Organise and fight to resist the ‘new normal’

University of Sydney 2018. Photo: NTEU / Facebook

Australia is in the middle of a trio of crises: the COVID-19 pandemic; the economic stagnation that the pandemic has brought to a head in a sharp recession; and, with “business as usual” upended, a social crisis.

The ruling class and its political allies are trying to respond in ways that maintain their order and serve their interests.

But how things turn out will depend on the balance of forces — in other words, on the capacity of working people to create a different life to corporate Australia’s version of the “new normal”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s May 26 National Press Club “JobMaker” speech signalled that his government would abandon its union-busting Ensuring Integrity Bill (EI Bill) and start talks on workplace and industrial relations with business and union representatives in five “working groups”.

For many, the announcement of tripartite discussions evoked memories of the Bob Hawke-Paul Keating Labor government’s Accords with the trade unions and business of the 1980s and ’90s: this, then, would be Accord version 2.0.

“Cooperative solutions to specific problems” were what Morrison said the working groups should produce. The way he and industrial relations minister Christian Porter have identified the problems and solutions, however, exposes the government’s pro-employer agenda.

The five working groups are to address “award simplification”, “get[ting] back to the basics” in enterprise bargaining, the recent court decisions extending leave conditions to casualised workers, wage theft and so-called “greenfields” agreements that set wages and conditions for the life of new large-scale projects before workers have been employed and work has started.

All of these would aim for increased marketisation of the labour force, through either reducing workers’ protections or making rights belong to individuals rather than collective workers’ organisations.

The legal penalties on offer for “serious” wage theft rely on government agencies to criminalise employers. This comes as some unions are now organising to recover and stop underpayments.

Porter seems willing to consider some sort of provision to convert long-term casuals to continuing employment, but the government also wants to redefine casual employment so that casually-employed workers are not eligible for leave.

The idea that all ongoing work should involve continuing employment will remain unfulfilled, unless the union movement fights for it.

The talk about award simplification and “basic” enterprise bargaining suggests the bosses and the government want to reduce again the matters that workers can campaign and negotiate for.

Employers complain awards and enterprise agreements are “too long” and “too complex” because they want to have broader powers to determine the conditions of working life.

Greenfields agreements advantage employers because a project’s employment agreement is worked out for all time, without workers being involved in negotiations and therefore unable to take industrial action.

Morrison spelt out his view that workers should see themselves as dependent on their bosses. He responded to a question about the government’s workplace agenda at his Press Club address with “no business no job”. He said the “sharing of benefits” to workers would be in return for their commitment to the “success of the enterprise”.

In the current context, do workers have only two options: struggle to survive in the face of anti-union attacks, or accept concessions and abandon any broader agenda, such as tackling inequality, health and safety or a plan for climate action?

No.

Workers can try to organise in much greater numbers and much greater depth. We should try to shift the balance of forces in our favour.

Workplace organising

As we organise, we will also need to fight attacks. This is not because we will always win — there will be defeats — but to be crystal clear about our longer-term objectives.

Capitalist economic activity was already sliding into decline before COVID-19. Yet the government could not pass its Ensuring Integrity Bill to offer the bosses a union-busting road out.

Switching scenarios so that union representatives also get to sit in comfy chairs during negotiations doesn’t change the fundamental power structures in favour of workers, however.

At the start of the 1980s, under the Malcolm Fraser Coalition government, the metalworkers and other unions campaigned for and won a shorter working week of 38 hours. However, because workers had not won their original claim for a 35-hour week and unemployment had risen, many in the union movement concluded that a social contract-style arrangement with an incoming Labor government might be a better approach.

As the Accord progressed, more direct collaboration with employers, ultimately through productivity-based enterprise bargaining, became central.

This discarded a key element for success in workplace organising. Union members were excluded from much of the process, such as the development of strategy, and were at best expected to “turn out” for collective action.

There was opposition in the unions to the Accord. But it never managed to unite to maximise its influence.

Instead, the radicals and the shop steward committees were isolated, the rebel Builders Labourers Federation was smashed, and the leadership of the militant Victorian nurses union was driven out.

Finally, the airline pilots, whose association had never been involved in deciding on the Accord, but were subject to it, were rounded on when they tried to reverse their loss in income: Hawke brought in the air force to break their strike and many lost their jobs during the industrial dispute in 1989–90.

Accord version 1.0 brought on the disappearance of much of the organising in the union movement. Union density and power declined massively, especially in the 1990s. The working day for full-time employees got longer, casualisation and underemployment in the workforce multiplied, and wages for most workers — other than the very best off — effectively stagnated.

Ever since, organising in the union movement has recovered only in fits and starts.

To their credit, the newly-elected national leadership group in my union, the National Tertiary Education Union, last year ramped up discussion in the union around “deep organising”, which focuses on developing stronger links among workers and worker power through their capacity for majority action. Some branches started to implement this in a thorough way.

But this was subsumed in the union’s response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on university enrollments. Union negotiations with vice chancellors to canvass a range of responses, including concessions, started at the top, before the membership had been informed.

When the negotiation results were made public in increasing detail, opposition started to grow at an accelerating rate.

Union committees

New activist voices, such as those on Sydney University NTEU’s Branch Committee called for a different response: “We need committees of unionists in every work unit … determined to identify and contest each and every cut to staffing budgets … to support one another to hold firm on enforceable workload restrictions and limitations on redundancies … and [to] build our union in the process”.

Within hours of Morrison’s Press Club speech, ACTU secretary Sally McManus agreed to accept the invitation to participate in the government’s working groups.

McManus has rightly asked if this process would improve job security and reverse the growth of inequality in Australia, however, social power will ultimately decide the answers to these questions.

The Australian Council of Trade Union’s 8 Point Jobs Plan released in early June was replaced with its National Economic Reconstruction Plan on July 20.

How the ACTU’s plan feeds into or informs the discussions with government and business representatives on the “working groups” is not yet clear. Also unclear is how the ACTU and affiliated unions are intending to organise to fight for such an agenda.

Key to winning a plan for a jobs-led recovery is growing union power. But unions will fail to do so as long as they fail to direct their efforts to deep organising and developing the independent collective power of workers.

Those of us in the union movement who agree that this is what unions need to do must find a way to unite our efforts to orient the labour movement to organising.

[Jonathan Strauss is a long-time union activist and member of the Socialist Alliance. Casualised, Unemployed and Precarious University Workers are hosting a day-long workshop on August 15: see Organise your University Right Now. ]

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