Launching the Public Sector Fightback

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This speech was presented to the opening plenary of the Public Sector Fightback Conference held in Melbourne on 29 November 1986. Alison Thorne is a public sector worker and a rank-and-file activist in the Technical Teachers Union of Victoria. At the time she made this speech, Thorne was in the middle of fighting a case at the Equal Opportunity Board: she was discriminated against because of her political beliefs and activities. She won her case and is now part of the TAFE sector of the Technical Teachers Union of Victoria.

As times get tough, working people get tougher — we have to! The alternative is a grim disaster. It is not merely a question of a few cuts here and there, but wholesale destruction of state education, health, public transport and all other public services. It is not just holiday loadings that the capitalist class are clamouring for, but a return to indentured servitude for government workers.

The capitalist class is growing bolder and continues to sharpen its claws to give us a thorough mauling, aided and abetted by Labor governments and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

The Australian economy is a mess. The dollar is falling as the capitalists put this country further and further into debt. There will be no economic recovery for workers. Real wages have been slashed under the Accord so that profits can be increased. The “screen jockeys” of the foreign exchange markets are milking the country dry, and cosmetic fiddlings by the “world’s greatest treasurer” cannot change this, because the Australian economic crisis is part of the world decline of capitalism. You can’t fix this up by tinkering around the edges, so the ALP government is resorting, “reluctantly” it claims, to blatant attacks on the working class.

The role of the ACTU is to police these attacks through the hard sell method, using the slogan that “we’re all in this together.” The trouble for them is that fewer and fewer working people care to listen. These misleaders are totally bankrupt. Their thinking is confined to the capitalist framework. These reformists flounder as every scheme they concoct fails to deliver the goods for working people. Industrial democracy, so called, is a good example. Under the guise of “participation,” we can now decide where the cuts are to made!

While the reformists scratch around looking for where they went wrong, we Marxists have the answer: not reform but overthrow, not consensus but class struggle! Don’t get me wrong, the struggles for reforms are important ones. We must fight for every conceivable reform to make capitalism a little more bearable for the oppressed. We must struggle for reforms like improved childcare, better community services, better wages and working conditions. Indeed it is through such struggles that many of us came to Marxism. It is both through struggle and the careful analysis of struggle that a revolutionary perspective is developed.

I’d like to look at the issue of childcare as a specific example. The struggle for a childcare system accessible to all cannot be overrated. For many workers, mostly women, it means the difference between being isolated in the home and being active in the workforce as a paid, rather than unpaid, worker. By joining in the battle to defend and extend childcare services, it is inevitable that a worker will start to think about the childcare we really want and need. This is free, quality 24-hour childcare. This demand is an easily graspable one, but the political point of it is that capitalism cannot afford such a reform. This demand is a transitional one, because it challenges capitalism directly. The only real solution to childcare will be achieved in a socialist society. 

Our task in all battles for reform is to pose our demands in such a way that more and more workers reach this conclusion. In posing a series of transitional demands, we challenge both the ultra-lefts, who refuse to dirty their hands on everyday struggle, and the so-called lefts, who think that socialism can be legislated for. In posing transitional demands, we put before the oppressed the reality that only through struggles can capitalism finally be “reformed” — that is, overthrown.

If we really want to achieve a complete end to all oppression — sexism, racism, homophobia, class exploitation and injustice — then we have to fight for it and fight hard. The very nature of capitalism is that some of us engage in paid work and produce surplus value; some of us engage in unpaid work sustaining wage labourers and producing the next generation; and some of us are on capitalism’s scrap heap, surviving on meagre welfare handouts, which were themselves won in struggle by working class. The irrational and exploitative capitalist system must be overthrown to achieve our demands. It is from this perspective that we must fight as public sector workers and users.

Many of you present today would agree with the perspective that I have just outlined. So then we come to the more concrete question of what are tasks now as public sector workers and users? Having recognised the need for a fightback, how do we fight back?

We must start by going on the offensive now! It is useless to pussyfoot around with the Hawke and Cain Labor government, which have shown all too clearly that they are no friends of the working class. Public sector workers have lost many past gains in the recent period.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to look in more detail at the situation technical school teachers face. The TTUV had no industrial agreement with the Liberal government. We established our working conditions each year at the union’s annual conference, and then those were the conditions we worked. A few weak branches were not able to achieve these conditions, but the overwhelming majority branches did achieve them. We had class sizes of twenty, eighteen hours of face-to-face teaching, three hours of scheduled extra duties, four “extra” classes per term plus no forced transfers. The situation now is that class sizes “aim” to be twenty, we teach eighteen and a half hours face-to-face teaching, perform three-and-a-half hours of extra duties and take up to eight “extra” classes per term. Union members can also be forcibly transferred. On top of all this, school staffing has been eroded with schools having fewer teachers to cater for special needs. We now face the spectre of massive school closures, and if the current draconian attack on the working conditions of TAFE teachers are any indication, much worse lies ahead.

