3 October 2019

David Peetz’s new book, The Realities and Futures of Work, is an engaging and thorough overview of existing and likely future working arrangements, and a well-grounded argument for reform: “The danger technology poses to workers through increased algorithmic management and ‘not there’ employment is arguably greater than the danger of technological job loss. Much of that must be addressed by broader social and economic policies… but some relates to the specific workplace factors that influence workers’ power. There are changes in several countries needed to the legal and institutional framework for bargaining that affect workers’ ability to gain from higher productivity… these include enabling multiemployer bargaining, reforming procedures for terminating agreements and industrial action, and indeed reforming the concept of the right to take collective action. … In all countries, core capital — be it in the form of franchisors, large brand names or head contractors — needs to be held accountable for underpayment of labour or other law-breaking within the chain. Neither employment law nor competition law should obstruct labour from bargaining with entities other than the direct employer, since ‘not there’ employment is often used not just to reduce pay and conditions but as a ruse to prevent adequate bargaining.” (It’s available as a free download thanks to ANU Press.)

2 October 2019

The NSW South Coast Labour Council has launched a Recharge the Illawarra campaign — a push for a local Green New Deal. Arthur Rorris explains: “Port Kembla is geared to make big things. Maybe that is why we dream the big things too: our miners digging coal† to make the finest quality steel in our steelworks; the steel engineered to build wind turbines for the future; and our ports and rail network to deliver that across the country and the world. … So we are borrowing a line from our kids — we are not asking for action we are demanding it. … Let us dig and forge and build the big things. The big things for a decent future for us and our children.” The AMWU’s state secretary Steve Murphy adds that his members “are sick and tired of it being workers versus the environmental movement… We have a real opportunity for workers to be at the forefront of this change, and if there is going to be renewable jobs, for these jobs to be made here. We’re talking to our people in power stations, and they’re saying ‘we’re not loyal to coal, we’re not rusted on’… but what they don’t see is a plan for what their future job is.” It’s great to see the union movement being proactive about the necessary transition to a green economy.

† The coal referred to here is coking or metallurgical coal used in steel production. Some experts argue, “There is no greenhouse issue around coking coal frankly because there is no other way of making steel”. However, Greenpeace says, “In truth, coal is not essential to steelmaking — only to the dirtiest type of steelmaking”, arguing for more recycling of scrap steel as well as a shift to natural gas as a reductant in a cleaner steel production process.

Samuel Miller McDonald argues that the left should commit to shrinking the economy so that eco-fascists don’t control how it occurs: “A left-wing degrowth agenda could be a very good thing: in addition to halting our doomsday course, it plausibly could result in increased prosperity for most people as it would, by definition, entail mass redistribution of resources, even as economic growth slowed and reversed. One can envision much better lives of greater abundance, in both rural and urban contexts, under a postgrowth, egalitarian economy. … But a right-wing degrowth agenda would almost certainly result in less prosperity for most, and even great violence. It’s just as easy to imagine deeply savage governments pursuing aggressive degrowth agendas that do aim to make the economy more materially sustainable, but doing so through brutal austerity measures”. (I’m not convinced that de-growth should be the primary objective; it is politically a difficult message to sell and I think starting with redistribution will lead to a shift in economic priorities away from growth-at-all-costs anyway. But it’s a useful reminder that if we don’t make significant changes very soon, the future will be vicious.)

Aidan Harper argues that improving people’s work-life balance could also contribute to achieving necessary environmental change: “In 2008, the Utah state government carried out a mass trial of a four-day week with 18,000 employees (albeit working 10-hour days), in response to the financial crash and ensuing budget restrictions. By reducing the number of government employee commutes, it was estimated that the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with personal vehicle use — in relation to in-work behaviour — was the equivalent to taking a thousand cars off the road (which would have had a positive impact on air pollution too). … It is easy to think of the environmentally damaging things we do when we are resource rich but time-poor: driving instead of cycling, buying ready-made meals, weekend vacations, and energy intensive consumer products. A four-day week, combined with other policies which disincentive carbon intensive activities, could help shift our society towards one which engages in more sustainable behaviours. … [I]f the four-day week were a central part of a raft of sustainable policy changes within a Green New Deal, it could result in a change which cuts our ecological footprint in a way which could improve wellbeing, public health, and revitalise our communities.”

1 October 2019

Environmental historian Jason Moore proposes the Capitalocene as “a kind of critical provocation to this sensibility of the Anthropocene”: it accepts that we are entering a new epoch, but denies that humanity itself is the problem, but rather “a highly unequal system of power and wealth”. It is an argument that a major realignment of our economic goals and systems can pull us back from the brink — and that the pressure of climate crisis creates a revolutionary moment: “I would just remind everyone that climate change is bad for ruling classes. It’s miserable for all the rest of us over the time spans of 10 and 20 and 30 years, that we’re all going to be living through very difficult times. But there will also be times at which the 1 percent, in whatever form that takes, will be thoroughly and radically destabilized. I don’t think ruling classes are at all prepared for the kinds of political and cultural transformations that will occur in this period. We’re already seeing this in part around the generational shift and the fact that now we can talk about socialism. That’s really the first time since maybe 1970 to ’75 we could do it in a public way. Capitalism is much less resilient than most people credit it. It had its social legitimacy, because in one way or another it could promise development. And I don’t think anyone takes that idea seriously anymore.”

