How to rebuild the power of working people
I can remember the exact moment I knew that the Rudd government’s resources super profits tax (RSPT) was dead, and that the labour movement in general and unionism in particular were in very serious trouble.
It was in 2010, and I was hurrying through Perth airport after some long-forgotten speaking engagement as ACTU assistant secretary. In the departure hall, at tables with posters predicting the end of the mining industry, attractive young women who might on other days have been recommending a glass of the sponsor’s product in a pub, were signing up Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) mine workers to petitions, lists and MP contact forms.
I was angry because I knew that union attempts over the years to do something as simple as rent a billboard had been rejected by airport operators as ‘too political’. But I was mostly angry about what it meant for the labour movement as a whole. It meant we were losing the only thing the movement can ever really have: people.
In the union movement we have a name for what was happening in that airport. We call it organising. Organising is systematic contact with a workforce with an aim to build collective power that enables workers to win. Except this time it was being used on the labour movement. And we appeared to be utterly powerless to stop it.
The organising model is similar in workplaces and political campaigns. In very simplistic terms, it’s about conversations that spark first anger (‘the RSPT will kill your job’), then hope (‘but together we can do something to stop it’) and finally action (‘here’s how to contact your MP’).
I spent the plane trip home feeling nauseous. The RSPT shows that unions have to change not just themselves but the way they deal with Labor. The moral descent and loss of power by unions has been dramatic. Many external factors have contributed, but there has been a collective failure of leadership. The next decade will determine if unions are to remain a meaningful part of Australia’s future. The decline of unions has hurt Labor as well. This is a situation for which I can’t but help feel partly responsible. For you see, as they say at the track, I have both breeding and form.
I’m a former union leader and committed believer in the Laborist model of a party with affiliated unions. I served nearly six years as a senior ACTU officer over the life of the last Labor government, and left after failing in a push to be secretary in 2015. I still work with more than half a dozen unions. I’m a member of two ALP-affiliated unions, one factionally left and one right. I served as a National Young Labor officer with current state and federal front benchers, and I’m a former president of the Victorian ALP’s deliciously Jacobin-sounding Public Office Selection Committee, the body of 100 that picks the Senate ticket and has a 50 per cent say in House of Representatives preselections.
I started as an official of the National Union of Workers in 1995, at the tail end of the Keating government and the last of the Accords between the ACTU and Labor (never the employers, whatever ahistorical commentary you might read) that set key elements of economic policy. The NUW is the old Federated Storemen and Packers Union, famous for petrol and grocery strikes. Although the union was a bastion of the Labor Right, it’s always been more industrially militant than almost all Left unions but with more smarts and pragmatism. It’s the union that gave the ACTU Bill Kelty and Simon Crean and more than a few others, including me.
As an official I have organised strikes that were ‘protected’, to use industrial law’s polite euphemism for legal, and not. Picketing that’s effective is always unlawful, so enough said. I’ve helped white- and blue-collar workers do go slows that crippled their boss while we still got paid, and been involved with secondary boycotts to support other workers in dispute. I am proud of all these things and I would do them again—if not necessarily in the same order or location. Workers exercising their collective power can get messy. Some issues can’t be fixed by law but only by collective muscle. Only people who don’t need to work with others to have power usually object.
I held down most kinds of important jobs the union movement has, from standing in a warehouse at six in the morning, to appearing before a Fair Work Commission Full Bench, to meeting privately with Labor prime ministers and serving on any number of boards and committees. I’m an inside outsider now, but retain an affection that comes with a lifetime connection. I’ve been offered a range of chances to take money, or other comforts, for attacking the movement and the workforce that gave me a career. But reverse-engineering the values and project of my adult life in my forties isn’t for me. I write this with sadness, but more importantly with hope. I retain a deep faith that the labour movement, and the union project in particular, must succeed because real people who rely on the movement, and the national interest, suffer when we get it wrong.
