A global recession was already coming at a fast clip, and then COVID-19 hit the accelerator. If the working class isn’t going to be run over, or pushed off a cliff, we need to form a solid bulwark. How the union movement acts right now is critical, and the past 50 years give important lessons and warnings.
Déja vu. Go home and “maintain your rage” is what Gough Whitlam told workers ready to strike over the Queen’s sacking of his government in 1975. Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) President Bob Hawke enforced the Labor Party leader’s advice, and so a possible general strike was nipped in the bud.
Six years earlier, in 1969, general strikes — led by unions defying peak bodies and regional labour councils — had freed Tramways Union leader Clarrie O’Shea from jail. Their rage over repressive penal powers, which empowered courts to heavily fine unions taking industrial action, led to the State’s defeat. This is what ALP and ACTU leaders stopped from being repeated in 1975. As the capitalists who engineered Whitlam’s “dismissal” breathed a sigh of relief, Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser walked into government with his “Razor Gang.”
Like today, these were heady times. The world economy was sinking into deep recession after a long post-war boom. However Fraser’s union busting and slashing of Whitlam’s reforms revived workers’ rage. So again, Bob Hawke rescued big business — this time as Labor Prime Minister. By brokering the 1983 ALP/ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord, his government reined in the unions and paved the way for capitalism’s hoped-for recovery in the form of neoliberalism.
The Accord disavowed class struggle for cooperation between labour and capital in the “national interest.” Nearly 40 years later, the working class is left to survive on living conditions and wages set by gig economy standards.
A consequence of the Accord is top-down unionism, where members are isolated in their workplaces and “consulted” through surveys. Most have never experienced a mass meeting, where they debate and decide their union’s direction. Nor have they experienced a walkout or the overwhelming power of an all-unions-out general strike. Union muscle atrophied over the four decades, and membership shrank from 51 percent in the mid-1970s to 14 percent today. The movement is a shadow of what it was.
If you don’t fight, you lose. Globally, capitalism is in its deepest crisis in living memory. Everywhere, big business is tearing into what is left of workers’ rights. Capital is intent on seizing back everything unions have won. An example is the gauntlet thrown down by the Australian Industry Group on unions’ representation of workers in enterprise bargaining.
The Morrison government is determined to bring militant unions to heel — carrot or stick, either weapon will do. And it looks as though it’s having success. The ACTU has been “at the table” with industry and government from early into the pandemic. This close collaborative relationship recently became official at the Prime Minister’s May 26 press conference, where Morrison announced his JobMaker plan. Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter will lead a team of unions and businesses to reshape industrial relations. As “a sign of good faith,” the government withdrew its union-bashing Ensuring Integrity Bill.
In a media release that followed, the ACTU said it “welcomes the opportunity to sit down with the government and employers to discuss how our economy can be rebuilt.” The anti-union bill, stated ACTU Secretary McManus, “is symbolic of the politics of the past.”
The ACTU’s Rebuilding jobs and our economy beyond the COVID-19 health crisis, launched in May, is steeped in the ideology of nationalist class collaboration. Pretending that Australia can separate itself from the global capitalist economy, the ACTU talks about “our sovereignty” and “national interest.” It has a plan: “embrace industry policy and ‘Australian made’” through “initiatives to build domestic demand, support Australian businesses, create good jobs and ensure that workers have the income to buy more of the products and services produced and provided within Australia.” The official leaders of the union movement would appease the bosses and hog-tie workers to the mythical national interest, rather than mobilise us to rise up against our exploitation.
As Karl Marx said, “The working class has no country.” As an international class, our interests are bound together against a common global exploiter. Yet nationalism shatters this solidarity, and these ominous signs are appearing in the union movement. An example is a recent tweet from McManus that “too many employers had been using the temp visa system to avoid hiring locals.” She was reinforcing a statement by Kristina Keneally, ALP Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, which argued against continuing pre-pandemic levels of immigration and insisted that Australian-born workers have a “fair go and a first go” at jobs. Xenophobia and racism are trusty weapons of capitalists, and the White Australia Policy — officially repealed by the Whitlam government — could be having a comeback in the Labor Party and union movement.
Organising around demands of the most exploited workers — on temporary visas, for example — would lift up the entire union movement. The dynamic struggles in Australia’s food industries and distribution centres, organised in the United Workers Union, show the militancy and leadership of these workers.
Class struggle is intensifying globally, and so is workers’ rage here, across industries and communities. It won’t be de-fused by rhetoric like Scott Morrison’s “There are no more unions or bosses. All that matters is an Australian national interest and all Australians working together.”
However, unless this rage is channeled into a fightback, it will be derailed toward the cliff — both by unions’ acquiescence to capital’s demands and a far right that is riding on the fears of small business and working class people. Anti-lockdown protests being mobilised across the U.S., bankrolled by über-right, billionaire-funded organisations, aim to protect the interests of the super-rich. They are internationally connected, and similar small-scale protest has started here. That this could sow seeds for a fascist movement makes it extremely dangerous.
Show our rage! Industries desperate to “re-open the economy” and resume profitable production are prepared to put workers’ health and lives at risk. With or without the pandemic, capital will work its labour ever harder and toss ever more into joblessness and poverty. It may even turn to fascism — to crush organised labour — if it decides it must.
It’s time for a national general strike: stop the capitalist juggernaut in its tracks. To do this, workers need to start mobilising now, from the ground and across industries. Agitate about the necessity to fight back. Strengthen our industrial muscle through democratic, rank-and-file strike committees. Build solidarity in our communities. Organise strike funds for a long fight. Connect with unions, nationally and internationally.
Crucial to this success are demands addressing what all workers need right now and permanent solutions — such as:
- Nationalise failing industries as well as energy, health and other essential industries, to be controlled and managed by workers and the community.
- Reduce hours of work with no cut in pay to employ more people while reducing their potential exposure.
- Guarantee childcare, at no cost for parents, on a permanent basis that is high quality and available round the clock. Free, quality healthcare, education and transport for everyone.
- Launch a mass public jobs and infrastructure program.
- Expand JobKeeper to cover all workers stood down — including gig economy, casuals and sole traders — without regard to visa status and payable directly to them. A liveable income for all unemployed workers needing government support, regardless of immigration status.
- To fund programs for workers and assistance for small businesses, rescind the past decades’ tax cuts for the rich and immediately reinstate the pre-1988 corporate tax rate of 49%.
- Open the borders; prioritise human need to move around the world, regardless of the reason.
This rephrasing of Whitlam’s famous 1975 quote is for today’s enraged workers: Well may we say “Union Power!” Because nothing will save us unless we exercise it! Capitalists cannot materialise profit without workers’ labour. “Downing tools” is our power.
General strikes around the world are demonstrating this power — from India to France, Haiti to Mexico. In 1917 Russia we saw where this could lead, when a general strike initiated by women workers ushered in the world’s socialist revolution.
Workers in Australia need to seize control of our unions, run them democratically, un-manacle them from the ALP and solidarise with striking workers around the world. This will bring the strength and know-how to construct a different system, where profit has no place and workers are in charge.