We Need a Political Vision

The Australian labor movement is internationally envied for the high wages and generous welfare state it won. But the world of work is changing, and if unions don’t change with it, they’ll face existential decline.

Unions and workers protest on April 10 in Melbourne, Australia. Michael Dodge / Getty

At the election party for Australia’s new coalition government, former Prime Minister and conservative heavyweight John Howard remarked: “Queenslanders are good common-sense people. They got a whiff of the Labor party undermining their job prospects, and they responded accordingly.” Howard, with his cold calculation, understands something about the history of this colonial nation that the Left has been slow to grasp: workers’ expectations are limited by our past collective gains.

It’s easy for conservatives to wheel out the defense of “jobs” rhetoric. This is because many Australians define their collective and moral identity through waged labor. While this is hardly unique, this identity is shaped by the particular history of Australia’s labor movement — both our gains and the limits of those gains.

The Australian labor movement was forged during the hungry nineteenth century British imperial project. Early on, it won its biggest victories around working time, compensation, and conditions of work. Victoria was the first jurisdiction in the world to win the eight-hour day. We stridently marched into federation in the twentieth century by winning a dignified, living wage. These achievements were translated into wage-setting institutions that were internationally envied and which went on to ensure that wages better reflected the wealth workers toiled to create.

Valiant as these victories were, they only contested how much of a cut workers would receive, post production. This had pros and cons. One pro is that combat over wages has drawn workers into a direct confrontation with capital. One main con is that this confrontation took place only after investment choices were all said and done. If we fast forward around one hundred years from federation, the fight for better work conditions is still narrowly conceived of as the fight for fair compensation: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”

Howard understands this well. He knows that while Australian workers have fought to improve the conditions and pay of existing jobs, they have not won systematic victories determining the types of jobs available.

The exceptions to this prove the rule. For example, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in the 1970s, led in New South Wales by a New Left–aligned faction of the Communist Party, fought for community alliances that fruitfully linked industrial strength with the defense of public spaces. The most important measure was known as the “Green Ban” — that is, the union placed bans on environmentally destructive construction. Eventually, these were extended to bans on demolishing culturally or historically important buildings and demands for socially inclusive housing.

While the BLF “Green Bans” show that unions can go beyond economic demands, exerting influence over the mechanics of our cities, the example is largely limited to place (New South Wales) and to smaller strategic targets. The strategy never evolved into a broader social vision.

The fact is, proactive worker intervention that might shape the long-term industrial, investment, jobs, and skills landscape is foreign to our unionism. Workers have never won the power to determine the direction of industry and economic policy in Australia.

It’s not just Queenslanders in mining communities that have trouble conceiving of work beyond that presently offered by capital. All Australian workers have difficulty imagining how we might create our own jobs and industries. When economic demand is strong and jobs are plentiful, our absence of experience in economic planning is masked. But the “lucky country” that emerged from the global financial crisis unscathed now faces recession, and Australians are without traditions to collectively demand investment from profit-hoarding businesses and direct its whereabouts. And so workers are often left with no option but to shut up and “take what you can get.”

“A Fair Go for Those Who Have a Go”?

There is a good life somewhere outside the wage relation. But Australians are yet to discover either the means or the ends to this vision. This is made worse by the ideological hangover of a welfare state built with wage earners in mind that says the bountiful fruits of our collective toil can only be accessed if you have a job. This is a negative solidarity based not on building a new world of work, but on the assumption that welfare is earned through subjugation to the suffering of waged labor. Arguably, this resentment runs deep in our labor traditions, dating back to the days in which newly freed convict labor was forced to make good of an impossible situation.

A labor movement that primarily fights over distribution is in a weak position to assert a dignified collective control over its broader destiny. Since the 1990s, this framework has been reinforced legally: Australian unions have been restricted not only to industrial campaigns for pay and conditions, but also to wages advancements at the individual enterprise or workplace level.

Today the proliferation of low-margin, low productivity firms — in part due to the rise of new business models that slice up the supply chain and obfuscate who is in charge of employing workers — makes the organizing challenge even harder. It’s unclear from where or whom workers can win their cut of the profit.