Like we did in the iron ore industry and the RSPT debacle. This story is in many ways emblematic of what needs to change about unions and their relationship to Labor. Iron ore, Australia’s largest export industry, had almost completely deunionised its blue-collar workforce in the 1990s, as the first industry to apply American union-busting techniques. Unions didn’t help themselves, fighting each other as much as they fought the bosses. Along the way, and in good measure because of this, Labor managed to lose the votes of many of the miners and their families as well. The collapse of federal Labor’s vote in Western Australia was one product of this.
The mining tax saw this failure in such a vital sector blow back on the movement with devastating effect. The RSPT would have been good for everybody except large shareholders in mining companies. Although a tax that gave greater benefits to the community and provided for a more steady, sustainable long-term level of growth and jobs would have been in the interests of the workers, none of this really featured in what happened.
The unions and Labor were unable to organise or even really speak to, much less claim to speak for, many of the mining workers in iron ore. While coal, another commodity covered by the tax, is still highly organised, mining workers in iron ore in particular spoke out for the interests of their employers and the overwhelmingly foreign shareholders. The industry smothered every available media platform with tens of millions in ads. Some had Hollywood production values, with actors in dazzling hi-vis work wear and worried looks. The low-rent ones showed members of the public being ‘whacked by the mining tax’. In these ads, which are still on YouTube, an invisible force king-hits a waiter, a nurse and a suburban family and sends them flying in slow-motion.
A corporation is not a miner. A miner, you might say, is a bloke with a shovel. This campaign turned the corporations into the miners and made the interests of mining corporations and the national interest synonymous. They won. Labor began a shambolic retreat from the policy, and Rudd was rolled. Gillard and Swan later effectively surrendered—the minerals resource rent tax they did enact was so modest as to be little more than face-saving. In polling the ACTU did a year or so later, people thought that the mining industry was almost 40 per cent of GDP. It’s more like 10 per cent.
‘Which side are you on?’ asks the old union song. Well the other side had capital, capital’s political party in the Liberals and the people. We had a textbook argument about tax incidence (the RSPT was intended to allow lower tax on other Australian businesses) and national ownership of natural resources. Few heard those arguments and fewer understood them. In retrospect, the prospects had never been good. The labour movement was totally unprepared for a fight with such a ruthless and powerful industry. All we had were fairly glib lines about ‘super’ profits or impenetrable wonkery about ‘improved resource rent charging’.
The policy process itself functioned poorly. Although Rudd established the Henry Tax Review early in his term, he included no clear Labor allies or social democratic thinkers about tax. There was no unionist in the room. There was, however, a representative of the business lobby. This shows Labor’s, or at least Rudd’s, lack of confidence in its own ideology. There was at no point a serious discussion between Labor and the unions on what changes to the tax system might be implemented to promote full employment and equitable growth, and to gather sufficient revenue to fund services and welfare both efficiently and fairly.
In late April, just days before Henry’s report and the RSPT proposal were released and too late to influence the government’s view or to deal effectively with the consequences, a handful of senior colleagues and I were given a confidential briefing on the contents. Later that day a cabinet minister rang me about something else. He asked what I was up to. I told him I’d just been briefed on the report. ‘Good,’ he said ‘you can tell me what’s in it. Most of us have never seen the fucking thing.’ Labor failed the politics of policy, and without organised workers as ballast and a meaningful relationship about big policy in the national interest with the government, unions added nothing to the equation.
Now things are different in Perth and in Canberra. The big boom is over and the WA state budget is the worst fiscal mess in the nation. Mass layoffs have occurred and remaining iron ore FIFO workers have been asked to take a pay cut of one-third to keep their current hours or work one-third more hours to keep their pay—offered as take it or leave it. There aren’t really any unions. This is now the lot of the miners who answered the call to save ‘their’ industry. Anger, hope, action and all.
