Solidarity is still the issue

August 17, 2012

What is solidarity? It is a term used frequently on the left, and one that demands attention. Solidarity refers to an act or expression of mutual support among a group of people. However, capitalism can narrow the parameters of solidarity and weaken its collective power to acts of individualism.

Capitalism is the dominant economic and ideological system today. The constant drive by big corporations for ever-increasing profits leads to a constant pressure on workers’ wages and conditions. In the pursuit of profits, many capitalist have used subcontracting and the offshoring of jobs to help undermine workers’ wages.

Meanwhile, capitalism breaks people down to individual consumers, rather than members of a community. This can lead to attempts at solidarity that are confined to consumption choices, such as buying “Australian made” or “Fair Trade” products. Alone, these strategies are based on individual choices and do not build networks or links within the community. Solidarity is more than this.

When Coles supermarkets recently tried to undercut the wages and conditions in its warehouse in Somerton, Melbourne, action was required to protect the workers. A sense of solidarity was aroused, and people got organised.

Union activists joined their workmates to the National Union of Workers (NUW), increasing membership to 90% at the site. When the time came to negotiate the enterprise bargaining agreement, workers stood together in solidarity. They demanded that their work be respected, insisting they receive basic industry standards, such as the right to secure employment, public holidays and penalty rates for working unsocial hours.

Achieving these demands was not a matter of individual workers negotiating with the boss for better conditions. Despite trends toward individual contracts and casualisation, the workers understood the need to stand together as a collective and fight together to win rights for all.

As Coles refused responsibility for the site, and subcontractor Toll refused to negotiate in good faith with the NUW, strike action was needed to win better conditions. This decision was arrived at collectively, with a secret ballot vote and mass meetings of workers overwhelmingly resolving to pursue strike actions for their rights.

While the workers stood strong on their picket line, community solidarity actions spread across the country. Other unions and community members donated money to the strike fund to cover lost wages. Many unionists also organised to attend the picket line to support the workers on site.

Workers and community members also organised protest actions at Coles stores across the country.

These actions publicised the dispute, sparking a wider discussion about the corporate giant and its treatment of workers. Many people decided to boycott Coles stores in protest.

The campaign of solidarity brought results. The economic pressure exerted by the strike and boycotts combined with the political pressure on the Coles “brand” due to the growing community campaign. Within two weeks Coles and Toll came to an agreement with the workers, who won their core demands. Wage rises, rostered days off and shift allowances were secured. The NUW also won the right to represent workers on site.

The workers’ strike and the community actions were an exercise in solidarity. Victory for the workers did not develop from a series of individual moral choices, but from a process of building support across the community.

When workplace conditions are undermined in one place, this can undermine workplace standards elsewhere. It is in our interest to act in solidarity with all people in their struggles, even if we are not directly affected.

Resistance recognises the importance of acts of solidarity and seeks to play a genuine role in supporting workers’ struggles. No Resistance members worked at the Somerton warehouse, but in Melbourne our members to attended the picket line and raised money to support the strike.

In other states and cities we helped organise solidarity protest actions at Coles supermarkets, including one at the Resistance national conference in Adelaide.

Building links of solidarity are important for the movement of working people as a whole. When workers mobilise to support each other, they strengthen each other’s struggles and generalise the experience of solidarity. This is a powerful process for a generation of young people entering the workforce today — especially because there are too few examples of inspiring and successful community actions.

When people take part in collective action, they gain the experience and confidence to stand up against injustices in their own lives and communities. Resistance has this understanding of solidarity and does its best to support all campaigns where it can.

Solidarity is like a muscle. The more the exploited and oppressed people in society exercise solidarity, the stronger it becomes. And the more ordinary people bind together and support each other and their rights, the better they can challenge injustice in all its forms.

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