The government’s so-called Ensuring Integrity Bill (which even a government-dominated committee said was “likely to be incompatible with the right to freedom of association”) fell short by one vote in the Senate. They will try again; indeed, Christian Porter is flagging further attacks on collective bargaining [$] in the new year. But for now, working Australians can breathe a sigh of relief.
archive: November 2019
Melbourne’s tram drivers are on strike today — a soft strike, in the middle of the day when it will have minimal impact, because our prohibitive laws ban any strike that might put real pressure on an employer; even a one-day strike by Sydney train drivers was ruled illegal (by a former Liberal staffer who continued to engage in partisan propaganda even after being appointed to the Fair Work Commission). But the RTBU has signalled it may become more militant in future. Launching a short documentary about Clarrie O’Shea’s resistance to crippling fines for industrial action, the new national president of the RTBU, Mark Diamond, drew parallels [$] with the Liberal union-busting bill now being pushed through the Senate: “[L]et’s take a page from our own history. A page that shows exactly what comes next. … At that time, in 1969, about 1 million people stopped work. … [They] went out then, and if it’s in the best interests of our members, we will go out now. So here’s a message for Tory politicians and for aggressive employers. If you do not respect us, you will fear us.” The industrial relations system works by ensuring the benefits of staying inside the system outweigh the costs, but as it has been ratcheted tighter and tighter, the cost-benefit analysis will change. Back to basics — strength in numbers.
(The full text of Diamond’s speech has now been posted on the RTBU website.)
UWU’s Tim Nelthorpe explains why organising Australia’s food supply chain is vital: “[T]he terms of employment on farms are reminiscent of indentured labor. Workers are usually forced into employer-owned accommodation and transport, and rather than obtain their own food, they are required to pay a food bond.” But collective action works, as union member Anh Nguyen explains: “One day, my management were instructing our quality assurance workers to pour chemical products on the lettuce while we were working. We could feel our eyes sting, our throats burn, and we were even vomiting. I decided enough was enough, I went around to ask … my workmates to walk off the job. Then I walked to the middle of the packing shed and shouted, ‘Everyone out!’ The workers followed me to the lunchroom, and the scared manager meekly asked if we would come back to work as normal. I told him if he ever poured chemicals while workers were in the room again, he could expect the same. We will come back to work if there is no harm to our health. We worked out a system to protect our health and safety that day, and four years on, the company still respects the right of our union delegates to decide when it is safe to return to the packing shed after chemicals are poured. This experience showed me that the power to create a permanent change has to come from us and through our collective actions.”
A survey of corporate executives by Herbert Smith Freehills — an aggressive bosses’ law firm — shows they are gearing up to resist both traditional union activity and “unpredictable forms of worker activism, amplified and co-ordinated through digital communication”. According to The Australian’s summary of the report [$], “Companies were asked what percentage impact they believed workforce activism might have on their global annual revenues, and the responses ranged from 17 per cent to 25 per cent. More than 80 per cent expected to see a rise in activism among both employees and casual workers and almost four out of 10 thought the increase would be significant.” Helpfully, the executives have provided a list of planned corporate chicanery they expect workers will resist: “Executives said the main triggers for increased activism by Australian workers in the next five years would be automation, diversity, company surveillance and monitoring of workers, pay and benefits, and corporate strategy. More than half the companies said the gap between executive pay and employee wages, fuelled by years of stagnating wages, would be a trigger for activism. An estimated 47 per cent of Australian businesses, compared with 37 per cent globally, expected employees to increasingly protest against the actions or decisions of companies that they felt were not in keeping with the organisation’s mission statement.”
“Neither in Venezuela nor in Bolivia, nor in any of the countries that turned to the Left over the past twenty years, has the bourgeois state been totally transcended nor has capitalist rule been overthrown. The revolutionary processes in these countries had to gradually create institutions of and for the working-class alongside the continuation of capitalist rule. … Any attempt to fully transcend capitalism was constrained by the power of the bourgeoisie — which was not undone by repeated elections, and which is now the source of counter-revolution; and it was constrained by the power of imperialism — which has succeeded, for now, in a coup in Bolivia, and which threatens daily a coup in Venezuela. … Nonetheless, both Venezuela and Bolivia experienced the full thrust of a ‘hybrid war’ — from sabotage of physical infrastructure to sabotage of the ability to raise funds from capital markets. Lenin suggested that after capturing the state and dismantling capitalist ownership, the revolutionary process in the new Soviet republic was difficult, the stubborn class struggle alive and well; imagine then how much more difficult is the stubborn struggle in Venezuela and Bolivia.” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Ana Maldonado, Pilar Troya Fernández, and Vijay Prashad wrote a letter to intellectuals who deride revolutions in the name of purity: it’s worth reading.