Rudd and Gillard are gone too, and not much lamented by the public despite the clown-car extremism of Abbott and what has turned out to be the very thin gruel of Turnbull’s techno-optimism. Rudd left little permanent legacy beyond the apology and avoiding a recession during the GFC. For the latter he gets almost no credit, since Australians didn’t experience the effects of a recession, growth sailed along and people wondered what all that spending was for. Gillard’s legacy was of much more substance but it has largely been repealed, or gutted, or pushed out beyond the meaningful political gravity of the budget’s forward estimates. Rudd–Gillard Labor’s signature workplace achievement, the Fair Work Act, which replaced Howard’s WorkChoices, has been under sustained attack from the Coalition, employer groups, the Productivity Commission and the Heydon royal commission on union corruption.
On 2 July the thoroughly predictable happened and Labor just failed to unseat a first-term government that had done its best to lose. It took a week or so to count the vote, but the result was not particularly close. Labor, with a primary vote stuck in the mid 30 per cent range, was always going to struggle to win a majority of seats. Over the last three years, the ACTU spent about as much money, or even more according to some sources, than it did on Your Rights at Work against Howard, to not much obvious effect. Public claims that the union campaign was more successful than in 2007 are absurd and to see senior figures talking in celebratory terms about a defeat is ridiculous. After an election campaign the Australian Electoral Commission runs a big opinion poll that tells you, definitively, who won. But having spent three years explicitly arguing that rebuilding unions required the removal of the Coalition, some leaders perhaps had little option. What comes next, given the result, is less clear.
The election hasn’t, and couldn’t, change the fundamental position of unions. As institutions, unions are in a state of profound crisis. Union membership and coverage are down to the level they were when the famous Harvester judgment created a minimum wage in 1907. Unions failed to rebuild under the last ALP government, and the latest statistics indicate that a steep decline has resumed. In the private sector, unionism, once a natural feature of the workplace order, is in single digits as a percentage of the workforce.
Traditional unionised blue-collar jobs continue to vanish, and unions have a demographic problem, with almost half of members over 45 years old. Strikes are statistically extinct, and employers don’t fear a monster from the history books. Unions are mainly visible about corruption or special deals. Or they appear to be active in politics, and always electoral politics, hardly ever about work and workers.
Unions have a problem with politics, a lack of ambition, a lack of focus on work, and with policy. People in the movement focus on, and spend workers’ money on, general issues of campaigning and electoral politics because it’s easier than talking about and doing real organising, and certainly easier than beginning fundamentally to transform unionism. The political campaigning involves advertising on a variety of platforms, social media and systematic voter contact by phone and face to face. It’s become the principal subject of discussion in the peak councils of the union movement over a number of years, to the effective exclusion of core industrial and organising issues.
This union preoccupation with electoral politics is bad for a number of reasons. Elections, as the American billionaire H.L. Hunt once said about money, are just a way of keeping score. Sadly, the lesson too many in the union movement took from the success of the Your Rights at Work campaign against Howard, was that politics consists only of the scoreboard. But for a social movement such as unionism the real game is elsewhere—it’s in what you do to build permanent organised power in workplaces and communities. Real social movements drive electoral politics, they don’t respond to it. Most politicians are followers, not leaders. Politicians don’t just want to stand next to powerful social movements, but have to if they want to win. The path to real influence for organised workers in politics is not in temporary electoral mechanics.
Second, union political activity is not just expensive, it’s also time bound and impermanent. There’s often little evidence that it’s useful. It’s an attempt to push some voters on the issues of the day just enough to vote in a particular way. All this work is temporal and evaporates on polling day. It builds nothing very real. Too often it’s assessed and reported by those responsible in a fundamentally misleading way. Inputs are measured methodically but scrupulous care is taken to ensure the outputs of all this colour and movement aren’t measured. These are just vanity metrics not a plausible attempt at calculating the efficacy of a campaign. Making half a million robocalls or your internet memes being seen by millions doesn’t mean they had any effect at all, or even if they did, that it was the one intended. You may just have annoyed a lot of people. Credit, however, is liberally taken. If a Coalition member is beaten and there was union campaign activity in the seat, the win is claimed, even though such seats are also inevitably on the ALP target list or benefiting from a broader swing. This is often a bit like floating in on a rising tide and claiming you’re the moon.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the narrow focus on politics permanently damages unionism in the minds of members and non-members alike. The union becomes not something about your work and your life, but an organisation that periodically tells you how to vote. Compounding this, the message is that it’s voting that is important, not joining a collective that has its own power. Of course, if you’re told the answer to your problems is the way you vote, and you vote as suggested but nothing changes, this has consequences for the messenger. There is much irony in unions deliberately positioning themselves in the public mind as a campaigning arm of the Labor Party they founded to do electoral politics on their behalf.
