2001 ASSLH Conference – Work Organisation Struggle in the century ahead

Keynote address

Jim Macken

The triple theme of the conference not only allows a review to be made of the industrial past—it, more importantly, allows a prediction to be made of the organisational needs and types of struggle to be experienced by worker collectives in the century ahead. The reason for this is that historically the various forms of work have called into being the systems of labour organisation suitable to them and they have also defined the boundaries of the industrial and political struggles facing the organisations. Trite! Yes, but worthy of recollection at this time as the forms of work are undergoing marked and rapid change. More importantly, the innate conservatism of unions in Australia is holding back the organisational changes necessary to mount effective struggles to maintain and improve the living standards of workers.

A defensive stance by unions seeking to retain hard-won award wages and working conditions has seen wages in decline, working conditions eroded, union membership in decline and worker morale at a low and declining ebb. The 19th century union slogan; “Not a penny off the pay—not a minute on the day” reflects badly on the significant decline in real wages, and the 10 hours per week of unpaid overtime often worked at the present time.

How did it happen? The lessons of history are instructive in this regard and they have much more to do with philosophy than they do with economics.

The 19th century saw Australia as an agricultural nation. Work was performed by a worker often in a variety of industries and at a variety of times. The shed hand was also a fruit picker, a boundary rider, a fencer, a wharf labourer, a stockman etc. Such work led to the organisation of the AWU and the AMA so that one union ticket carried a worker throughout the year to all the various jobs he or she might have. Where a permanent workforce was concentrated in an industry…so unions developed to cover those workers. This happened in the maritime industry, stone masons, timber getters and the like.

As we being a new century we should recall that as unions entered the 20th century they were facing severe economic downturns as well as employers who simply refused to honour agreements made during the good times. The unions successfully sought to defend future gains and avoid losses through strikes by pressing for an arbitration system to achieve these goals. Over the first 50 years a web of awards with steadily improving levels of wages and working conditions came to characterise the industrial scene. Industries became stable, the workforce in each industry stabilised and unions accepted a role, defined by both courts and governments, as custodians of the living standards of the workers in the industries in connection with which they were registered. There were obvious dangers in this regulatory framework but the advantages were too good to be thrown away. Besides, no union could safely move outside the system without risking loss of coverage of its own members. Some tried to do so and provided a stark warning to the rest of the union movement not to follow suit. The FEDFA in the steel industry being one example. The pilots dispute under the Hawke government provided another. The union movement had become a contented prisoner of the system which was once thought to be merely one of its defences.

All this is prefatory to a consideration of the industrial disaster which befell the Australian union movement with the global cultural and structural changes beginning in the late 1960s. Volumes could be written about this historic phenomenon (Toynbee wrote his most famous study about such convulsions). Suffice to say that being structural in its essence nothing in the social, political, industrial or commercial world remained unaffected. Fernand Braudel made the oft-quoted comment that historians want to laugh when politicians expect to come out of the crisis of global change quickly…because being a crisis of structures society will never be the same again. Employers were quick to see their opportunity and move to strike down the union movements both here and overseas. In Australia the unions could not fight back effectively because we were imprisoned in the structures of the arbitration system, the Accord…and our innate conservatism.

Work…organisation…struggle! We know that work begets the organisation appropriate to the carrying on of the struggle. So, first let’s look at what happened to work as the result of the continuing cultural revolution. Technological advances began to change the focused skills of the past and led to the need for multi-skilling among workers in most industries. Union structures based on single trade skills immediately came under strain. Real and imagined economic pressures led to wages being based on productivity rather than on the exercise of skills. This led to the aggregation of wages based on industry and factory productivity rather than personal skill. In the eyes of many workers this made their unions less relevant and their personal skills of lesser importance.