Within all areas of the public sector, attacks on working conditions and services are escalating. Our task is to resist these attacks. As workers and users, we cannot let a single gain go, and we must go on the offensive, both to win back what we have lost and to improve services and working conditions. 

It is vital that we raise political questions within the trade union movement. Blinkered and narrow craft unionism must be challenged. The attacks that we all face have to be seen in the broader political context rather than as isolated aberrations. The ALP and the ACTU must be well and truly exposed as the anti-working class traitors they are. These basic political tasks are urgent and must be handled in a clear and thoughtful manner. Anyone of us can stand at a union meeting and call for the overthrow of capitalism now. But the challenge for militants and communists in the union movement is to raise the necessary political questions, put forward a clear strategy to win on particular issues and get our fellow unionists to understand that none of our demands to end all oppression and exploitation can be fully achieved under capitalism.

In short, we must take a leadership role. We must strive to educate our fellow workers in the underlying politics of the struggle and propose the strategies to win. When we win the majority to our viewpoint, we must not relinquish our role as leaders, and we must be the most consistent, unbending and tireless organisers of the active fight. But we must base this leadership in the independent and democratic organisation of the rank-and-file rather than engage in bureaucratic factionalism, which may change things at the top, but would fail to alter the structures that hold down the workers in the offices, workshops, schools and hospitals.

We must not be afraid to engage in hard industrial struggle, which is the most effective weapon that we have. The current nurses’ strike has got the government’s back to the wall and shows that solid strike action is an effective, and often the only, way of forcing the issue.

The question of mass picketing is also one that we must fight for in our unions. Mass pickets are a way to maximise the effect of the solidarity shown by other class-conscious workers. They increase morale and promote solidarity amongst striking workers. However, if the tactic of mass picketing is to have the maximum effect, then we must fight in each of our unions to raise consciousness around these basic trade union and class questions — picket lines mean you don’t cross them!

We need to be building up greater links across industries and with public sector users. These links must be used to generate solidarity, which is a crucial factor in any protracted struggle. The workers who are on the front line of the struggle at any point must be sustained and defended by the whole class. While other unionists should fight for bans and industrial action to help striking workers win, as a community we need to be flexible and creative in our solidarity work. The British Miners’ Strike threw up many examples of how to support a viable struggle. Twinning with mining communities was an important way of drawing all sections of the working class into the struggle. The Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group was a particularly successful example of this. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners twinned with a Welsh mining community and raised more money for that community than any other group. The result were spectacular — the consciousness of striking miners and their companions in relation to gay rights was radically altered throughout the course of this struggle. The sight of a whole contingent from this Welsh mining community marching under a National Union of Mine Workers banner in the lesbian and gay Pride march in London is a testimony to creative, class-conscious solidarity work.

Turning to the community to support struggles to defend and extend the public sector is a popular call in the present period — a demand which is being raised by both bureaucrats and rank-and-file unionists alike. However, as militants we need to be very clear about what we mean by this. When we talk about “turning to the community,” we really mean mobilising the class in defence of jobs, services and working conditions. So-called “turning to the community” cannot, in any circumstances, be seen as a substitute for our own political and industrial action. Let’s have no more repeats of the Australian Railways Union’s catastrophic “campaign to win over the community” through a $110,000 advertising campaign that left the union deficit. This campaign was a pathetic substitute for solid defence of jobs. All it succeeded in doing was demoralise some sections of the workforce and exacerbate the union’s financial crisis.

Community support cannot be organised in a vacuum. Unionists must mobilise and organise the community to support workers’ demands. We must take action in which the community can become active. I mean, who can do anything to mobilise around a series of 30-second TV advertisements? Passivity does not galvanise community support.

We have to hammer home the point that attacks on public sector workers are attacks on public sector services. If we engage in sharp enough struggle, we will get the publicity for our demands, and we will get it without lining the pockets of the Packers, Fairfaxes and Murdochs. I bet there is not a single person in this room who doesn’t have a fairly clear idea about the issues involved in the nurses’ strike. We didn’t get that information through 30-second commercials. The nurses are making hard news through hard struggle!

I would be the last person in the world to deny the powerful role that the bourgeois media has in moulding public opinion. My own struggle against political victimisation has posed this question all too sharply. But the fact is that media manipulation around issues cannot alone galvanise community solidarity and action. It is necessary to struggle and win the respect of the class as a whole. This alone leads to support and solidarity.