Finally, while much is sometimes made of how this political activity can alienate more conservative voters who might otherwise join unions, this is much less of a problem than what messages are sent to Greens. Much research shows that the group of people most instinctively sympathetic to union messages are younger women who lean to the Greens. Despite this, unions spend a significant amount of time and money effectively telling these people they are stupid and wrong to support the Greens. I am no fan at all of the Greens, but this has industrial and political consequences.
In March of this year, at the height of the parliamentary debate about changes to Senate voting arrangements, the unions spent a week making hundreds of thousands of robocalls to strong Greens areas attacking the party for its deal with the Liberals on the issue. This is a despite polls showing large majorities of Greens (and Labor for that matter) voters supported the changes. One of the areas heavily targeted was Brisbane’s south side. The next Saturday, the Greens got an unexpected 13.8 per cent swing to them on primary votes in the Gabba ward in local elections. In a boilover, they beat Labor and won their first ever seat on the Brisbane City Council, Australia’s biggest and most important local government authority. Nice work all around.
Unions have to learn, even if the Labor Party may take longer, that an irresistible electoral glacier will slowly push some red seats green, while the red vote goes up elsewhere (including in the outer suburbs, for example). Unionism has no real skin in that exchange.
There is no future for trade unionism if people experience it as internet memes and random-issue phone calling and door knocking about how every election is very likely the end of the world. At best this is palliative care for the union movement: it might make you more comfortable while you wait for the end or a miracle, but it’s no cure for the underlying disease. It’s not about rebuilding the power of working people. Each time there is an electoral fight of the sort we saw this year or in 2007, the unions emerge weaker and more vulnerable, whether Labor wins or loses.
Even when unions are talking about work, their stance tends to be defensive and backward-looking. It’s the collective as negation. A large branch of a major union has a banner that illustrates this perfectly. I’ll call them the ABU as it’s their representative status rather than their identity that matters. They have had this banner for years. It sums up an approach to things, and it’s all purpose. It’s large, loud and well worn. It says, simply, ‘The ABU says NO’.
Come join us, we’re against things, is the message. This closure, this cut, this privatisation. All commendable enough, but it is really an invitation to stand with other people going backwards. The union 2016 election campaign at least tried a bait and switch—the slogan was ‘Build a Better Future’ but the messages were relentlessly negative, defining the unions almost exclusively in opposition to policies of the Coalition. The ACTU-produced how-to-vote cards on election day had seven different negative messages, possibly a record for a form of communication where simplicity and clarity are essential.
The line on old banners that ‘the unity of labour is the hope of the world’ is not just more poetic, it’s intrinsically more hopeful and ambitious. I hold fast to the idea that organised workers on the move in their own interests can build amazing things. But it will not happen by accident or without determined leadership, and at present too many union leaders are focused on not losing. They lack vision about what workers might do, or about what can be achieved. For all the breathless commentary about union power, some leaders are scared to ask for much at all beyond survival. But losing slowly is still losing.
In the middle of the last election campaign I was asked, along with a couple of others, to develop a policy idea to allow Labor and the unions to seize the initiative again on penalty rates. This was in response to Labor being outflanked by the Greens and relying on the role of the ‘independent umpire’, the Fair Work Commission, a position that was barely distinguishable from the Coalition’s. The plan we devised involved, in small part, some workers getting an increase in weekend rates. Sadly, one genuinely smart leader said in response that there was ‘no way’ we could claim more than we already had. Our proposal died.
