Defending Australian Labor

The Australian establishment has unleashed a wide-ranging attack on the country's labor movement.

On December 30, in the sleepy days of the Australian summer between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the country’s Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) released its final report.

The otherwise technocratic document opened with an odd epigraph: an excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s “Dane-Geld,” which exhorts civilized nations to stand firm against Viking raiders demanding tribute in return for not carrying out violent raids.

It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation

To call upon a neighbour and to say:-

“We invaded you last night – we are quite prepared to fight,

Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,

And the people who ask it explain

That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld

And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

. . .

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;

But we’ve proved it again and again,

That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld

You never get rid of the Dane.

Why did the Royal Commission begin by quoting the author of “The White Man’s Burden”? The only explanation, it seems, is that the commission sees the union movement as Viking raiders. Australian union workers, in the commission’s eyes, are a foreign army threatening the security of the “nation.” And they don’t need to be reformed — they need to be crushed.

Battering Labor

The TURC report came at the behest of the newly elected Liberal federal government — conservative in the Australian context — which established the Royal Commission in early 2014 to investigate corruption and governance issues within the trade union movement. The Liberals have convoked four other such commissions in the last forty years, using them to subtly cut away at the power of workers.

This time around the government appointed as commissioner Dyson Heydon, a former high court justice and staunch conservative. (Heydon has faced allegations of impropriety for agreeing to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser last year when the Royal Commission was still hearing evidence.)

Heydon’s report is a battle plan to defeat what is left of the Australian union movement. It contains seventy-nine recommendations, twenty-four of which go directly to the conduct of union officials and their eligibility to hold office.

One of the report’s key recommendations is that office bearers of the powerful Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) obtain approval from parliament. In other words, the state can veto rank-and-file members’ democratic decision about who will lead their union — a jarring affront to the basic principle that workers should have the freedom to unite together free from state or employer meddling. Ironically, Heydon — a man who repeatedly warned of the dangers of the Soviet Union over his judicial career — has endorsed the Stalinist option.

In addition to its proposal to expand state interference, the report calls for other measures that constitute an attack on the union movement.

One such recommendation is preventing unions from indemnifying officials and employees or paying for any fines or compensation orders they incur while carrying out their union duties. Put simply, the state’s goal is to weed out union leaders who take militant stances and to raise the personal cost of fighting for workers.

I’ve experienced this first hand. Along with my union, I was once named co-defendant in a case where an employer was seeking AUD$1.8 million in damages during a bitter dispute. Knowing the union had my back financially allowed me to focus on helping the members win. The TURC report seeks to end this assurance, strengthening employers’ ability to counter effective organizing.

The Royal Commission report is only one of the ways Australian elites are battering the labor movement, leaders and rank-and-file members alike.

In early December, federal police arrested the Victorian branch secretary and assistant branch secretary of the CFMEU, John Setka and Shaun Reardon, on charges of blackmail. The target was no mistake: Setka and Reardon’s branch is among the country’s most militant.

Meanwhile, the federal government has slapped 101 workers with a $10,800 fine, claiming they engaged in an unauthorized work stoppage. Their crime? Having the audacity to attend a union meeting in July 2013 to talk about their wages and rights at work — apparently more egregious than lax safety regulations that kill workers and even sometimes members of the public. The more than $1 million cumulative fine dwarfs that handed out to one of Australia’s largest construction companies, which is facing a penalty of just $250,000 for a worksite accident that killed three pedestrians.

In addition, the evidence in the case was undoubtedly obtained using authoritarian means: to even know the identities of 101 construction workers who attended a meeting requires a high degree of state-employer collusion and surveillance.

This case isn’t about disciplining negligent workers. The workers completed the projects in question on time and within budget. This is about disciplining workers as a class. It’s about sending a message to the rest of the Australian workforce that they do not have the freedom to assemble without their employer’s consent. The few are being punished to discipline and control the many.

In mid-December, at a rally in support of the building workers, Western Australia Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Branch Secretary Chris Cain threatened national stoppages “against these draconian laws.”

The employer reaction was swift. Steve Knott, the chief executive of the Australian Mines and Metals Association (one of Australia’s most influential corporate lobbies), called on the federal government to deregister the MUA and the CFMEU should they follow through with their national strike threat. “Deregistration,” Knott said, “is the only way to end their calculated and contemptuous law breaking.”

Under Australian law, deregistration entails stripping a union of its legal identity and its ability to function within the (already narrow) parameters of the industrial relations system. It’s the organizational equivalent of capital punishment.

Even after the release of the TURC report, workers received no respite. At 1 AM on January 13, a private security company conducted a guerrilla raid to forcibly evict the crew of the MV Portland, a vessel that had shipped alumina from Western Australia to Victoria.

The forty-person MUA crew had been peacefully occupying the ship after their employer, Alcoa, received permission from the federal government to use a foreign-flagged vessel, unilaterally terminating the crew and slashing wages.

Amid the standoff, a koala climbed up the mooring line of the ship and settled there to rest. It became the dispute’s iconic image, earning the name “Comrade Koala” and analogies to Heydon’s feared Viking raider demanding his gold.

But in the early morning of January 13, the weeks-long standoff came to a violent conclusion, and labor was dealt another blow.

Toward a Network of Organized Labor

These attacks have understandably cowed many in the movement.

Union leaders, of many different capacities and ideological leanings, fear the financial and organizational repercussions of any collective action outside of increasingly constricted boundaries. All it could take is a group of workers engaging in a solidarity strike to financially ruin the union or prompt its deregistration.

Moreover, the prospects of any action are uncertain in a context of declining trust. Lacking faith in their unions, many workers simply don’t join the organizations that ostensibly represent them. Some union leaders, in turn, doubt whether workers will stand together and take action in the workplace, leading them to sublimate the industrial struggle to the political field.

Even in this grim environment, however, the union movement can win if it understands both its recent defeats and the establishment’s fears.

The TURC report, the arrest of Setka and Reardon, the persecution of the 101 building workers, the guerrilla raid on the MV Portland crew — together they’re a distillation of the establishment’s strategy. It wants to paralyze labor’s leaders and make an example of a few workers exercising their rights. “Touch one, touch all,” as the union chant goes.

Union leaders must respond to this assault by investing in the capacity of the rank-and-file. Too often, figures in the labor movement have conflated their personal control with power. But lone officers cannot take on the state or employers with all their legal, political, and financial resources.

Further, any legal assault (such as the case against the 101 workers) can only target and punish a relatively small number of people. Its effectiveness turns on its ability to instill a nervous quietude in the rest of the movement.

A retreat at this moment would be disastrous; it would move the union movement from a defensive crouch to utter devastation. Instead, Australian labor needs to carry out work stoppages. It needs to engage in “calculated and contemptuous law breaking” to free workers from the authoritarian vice that is squeezing their rights at work.

In helping launch the wide-ranging and militant actions that are necessary, labor leaders must let go of the hierarchy and give platforms to workers who can propose and organize disruptions on the ground. Social media and sharing technology means that it is easier than ever to source ideas and feedback from the rank-and-file and to communicate about actions. That needs to be matched with a program for empowering the base to take action, fail and learn, and gain the confidence and maturity necessary to swarm and disorient the establishment.

Victory does not lie in the movement’s hierarchies but in unleashing networks of solidarity. Maybe then workers will be able to take back the Dane-geld.