Public sector users who wish to defend and extend services need to turn to the workers in a particular service. Workers hold the power, through organising, to win demands. A strong alliance between workers and their defenders in the community — militantly mobilising around workers’ demands to defend services — would be unstoppable.

Another urgent task, if we are to launch a strong and unified public sector fightback, is to raise the demands of the most oppressed to the highest priority. Sexism, racism and homophobia are vile poisons that are used by the capitalist class to keep the working class weakened and divided.

It is vital that every militant recognises the key leadership role that the most oppressed must play in the struggle.

One of the worst, most destructive notions that exists within the “Left” is the distorted understanding of who is the working class. Those who obsessively orient themselves to the most well-organised and more privileged straight, white, male workers are strangling the struggle by underestimating or completely ignoring, the power of the majority — women workers, migrant workers, lesbian workers, gay workers, Aboriginal workers and workers with disabilities. We are the majority and, once mobilised, we will fight the hardest, because we have the most the gain and the least to lose in the struggle.

We must all encourage and build the leadership of the most oppressed within the struggle. This task is all to clear in the public sector where, in many industries, women are a clear majority yet, almost without exception, we are, as a group, at the bottom of the heap.

The nurses’ strike is an inspirational example of the power of women’s leadership in all its glory. After being downtrodden for over one hundred years, nurses have broken through the barriers to keep them in their place. The nurses’ struggle is a powerful beacon, which is pointing the way for the whole working class.

Another kind of divisiveness that we have a clear duty to organise against is the narrow sectoralism that exists in many public sector industries. Once again, the active poisoning of class-conscious solidarity by the misleaders of our movement is destroying it. A classic example is the poor relationship that exists between secondary and TAFE members within the TTUV. TAFE teachers are facing an unprecedented and vicious attack on their working conditions, yet many secondary members of the union, even some of the more militant ones, are saying, “Let them suffer. What have they ever done to help us?’ Sadly we could all recount stories like this one.

Solidarity between unions, within and across industries, needs to be strengthened. But this solidarity needs to be at the rank-and-file level. In many industries, the union bureaucrats have their top level cross-union talk fests, but I’ll bet the time is spent swapping ideas on how to crush, control or co-opt the most militant within the ranks! One of the demands we Marxists raise is that of industrial unionism. But inaccessible federation arrangements and amalgamations designed to suit the bureaucrats’ need are certainly not the way to go. Such manoeuveres must be exposed. But we must not fall into the reactionary trap of fighting to defend narrow craft unionism. Links must be built at the grassroots level to promote genuine federations and amalgamations that lead to strong, democratic unions capable of forging unity in struggle.

There are other such issues. The trade union movement in this country has a very sad history in relation to the question of nationalism. This is another reactionary ideology that we must fight. When economic times are tough, protectionism and “Buy Australian” campaigns have a simplistic appeal to workers who are copping the brunt of the crisis. The real crime is that so-called “Left” unions team up with the bosses to promote these demands that cannot provide solutions. The Amalgamated Metal Workers Union under the leadership of Accord architects, Halfpenny and Carmichael, has been one of the worst culprits.

These campaigns are in the interests of the local capitalists, not working people. They pit workers in one country against workers in another. Besides being reactionary, they don’t even have a hope of succeeding. Australia’s economy is inextricably linked to the world capitalist system, and there can be no local solution that can be used to tinker around and fix up the Australian end of things.

Nationalism within the trade union movement also promotes vicious racism. I’d like to present an example that comes from the United States, because it also shows that union officals in all advanced capitalist countries are grasping at the same straws of trying to blame workers somewhere else.

In Detroit, the car industry was facing a slump and many auto workers were losing their jobs. The bureaucracy of the United Auto Workers of America blamed this on imports of Japanese cars and instituted an anti-Japanese “Buy America” campaign. They produced bumper stickers that showed American “pacmen” gobbling up slanty eyed Japanese. While this union campaign was in full swing, two unemployed auto workers attacked Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man. They brutally beat hm to death. The legal defence of the unemployed workers was that they thought Chin was Japanese! This is racism produced by nationalism. It is the logic of “Buy Australian,” “Buy American” or “Buy British” campaigns.

Karl Marx was indeed correct when he said the working class has no country. His call for workers of the world to unite must be a key slogan now.

So we have our work cut out for us in taking on the public sector fightback, and this conference is an important start in preparing to go on the offensive right across the public sector.

The workshops will provide an important opportunity to thrash out questions in more detail.

We have to pinpoint areas of agreement and clarify our differences through debate. A principled united front is urgently needed around areas of programmatic agreement to organise the fightback. We also need to provide forums for ongoing debate around issues where we cannot agree.

One thing is certain, in this era of cutbacks, we must unite, organise and fight back!