With mishandling penalty rates, the debacle over the Coles supermarket agreement reducing some penalty rates, and the absurd firefighters dispute in Victoria, Labor (and by extension the unions) could barely mention industrial relations, their strongest individual and collective hand. Industrial relations must be about workers doing better, about rising incomes and better jobs. And the labour movement somehow managed to have very little to say about this. Which left us opposing cuts, loving Medicare and being committed to funding someone called Gonski.
Outside the narrow mechanics of workplace law—and even there a damagingly narrow focus on institutions and not incomes and power for workers—there hasn’t really been a comprehensive dialogue on economic and social policy between unions and Labor in a generation. As well as the Henry Tax Review mentioned earlier, unions were excluded from Rudd’s Cooper Review of Superannuation, a humiliation for the organisations that had created that system only 20-odd years earlier.
I spent a long time wondering if this disconnect arose because the ALP wasn’t really interested in what unions had to say. More recently I’ve worried it was because the party didn’t think we had anything much to say on these questions. This is even more damning considering that the Parliamentary Labor Party’s policy bucket has not regularly overflowed.
I’m far too young to have been involved in these matters during the salad days of the Accords when, with half the country in a union and under centralised wage fixing, Bill Kelty and a relative handful of smart staff could help run the economy. Those days won’t return. The labour movement dismantled the machinery that this arrangement relied on and the industrial economy it dealt with is basically gone.
There was plenty of work between individual unions and the last Labor government on issues specifically related to small groups of members, but often this resembled a conventional industrial negotiation with an employer rather than a policy debate. These delivered important, but invariably temporary, gains for small groups of members that were swiftly undone by the Coalition when they returned to power. Often, as when then workplace relations minister Eric Abetz repealed an arrangement that ensured Parliament House cleaners were paid market not minimum rates, these were pathetic acts of revenge. It demonstrates to the labour movement that if all you have is an inside political game, then you can’t build something big or permanent.
Nothing demonstrates this more than the tragedy of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT). In common with many industries involving subcontracting, risk and cost over has shifted systematically from clients such as supermarkets to individual owner drivers. On an hourly basis pay rates are at poverty levels and unpaid waiting time is high. Drivers pay for the truck and all its operating costs, and often return from a delivery empty, earning nothing. Substantial evidence had built up that low rates of pay encouraged, or event required, dangerous hours behind the wheel if drivers were to make ends meet. The labour market in the industry was dysfunctional and dangerous—including to the public.
The Transport Workers Union ran a long-term and very successful campaign around safety, and the Gillard government established the RSRT to set binding rates for the industry. After a multi-year inquiry and hearings, the tribunal’s orders were due to take effect in mid 2016. This is when the trouble started. Head contractors, and middlemen who hire other owner drivers, began a scare campaign that no owner driver would get work—a fantasy given the scale of the industry and the freight-moving needs of the country. There were not thousands of company trucks sitting idle to pick up the slack. The critical fact was that while a decent number of them were union members, most of the owner drivers had not been organised by the TWU. This group, scared and confused, took the poison bait.
The lessons here relate to ambition and organising. Ambition in that one aim of the RSRT was to increase pay rates and rights, but this was deliberately obscured. The TWU had, years before, made a campaign decision to focus exclusively on safety, as if wanting higher pay wasn’t okay in itself. This was understandable, but once the Coalition promised to fix safety in some other largely unspecified way, they were left incredibly vulnerable.
It was like the iron ore miners but worse. Self-employed drivers descended on Canberra demanding the right to be paid less and have fewer rights. Turnbull obliged, the Senate eagerly complied and the TWU’s signature achievement, and a fantastic one for the industry, turned to dust in a couple of weeks. The chances of the RSRT being a ‘proof of concept’ for other industries in which contractors are severely exploited went with it. It’s worth repeating. People are all the labour movement can ever really have.