The federal Labor government negotiated a series of wage deals with the ACTU, the various “Accords”. Some of these wage deals were applied to superannuation rather than to pay packets. Workers could no longer see the need to join unions as their wages were not negotiated by their unions. Furthermore, each Accord deal resulted from a trade off of hard-won working conditions. I say with respect to those involved it was an easily foreseeable mistake. The price paid to maintain the Labor government was far too high if for no reason than the government was hard at work deregulating industry and privatising concerns such as the Commonwealth bank and Qantas. The “No Extra Claims” requirement added salt to the wound. The most pertinent comment on the effect that the series of Accords had on the union movement came from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). The union’s national conference condemned the Accord, criticising it for having cost the union movement many tens of thousands of members and its general morale. Furthermore, in an aptly-named publication, Unions 2001, the Evatt Foundation noted:

The big issue of the 1980s—the Accord—union restructuring and industry superannuation—were very much top-down unionism with conception, negotiation and delivery undertaken without involvement and often without the understanding of the membership.

Even under Labor the government began to move away from a collective award system of wages regulation and initiated many of the changes toward personal and employment-based agreements. Many workers felt that, just as the boot moved to the employers foot, their unions were going along with changes that disadvantaged them and made the unions less and less relevant to their working lives. The forced amalgamation of unions had its effect of diminishing craft-based worker pride and morale. It was bad enough for workers to see that their employers were treating them as mere “things”…a mere resource of industry, but when they saw their unions doing the same thing by treating them as numbers to be shoved into any union Bill Kelty and others chose…they voted against the whole deal in the only way that they could…they voted with their feet. In this climate the employers took the opportunity to further weaken the unions and destabilise their organisation by outsourcing the performance of work itself. This further dehumanised the performance of work. Workers could see that they were in truth only a resource of industry…albeit a “human resource”.

The union movement reacted by changing its organisational structures to meet the threat as, indeed, it should have. However, by adopting a policy of virtually forced amalgamations of unions…it circled the wagons; adopting a defensive policy toward the employers attacks. With respect to the thinking of that time I submit that this has proved to be the very opposite to the policy that should have been adopted. Workers no longer associated their skills with their union. In most industries the amalgamated unions lost the support and the membership of workers. In some unions this was both vocal and divisive. The exceptions, such as the CFMEU, handled this policy in a different manner to most of the other unions.

It should not be forgotten that the fundamental premise on which the performance of work was based for over 250 years was the doing of a job for a boss, for wages, pursuant to a contract of employment. This fundamental premise therefore governed the organisation of the union movement and also the structure of state and federal arbitral tribunals. The growth of vicarious employment under employer sponsorship has all but abolished this fundamental element and left the union movement fighting non-existent employers on an imaginary battleground…with fictitious weapons.

Work…Organisation…struggle. Work having changed—union organisation must change to meet the new exigencies and carry on the struggle. If I may be permitted to borrow a Leninism:

What is to be done?

If union organisation is to follow the prevailing systems of work, then both craft and industrial unionism as the basis of organisation must be abandoned. The worker allegedly employed by a labour hire company may be sent to perform his or her work at 5 different locations covered by 5 different unions on 5 different days. What can a union do for such a person? Hundreds of thousands of Australian workers who may wish to belong to a union, and who are usually in dire need of union protection, are excluded from the union movement by an artificial concept such as vicarious employment with its consequential mobility.

For such workers the answers would seem only to be found in Jennie George’s suggestion of a universal OK card. This concept would allow workers of every classification and with every legal status (employee, bailee, contractor, agent, tenant, partner etc.) to join the trade union movement, rather than a particular union. Such status would only be valid during the employment of such a worker as an itinerant. When he or she became full time in an occupation covered by a registered union with defined coverage the card would go into suspense and union dues would be payable to the union covering the calling. Such a card would require the union movement to recognise the right of a worker to work as a unionist in good standing in any industry and the fees paid for the card would go to the ACTU or Labor Council and thus lead to lower or zero capitation fees from the affiliated unions. Refinement would be infinite and easy to arrange.

Where work is trade-based, but not employer-based, a different approach to organisation would be necessary. This is increasingly a problem for unions today. It takes two forms. One form is the type of strategy used by Patricks in the MUA dispute. While workers are plainly doing the work for a firm like Patricks, they are ostensibly employed by a wholly-owned subsidiary which has no assets and is dependent for the wages of the workers on payments from a parent company. There are legal answers available to unions to this ploy and the outcome of the Patrick’s dispute may well have discouraged employers from using this tactic to avoid their obligations. In any event some strengthening of statutory provisions deterring this tactic could be expected from a Labur government. 