A defensive or conditional solidarity is remarkably entrenched in the Australian psyche. As global economic and environmental crises bang on our door, this particularism has become a gaping wound in Australian working-class consciousness. This problem must be immediately addressed if we are to achieve the kind of bold long-term vision needed to dramatically reshape our economy and society, as emerging proposals for a Green New Deal on our shores demand.

Using Our Wins Against Us

If Australian unionism restricts itself to a conditional solidarity limited by the jobs on offer, it will hand its neoliberal opponents a powerful weapon. They know this too. Since the 1980s, neoliberal labor market policies have focused on increasing the supply of workers to capital (including through punitive workfare policies). This has subsequently denied employed workers adequate hours.

While unemployment is at 5 percent, the percentage of the Australian workforce who want more hours has been rising steadily since 1980, from 3 percent to 8.5 percent today. But the scale of worker dislocation is even worse. People who didn’t “actively” search for work in the reference week in which government employment statistics were gathered don’t show up in unemployment statistics. This adds nine hundred thousand people to the statistic. If the number of unemployed, underemployed, and “discouraged” Australians (who have given up looking for work) are combined, the picture starts to look even worse: the pool of workers who need work is over 20 percent — around 2.8 million people.

The proliferation of part-time jobs — which now make up almost one in three jobs — is to blame. This is one of the highest rates of part-time employment in the industrial world (behind only the Netherlands and Switzerland, who have far more generous welfare state provisions). Keeping people hungry lowers their expectations for permanent work and higher wages.

In the postwar era, unemployment was the main indicator of capital’s control over the workforce. Today things have changed. Underemployment (i.e. starving workers of enough hours) is capital’s new weapon of choice. So successfully has it exploited Australians’ yearning for the traditional wage labor identity that the ethos of “any work is better than none” still predominates. That yearning to contribute has been turned against us.

And the limitations of union power have been our own undoing. In the early 1980s, the Australian economy faced negative growth, high unemployment at 7 percent, high inflation, and a Labor Party declining in popularity. A well-organized, militant union movement that was refined in the art of winning decent wage increases (with those gains flowing to all workers in an industry through legal instruments called “Awards”) was plunged into uncertain policy terrain.

The solution? A compact or “Accord” was struck between unions, business, and the Labor Party. Organized labor would forgo pay increases in return for improvements in their entitlements and benefits (the “social wage”), including universal public health care and a retirement fund based on employer-employee contributions.

The effect of the incomes policies was to predetermine wage outcomes before workers had a chance to organize. This weakened Australian unions’ key strategic muscle for improving wages and conditions. But arguably, Australian unions were outflanked during the Accords because they were yet to progress as a movement from “meat and potatoes” industrial unionism and advance a broader social vision.

Union power was further hamstrung during the reign of Liberal prime minister John Howard from 1996 to 2007, who introduced harsh anti-union laws that were never fully wound back. The goal of Howard’s “WorkChoices” legislation was to dismantle the principle of collective agreements. The “Australian Workplace Agreement” (AWA) allowed employers to write up an individual agreement with their employees. Collective agreements along with AWAs could now be used by employers to undermine minimum labor laws.

Howard’s industrial relations agenda was rejected, and he lost the election in 2007. But capital had realized long before that the class war is not always won in a single battle. Since then it has intensified its efforts to dismantle that nuisance institution that pushes up its labor costs: the standard employment relationship.

The standard employment relationship was forged in the postwar era and presupposed both strong labor market demand and a fighting labor movement that won protection over wages and conditions. This is the basis for persistent cultural norms that employment be available year-round, on a permanent basis, and that employers ought to bear costs for workers’ reproduction through entitlements like sick pay and superannuation.

Insecure work has been the battering ram used by capital to undermine the more costly standard employment relationship, replacing it with casual, temporary, contract, and faux–independent contracting. These forms of precarious work have flooded the Australian jobs landscape. For business the question is, why pay for a sick worker to recover, or for that worker’s eventual retirement, when there is a conveyor-belt, “just in time” workforce at your beck and call?