27 September 2019

John Falzon on the need to reclaim ‘aspiration’ as a collective virtue: “Perhaps unions, and indeed progressive grass-roots social movements in general, are hated by neoliberal governments today precisely because they are a vehicle for collective aspiration, historically showing that the real improvements to the lives of ordinary working people come when they are fought for collectively. Rather than limiting aspiration, which is a common neoliberal claim, unions organise aspiration… I cannot think of a single instance where, even though the legislation was fought for in parliament, the struggles that informed the legislation was not fought for by grass-roots movements for social justice and social change, movements that, like the union movement, collectively aspired to create a better society. Many of these achievements have been dismantled by successive governments that have prosecuted a neoliberal agenda, while reframing the concept of aspiration, making it appear as something that happens most authentically at the individual level, with collective activism and advocacy allegedly getting in its way. There’s a difference between aspiration and acquisition. We need to reframe aspiration as the oxygen that working people collectively breathe”.

Jenna Owen on how modelling agencies are using a loophole to avoid child labour regulations: “What these agencies are less likely to talk about is what every one of the models I spoke to also reported: how unprotected models are in their workplace and how deeply concerning that is, because when you are a model you understand one very clear thing about the modelling industry — that it is made up largely of children. The ideal age to start modelling is 15. If you sign with a major agency at this age you will start on their model books in a section called ‘In Development’, which is as close as modelling will get to admitting you are a child. In this time, you will still go to shoots, castings and catwalks, but you are rarely paid because you are not yet ‘developed’ enough. You are also not protected by child safety laws in this country. This is because agencies do not employ these girls from as young as 14, they independently contract them; a loophole under the status quo. When children are employed, like in most other industries, certain standards are necessitated by state law. In New South Wales, any employer who wants to work with children must be authorised by the NSW Children’s Guardian to do so. All authorised employers’ names are published on their website weekly. There are no modelling agencies on the list.”

25 September 2019

While climate denialists continue to post froth-mouthed rants about Greta Thunberg following her remarkable speech to the UN, some are noticing a pattern — it’s girls and women who cop the most vicious abuse. Canada’s environment minister noted, “Misogyny and climate denial seem to go together.” Swedish academics studying climate denialism suggest the problem is that “a certain group of men, and a certain type of masculinity… think of natural resources as something that exists for humans to grab, use, and create value from” and that climate change (and responses to it) poses a threat to “a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity”. Hettie O’Brien sums up their problem: “Accepting the truth of climate science involves recognising that the supremacy we have long exerted over our natural environment will have to subside. Denialism amounts to a strange form of identity politics among those who feel threatened by the sweeping changes that environmental breakdown makes necessary.” (Ironically, the same men are likely to rant about identity politics…)

Some good news: “In Australia, renewable energy is growing at a per capita rate ten times faster than the world average. Between 2018 and 2020, Australia will install more than 16 gigawatts of wind and solar, an average rate of 220 watts per person per year. This is nearly three times faster than the next fastest country, Germany. Australia is demonstrating to the world how rapidly an industrialised country with a fossil-fuel-dominated electricity system can transition towards low-carbon, renewable power generation. … Last was a record year for renewable energy installations, with 5.1 gigawatts (GW) accredited in 2018, far exceeding the previous record of 2.2GW in 2017. The increase was driven by the dramatic rise of large-scale solar farms… This year is on track to be another record year, with 6.5GW projected to be complete by the end of 2019. The increase is largely attributable to a significant increase in the number of wind farms approaching completion.” Maintaining this pace will require governments to invest in transmission infrastructure. (On the other side of the ledger, we need to stop digging up coal; it doesn’t matter whether we burn it ourselves or export it to be burned elsewhere, it should stay in the ground.)

24 September 2019

Crikey’s Inq investigative reporting project has exposed the shocking degree to which the Coalition has stacked the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with political hacks and Party mates: “66 of the 333 AAT decision-making members are former Liberal Party staffers, former Liberal or National politicians, party donors, members, unsuccessful Liberal candidates or Liberal government employees… 24 of those 66 appointees have no legal qualifications, including six of the AAT’s senior members… In contrast, when the Labor Party left office in 2013, only 16 members … had any sort of political connection.” And when the government’s own review criticised the practice, Christian Porter kept the report secret and continued to stack the tribunal: “Porter received Callinan’s recommendations in December last year, but it was seven months before the report was tabled in July this year. During that seven-month hiatus, in February this year (months away from an election the Coalition was expected to lose), Porter announced 86 new appointments or re-appointments to the AAT. Tellingly, 19 of these appointed members had close Liberal Party connections… Of these, Inq has determined at least eight have no law degree. All this was decided while the Callinan review was sitting, unreleased, inside the attorney-general’s office.”