The Unemployed Workers' Union — Australia's fastest growing union

An Australian Unemployed Workers' Union rally in Melbourne last July.

Retirement was only a few years away when Genevieve became so disillusioned and angry with her current circumstances that she joined a union; a most unexpected union.

The Australian Unemployed Workers' Union (AUWU) is one of a growing few in the Western world, with a membership base of 3500. As a laid-off public servant, Genevieve joined the thousands that chronicle our neoliberal times. Not since the 1930s have so many Australians been out of work. About 2 million people fall into the job status of unemployed, underemployed or precarious.

Coming from a “working poor” family, Genevieve climbed her way to a brighter future with two degrees and decades of dedicated public sector work. As a working mother, she led by example, paying off her HECS debt, taxes and managing to volunteer wherever time allowed.

“As a mother, I followed the rules, paid my way and contributed; I had a professional job with a high wage. But I am now stuck in a psychopathic system,” she says.

Such lived experience in the unemployment crisis was at the centre of the AUWU's 'Solving Our Unemployment Crisis' conference held in Melbourne on April 19. Warning that the crisis had become explosive were groups such as Fair for Pensioners, Anti-poverty Network, Council of Single Mothers, Centre for Full Employment, The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and grassroots groups.

They underscored that the real unemployment rate of 15—20% and shocking casualisation rate of 40%, means that half of Australians receive some form of Centrelink payment. Eight years after the global financial crisis, the unemployment figures have zoomed past 10 million people with the onset of digitisation, “uberisation” and automation hitting the previously immune middle class.

This is not a stand-alone crisis: there is a 20% youth unemployment rate and 40% underutilisation of labor rate. Instead of long queues for assistance as seen in the Great Depression, millions wait and hold their breath for the Centrelink assistance coin to fall in their favour or suffer job services fines, bullying or unpaid work for the dole.

A crisis often begets opportunities for change, and there was a palpable sense that a genuinely radical response might transpire, or at the very least a policy framework reset.

As British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and US Democratic Presidential nominee Bernie Sanders advisor, economist Bill Mitchel, explained: “People are really waking up to this here and elsewhere — this neoliberal psychopathic ideology”.

“We have a welfare system run by psychopaths. If 1.7 million [underemployed] people became a single force, it would take over the government or even extinguish the ALP.”

Mass mobilisation ideas, together with policy plans from participants and presenters were comprehensive. Fair welfare reforms tabled included: raise Centrelink payments to $520 a week: offer a living wage to all Australians; and abolish “work for the dole” and privately-owned employment services.

Full employment reforms outlined included: a Job Guarantee Program; full employment targets; job sharing; and a lower retirement age. Finding favour in the Corbyn camp and a resurgent global left, the Job Guarantee Program was historically effective in the period from 1940 to the 1970s when the unemployment rate was legislated in Australia as a full employment target.

“The government guarantee matched job creation with the private sector,” explained Mitchell, “allowing a surplus bank of jobs to be utilised”.

Mitchell believes the simple solution is to use legislation to again produce a 30-year average of 2% unemployment as seen in the post-war period. “Close down Centrelink,” he said, “change it to a Job Guarantee Office. Offer everyone a job and celebrate when the crisis is over. If industry complains about a shortage of workers, they can use their profits to employ people from the job guarantee.”

Industry and the federal government are doing the opposite across the country. The work for the dole program, especially in the NT, has replaced traditional job schemes and the work guarantee.

ACTU President Ged Kearney said: “Work for the dole is legislated slavery.” The ACTU seeks to prevent private companies using the Work for the Dole scheme and aims to legislate the minimum wage for any work.

“It is as bad as paying people on 457 visas $2 an hour at 7/11. Centrelink could well be in breach of the Fair Work Act,” she said.

Unions are now seeking to use the Fair Work Actto support unemployed workers stuck in work for the dole schemes. The ACTU advocates for the Fair Work Act to enshrine work sharing or a 35 hour week.

A long-time European program also aims to create a surplus of labour hours. Germany transitioned through many crises with sharing of hours and state-of-the-art job programs, says the ACTU.

Lowering the retirement age would equally drive the distribution of work hours as well as safeguarding older workers against workforce discrimination.

Opposition to these policy reforms — essentially retro policies — has in many ways been blueprinted for 30 years. Successive neoliberal governments and even minor parties long ago gave up on full employment, even though its aim is still in the legislation. Instead, the 30-year neoliberal agenda has favoured billion-dollar job networks, Work for the Dole, Centrelink and corporate subsidies. Australia's 19th largest industry is the unemployment sector.

Without a giant killer financial crisis or a political revolution, a government reset of the unemployment rate seems as improbable as that elusive Coalition government promise of a budget surplus.

ACOSS's Cassandra Goldie described a meeting where PM Malcolm Turnbull was presented with the lived experience of the underemployed. ACOSS requested the new PM raise the Newstart Allowance for the first time in 20 years. He replied: “Where is the money going to come from?”, and then dismissed well-known solutions such as cutting negative gearing, capital gains and superannuation tax concessions.

Against the backdrop of the reality of ideology, the unemployed and sick workers, ordinary Australians are seeking protection. Like Genevieve, they are “sick of being mistreated and bullied”.

“They will tell you themselves; I am too qualified and too old to be running around in circles at Centrelink,” said Goldie.

The AUWU says it is looking to sign up many thousands more like Genevieve by launching a detailed 40-page unemployment rights guide, which is much like the Your Rights at Work campaign.

The fact a 40-page unemployment rights book exists and 3500 workers have joined an unemployment union, says much about the crisis “the system” is accelerating.

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