How did we arrive at this carnage? Business and its allies have, since the 1980s, set to the task of eroding all the major instruments of egalitarian labor market intervention in the state, including high minimum wages, industry-wide agreements, strong and active unions, and collective bargaining. This was the material infrastructure left by our past wins. This was all dismantled under the pretext of a new “post-industrial” era whose paragon was the flexible, university-educated, professional worker.

Our opponents have been so successful in blunting our power over the distribution of surplus profit (what we used to be good at) that the portion of national income flowing to labor has dramatically declined since the mid-1970s, from 58 percent to a postwar record low of 46 percent in 2018.

Voila! The result is a nicely polarized labor market, where now less than 50 percent of all workers are in traditional permanent full-time employment with basic entitlements. The majority of the workforce, particularly young, migrant, and women workers, engage in Jobs Tetris, choreographing assemblies of low-paid, piecemeal jobs that lead precisely nowhere.

The promised — but rarely delivered — reward for this is the “privilege” of a dependable relationship to full-time exploitation. And we all climb all over each other in the hope of being “seen” by employers. So tight are these invisible handcuffs that Australian workers donated an average of six hours’ unpaid overtime every week in 2018, allowing employers to pocket a cool $106 billion in free labor in that single year.

We Have More Muscles Than One

With the reelection of a divided coalition government, the Australian labor movement is in a battle for survival, for relevance, and for impact. The road traveled is still landmarked by our collective wage-setting wins. Minimum wages, modern Awards, and a (very bruised) collective bargaining system all remain today. But the road traveled also reveals union strategy has failed to articulate a more comprehensive vision for reshaping the economy. This is partly a reflection of how unions are positioned organizationally vis-à-vis the Labor Party.

Decades of separation between organized wages and work battles (“the industrial”) and comprehensive transformative workers’ reforms (“the political”) has left unions without the ideas they need to take the reins of their industries. Limiting workers’ organization to economic issues undermines their capacity to build a truly democratic workplace or to wield more control over the production process.

Whether the labor movement should serve as the industrial muscle of the Labor Party, and leave “big picture” policy and politics to the party, or whether we should broaden our activities, joining with wider social movements and expanding workers’ control, is one of the most important debates of Australian union history. It is one that shapes our moment today.

In 2014, the coalition government led by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey brought in a savage austerity budget. The strong public backlash was instructive. It showed that Australians will vehemently defend welfare and a “social wage,” public health care (Medicare) in particular. After all, it was only a few decades ago, in the 1980s, when a fervent, militant, and organized working class “cashed in” its industrial muscle for this social wage. These welfare institutions belong to workers. However, in the 2019 election, the Labor Party wrongly assumed that this basically defensive sentiment could serve as a basis for a broader social-democratic plan.

What is needed is a political vision that links this support for public services and welfare with a broader agenda that might allow labor to shape industry itself, transforming both work and preserving our environment.

We need a plan to give workers the power to finally assert themselves over capital. The first step is rebuilding highly eroded collective bargaining structures, so that workers can win distribution battles beyond the enterprise level. But it is crucial that these distribution battles translate into real power over investment and the jobs on offer.

We need to expand the types of conditions covered by collective agreements, in order to lift workers’ knowledge and to enhance their control over the day-to-day functioning of workplaces. The creation of a new education and training system (paired with free lifelong education) will be essential. This could allow workers to stand strong and proud, preparing them to understand “the big picture” through the lens of their lives, so that they may assert themselves within it.

What use is a “fair go” at an unfair game? We need to set the rules of the game. To be really emancipatory, our labor movement needs to know where we’ve come from — and most importantly, how this past restricts our future.

To create our own jobs and a new economy in our own name, Australian workers need to understand that work (our productive activity) is distinct from wage labor (work we do that is economically valued by a boss). Through organization, our work can be harnessed in whichever way that we collectively decide. We can make our own future.

In fact, the political and economic moment we are in demands that we rise to this challenge. The task of Australian socialists should be to arm the workers’ movement with the ideas and politics that can increase our control over all aspects of our lives.

As the old union saying (and classic rock tune) says, “We built this city!” If we can push our movement beyond wages and towards the transformation of work itself, then tomorrow we will be able to say, “We built this world!”