The Nation has published a long excerpt from A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal: “[F]rankly, there are some jobs that ought to be crowded out. … A job guarantee would give workers options to leave socially and environmentally harmful jobs, and would strengthen the position of workers organizing in the private sector. … Shitty work also takes a toll on your soul. The great modernist writer Virginia Woolf once made a living from odd jobs of the kind then available to women… It was dull work, and usually poorly paid. ‘What still remains with me,’ she recalled afterward, ‘was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me.’ Then she inherited £500 a year from an aunt who fell off a horse in Bombay. It wasn’t a fortune—about $40,000 today, a little more than the median individual income. But it set her free. ‘Watch in the spring sunshine,’ she wrote, ‘the stockbroker and the great barrister going indoors to make money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine.’ A colonial inheritance isn’t something to aspire to. But the freedom Woolf experienced should be available to all — and that’s what a job guarantee can offer.'”
The government has — at last — accepted that ‘robodebt’ is cruel and probably illegal. As Kate Galloway explained, a computer would scan tax office data and apply a flawed algorithm, so that “even if you earned nothing for six months while correctly collecting Newstart, the amount you earned in the next six months is averaged over the entire period to make it look as though you were collecting Newstart payments to which you were not entitled. The department automatically generates letters demanding that the former social security recipient prove the calculation to be incorrect”, and then aggressively “recovers” the “debt”, with predictably awful consequences for the innocent people trapped by the scheme. Now, with victims’ lawyers breathing down their neck, the government has abandoned the worst aspect of the system, with retrospective effect: “The department has made the decision to require additional proof when using income averaging to identity over payments. This means the department will no longer raise a debt where the only information we are relying on is our own averaging of Australia Taxation Office income data.” Lawyers say their cases will continue, but I expect the government will attempt to have them thrown out as hypothetical — they don’t want public scrutiny of the robodebt system, and especially the internal considerations that led to its callous design.
Jeff Sparrow on the danger of slipping from class analysis to right-wing identity politics: “If, for instance, you present the ‘real workers’ as white, socially conservative men living in small towns, then, almost by definition, you’ll agree with Paul Kelly that ‘Labor must get more like Morrison: it needs to listen … to the “quiet Australians”.’ Yet if you think of class in structural terms, it’s immediately obvious that many of Australia’s most vulnerable workers themselves belong to minority groups. … [The 7-Eleven wage theft] saga centred on members of the modern working class who just so happen to be young, urban and predominantly brown-skinned. Such people don’t consider racism or Islamophobia or, for that matter, border policy ‘irrelevant’ to their lives. The working-class queer kid driven out of home for his sexuality is not indifferent to homophobia, any more than Indigenous workers are indifferent to the history of colonialism. But precisely because they are vulnerable, they’re only going to embrace a political party when it offers them real, material change rather than platitudes. In other words, bridging the gap between progressives and the modern working class requires a commitment to structural transformations that will genuinely affect the lives of ordinary people.”
Sophie Trevitt: “The staunch, strong, grief-laden cries for #JusticeForWalker from the Warlpiri people reverberated around the nation this week. But the struggle is far from over for Kumanjayi Walker’s family, the Warlpiri people and all First Nations people. The injustices that First Nations people are so often forced to weather in the shadows have been tragically and violently brought into the light. It is our job now to keep these injustices in the forefront of the minds of every decision-maker who is writing policy that strips First Nations people of power, of every official who is making decisions about what services First Nations people have access to, of every police officer, lawyer, judge, ombudsman and commissioner who is tasked with protecting the rights of First Nations people. … We are all implicated in the system that cost Kumanjayi Walker his life and stole him from his family, and we must not turn away until there is justice. No justice, no peace.” Justice is not about this one case, it is about transforming White systems of subjugation.
The chair of Wesfarmers, in a speech defending his company’s executive remuneration package [$], complained: “I have to say that it is an extremely frustrating issue and one which takes up a large amount of director time… It is not in doubt that there is increasing unease about executive remuneration — in the general community about salary levels… Your board and remuneration committee work hard to balance community and investor expectations with the need to reward our executives appropriately, retain their services and attract new talent to the organisation.” Translation: We spend a lot of time trying to think of ways to justify the immorally high salaries we pay to our business club mates. In 2019, the Wesfarmers CEO was paid $6.5 million in bonuses, an obscene amount. Also in 2019, Wesfarmers admitted to systematically underpaying workers $15 million (plus an unknown amount for a separate superannuation rip-off) over ten years. How much time do you think the board spends thinking about paying workers properly? Perhaps the prospect of criminal penalties would adjust their priorities.