I’ve been arguing for a while that, after a long defensive struggle, the left/labour movement needs to start thinking about how to respond to the opportunities created by the intellectual collapse of the right and the economic failure of market liberalism. In a lot of areas, such as those of the welfare state, and community services, the defensive struggle was reasonably successful, and the question now is how best to move forward.
That’s not true of worker and union rights, where the left has lost much ground over the past few decades: drastic declines in union membership, a declining wage share, and the expansion of managerial power and managerialist ideology. On May Day, the traditional day of celebration of the trade union movement it’s natural to focus on the question of how best to push back against these forces, and where we should be going. I don’t have a lot of answers, but I’ll throw in a few points (not all that well worked out) and open up for discussion.
Among the recent successes of the worldwide labor movement, the ACTU’s “Your Rights at Work” campaign was one of the most notable, not so much for its concrete achievements (which included a significant contribution to the defeat of the Howard government, and the partial repeal of its anti-worker laws) but for the way it turned the debate around. It was entirely successful in posing a rights-based argument that workers do not (or should not) have to trade away their human rights for a job. The government’s “WorkChoices” rhetoric proved utterly unappealing to most Australians. And, while the Rudd government has disappointed in many respects, it not only scrapped the worst of WorkChoices (following some backdowns under pressure by Howard), but pushed forward with initiatives like parental leave.
It seems to me that this is the right way to go. The old-style politics of class (with the working class represented by male manual workers, gathered in large, naturally solidaristic workplaces) is no longer relevant to the great majority of Australian workers. That doesn’t mean that class has ceased to matter, but it does mean that workers experience class and power relationships more in terms of individual experience than as collective interactions between classes. So, in particular, unions need to be seen more as mutual aid associations that protect their individual members against exploitation and unfair treatment than as vehicles for the mobilisation of the working class. The kinds of legal changes sought to reverse the generally anti-union trend of past decades needs to reflect this orientation.
We also need to go beyond national perspectives in responding to a globalised economy. Big business has been globalised for decades, and labour has been slow to respond, but the Internet has evened things up to some extent. Organizations like LabourStart do a great job, but we need a lot more.
More May Day thoughts from Mark Bahnisch.
fn1. Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s opportunistic attempt to outbid the government will make it difficult for any future Liberal government to reverse this advance.