective human labour extends far beyond that which is mediated by employment and wage relations, and our unions should reflect that.
This will mean abandoning the narrow labourist conception of work that has been central to the Australian trade union movement for generations. Ending precarity and obtaining secure work must not be an end in itself but viewed as a stepping-stone to more meaningful engagement with social and political life. To this end, we must continue to extend solidarity to unemployed workers, injured workers who may never return to work and disabled workers. Employability is not the uniting feature of the working class – it is our capacity to produce tremendous collective social value in diverse ways. Economic security may well provide a necessary precondition for moving beyond wage-labour entirely.
Breaking away from the traditional model of unionism to become a movement embedded in broader struggles for social justice will not be easy, but this is the task at hand. As organised capital finds new and effective ways to transfer risk onto individual workers – such as through new forms of precarity, climate catastrophe, and far right movements – we must be prepared to take greater risks if we are to win. And for a union movement teetering on the edge of existential decline, this feels like the last chance to get it right. In order to flourish, the United Workers Union must meet the challenges of the modern reality of work. We must remain directly accountable to members and hold ourselves to the highest possible standard.
Today is Day One and certainly many of us are excited, but there will be no pause for self-congratulatory back-patting. We must now deliver on our promises. Our comrades of the broader union movement and adversaries alike will be watching and waiting to see what comes next.
This article reflects the views of the author in a personal capacity and is not intended as an official statement of the United Workers Union.