Labor almost got lucky in 2016 due to the incompetence of its opponents. In some ways the ALP program (particularly on tax issues such as negative gearing) was more ambitious than might have been expected of a first-term opposition. But overall the program was unambitious and uninspiring. Labor, like many of its sister parties around the world, is struggling to turn what remains of social democracy into a compelling electoral program. We are left with making the choices of government more fairly than conservatives or offering narrow statist solutions, and in general promising to follow along after capitalism and clean up some of the mess.
As other commentators have shown, the parallel decline of unions and social-democratic or labour parties across the developed world is driven by the same factors. The workplaces and communities in which we organised politically and industrially have disappeared underneath us. And just as the politicians left the voters behind in many ways, the union leaders left the workplace.
Every time unions fail to organise and to give workers the power to lift their own living standards, the burden on the state to pick up the slack with services and welfare increases. With every new non-unionised worker, policy settings that redistribute wealth become less politically viable. The world has changed much more than the labour movement has changed. The intellectually confident social democracy that routinely scored national majorities and would drive policy even from opposition has gone, and so too has the muscular workforce unionism that was its essential partner.
Unions have to transform to catch up with the world as it is. They can. I despair of the recent past but retain a sense of optimism and hope. They can transform, first by recovering a sense of purpose and the ambition that goes with it. Unions and unionism are a feat of imagination. Workers join them when they have hope that collective power can make a difference. People learn about hope and power from experiencing them. This means leaders must have ambition. In my experience workers don’t lack motivation if given confidence. Unions underestimate workers, who return the favour.
Second, unions can transform by returning to a focus on work and organising, but in transformative ways. Our workplace laws, and most union tactics, were designed for places such as car factories—large workplaces where people worked for decades. Conventional models of unionism still work well in places such as large public hospitals. But in much of the rest of the economy, in the world of casual work and the contracting chain, new models of what it means to be union and to bargain collectively must be worked out. In the United States, millions of workers in the fast food and retail sectors have won pay rises taking direct action that wasn’t about traditional unionism, in the fight for a $15 minimum wage. In low-wage work and elsewhere we must try these models in Australia. A key part of this will be using technology to organise workers not for politics but about their work. I’m no Luddite, but I think the tools and techniques that come from technology are being used for the wrong things. Digital organising has a huge future but it’s not the same thing as digital campaigning.
Third, unions need to recall that the most effective way to influence politics and win sustainable gains for workers is to build a social movement that is permanent and independent of the electoral calendar; and that the best way to carry the Labor Party, or any other party for that matter, is people moving in their own interests.
Fourth, they can transform by investing in ideas about how to deal with the larger trends that continue to reshape our economy. Not just about how to protect isolated islands of organised workers, but also how economics and social policy can bend in favour of the interests of working people generally. We must help Labor answer the questions about what it means to subordinate the market to democracy in the twenty-first century, or the party will drift further into a hollow sort of welfare liberalism. The right routinely makes intellectual investments. Unions, with a distinctly anti-intellectual history, tend not to.
Finally, while prescriptions about what unions need to do are common, it’s rarer to hear about what they should stop doing. Unions must restructure to match this agenda. A union official (or project) that doesn’t organise workers and/or contribute to a program that changes society in workers’ interests is surplus to requirements.
A month or so ago, moving into a new office, I found my permanent Parliament House visitor pass from 2013. These passes are the mark of the political insider, allowing you to wander the corridors. When Labor is in power, union leaders are regulars in the ministerial wing, the epicentre of Australian political power. It may be three more years until they are back there.
A focus on rebuilding the power of working people by transforming unionism to meet the challenges of the modern world is the surest way for union leaders get back there. It’s the only way to be there with genuine power. It’s also the most useful thing they can do for the ALP and the left generally. Organised workers are the only social movement that can support a strong left agenda and protect its achievements. One more Labor government by itself won’t change the fate of unionism. One more Labor government without unions that are successfully rebuilding may well be the last.
Perhaps the focus on the cargo cult of politics as the meme and the robocall will be seen for the dead end it is. A real future for unions, and the unity of labour that remains the hope of the world, depends on it.