May Day

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[1].

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.

155 thoughts on “May Day

  1. @ Alice,
    Not my union.

    Since Workchoices though a lot of employers are making it hard as that was the mindset at that time and it takes concerted effort by a lot of people to counter that.

    For example I am sure that those in the CFMEU who are facing draconian fines as a result of the Howard laws would be looking desperately to keep their family homes. That is what they are risking when they refuse to abide by the bullying Howard era laws that give them no rights to stay silent under questioning. Gillard and Rudd have given no help to overturn the undemocratic laws. I always wondered why the focus was on the supposed corruption of the employees in construction when it seems to have been an industry where some bosses, as in the Insulation and Building the Education Revolution, seem to have found rorting pays well.

    Nobody ever said that standing up to those in charge was easy. Unionism is one democratic mechanism which is losing out because can’t solve every worker’s problem and many are happy to take the benefits without any pain.

  2. @Jill Rush
    Too late for me to help Jill as far as the NTEU goes. Ive made an alternative choice. I walked away from the uni system (IIl keep my hand in one day a week just to turn up an d teach at hours that suit me) and Im much happier, less insecure and earning more. What else can I tell you or do to help? The union and the system doesnt help casual academics (even good ones like me..with lots of experience) so …basically its too bad. I have choices. We all do dont we?
    Im really not interested in the uni system as any sort of career now. I really like the work, and its interesting but its not the be all and end all – there is a world out there of opportunity.
    I dont blame people within who want to see change…but look to your own union and what it fights for (and in the process hobbles itself and loses gains for all).

    I could say whats wrong with unis till Im blue in the face but I really dont care…I dont think I could ever convey to you my own personal experinces across the board since 1992 of just how bad unis have become.

    Unis may learn when they impair their own processes and staff moral or reputation sufficiently. Im wont wait for them to change or treat their academic staff, their lifeblood, better.

    Best they appoint yet another administrator to see how they can cut costs on a downward reputation spiral.

  3. @Jill Rush
    Jill – I will say one thing …the term “fair weather casual ” in academia is acomplete misnomer…the weather can often be rather storny adnd volatile. Fortunately Ive always been really good ant juggling employers and balls (takes a certain finesse to say – Ill accept that causal position – thank you so much – and two weeks later – oh dear Im so sorry something unexpected has come up – Ill have to decline that position – but Ill help next semester if I can – bla bla bla – when in reality – Ive just been offered more money and better hours elsewhere by person b) and dont want to get person a) offside when they dont know about person b) or institution b).

    Give me a break – Im tired of juggling and not offending either person a) or b). They can both go jump. Thats what its about but in your book Im a “fair weather casual” Jill and in mine the weather is “too stormy at times and Im sick of dodging rocks and being nice and telling lies”!!

    Seriously…it would be funny if it wasnt so true. You wouldnt have a clue of the lies Ive told about where I work and who I give first preference too (most money). Im just over it.

    Id like tpo make an honest dollar and go to work without any haggling and lying!!!

  4. @ Alice It is not my union.

    What you describe is not unique to universities.

    What I am suggesting though is that when employers impose really harsh conditions then the only thing that counts is numbers, determination and no scab labour. That was what won the 8 hour day. Now it would appear that none of those three major conditions apply in the university system so therefore unions will be weak in that sector. They will never be in a winning position.

  5. @Jill Rush
    Jill – I agree

    But its the NTEU union that has to change. They need to gain more casuals as members. They need cheaper or nominal memerships. If they did and could guarantee the causals wouldnt be sacked, they could empty the classrooms of teachers in a strike and have some bargaining power (they are all casual) but the union is working for the administrators and the academic elite – but the administrators are doing much better.

    I saw a straggly union strike at MQ last year – most employees were walking into work despite pretty widespread district advertising for a few weeks before.

    Sign of a weak union or are all unions weak now? I trained as a nurse in an earlier life and worked on a construction site. The concrete pour was truly an amazing moment when every worker including me was ordered off site on a ten story building in construction whilst they held the company to ransom with ten plus trucks of wet concrete turning. I was impressed. They got what they wanted in an hour and in my opinion it wasnt excessive (hardly on the richter scale of CEO excesses).

    Does it take more effort from the NTEU union – yes – what do the NTEU do with your fees? Write papers?

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