Of greater concern is the arrangement by which companies use a labour hire company (sometimes wholly-owned by the company) to employ all the labour, save for a core managerial or technical group. As a matter of law in most cases this is a fictional arrangement and the true employer will remain the user of the labour. However, in doubtful cases some change to state law to make this perfectly clear would resolve the problem.

Control of the supply of labour has traditionally been one of the greatest strengths of the union movement. In the 50s and earlier, after the depression, the waterfront unions supplied the labour for the waterfront and non-unionism was an unheard of occurrence. the same would be true today if the provision of labour was a union responsibility. It is also achievable today. The example of the labour cooperative, started by the metal workers union in the 1980s in Newcastle, with state government support, shows how easy it is for a union-run employment agency to supply unionised workers to employers for full award wages and entitlement and at a lower cost than the commercial agencies. If unions grouped to provide labour to their own industries along the same lines union membership would sky-rocket and wages and entitlements would once again be a realisable expectation for workers. Such union run employment cooperatives would only act for financial unionists and this would not seem to infringe a prohibition against compulsory unionism.

As a matter of policy the ACTU and the state labour councils should recognise the principle that “a worker…is a worker…is a worker.” Any such worker should be entitled as a matter of right to be considered to be eligible to be a unionist. A universal OK card is only one step that can be taken in recognition of this principle. It is just as important to recognise that there can be great diversity in worker collectives. Where there is a worker collective, whether part of a registered union or not, which is not in any way sponsored or supported by an employer…it ought to be recognised as part of the union movement and afforded rights of recognition by state and federal peak councils. I understand that it was just such an apparent fragmentation of the Italian union movement that led to union membership rising markedly in the 70s and 80s.

If workers want to form themselves into a collective that is outside the mainstream of the union movement, why should they not have that right? For the most part this will be because the mainstream of unionism cannot cater for their industrial interests for some reason, legal or otherwise. History teaches us that sooner or later they will coalesce into the body of unionism. Where unions are based on a profession or craft, of course, the present structures have proved themselves adequate as organisational models; at least for the time being. Unions like the nurses, the teachers and the shop assistants have achieved membership increases despite the pressures directed against them. Unions such as the CFMEU have likewise done the same. I believe that this is because the union is organised more as a peak council than a traditional union. The Mining Division, the Construction Division etc. are all allowed a large measure of autonomy in their industrial decision-making. The creation of the CFMEU has brought together the strength of all the amalgamated unions without suffering the resentment of the rank and file at losing their identity in the industry.

So much for Work…and Organisation! What about the purpose of these two means…that of Struggle. It is trite to observe that the purpose of working class struggle will differ from age to age. The eight hour day is not the focus of struggle in the year 2001…although in some industries perhaps it should be. The struggles of the 19th century and early 20th century centred around attempts by workers through their organisations to lift living standards and have their organisations recognised. The great maritime strike reflected the latter…while the slogan “Not a penny off the pay…not a minute on the day” reflected the former. I can remember appearing in cases in which employers argued for the privilege of working their employees overtime. “Overtime may be permitted…” the Act once said. It was illegal to work an employee overtime without the approval of the Court or as the limits of an award allowed. It could never be unreasonable. This was to preserve employment opportunities as much as anything else. Leisure after work was looked on in those days as very much in the interests of the family and of the public interest. We can note with interest the experiment in France in which the reduction in working hours has led directly to a reduction in unemployment.

It is necessary to critically examine the purpose of workers struggle in the year 2001 and also the means by which the worker collectives of this age hope to achieve these purposes. Seemingly, the need to maintain the struggle to better living standards, basically, by seeking higher remuneration for fewer hours of work, will remain at the heart of any struggle. At least this will remain so while ever the definition of work remains unchanged. But this having been said, it is plain already that the years ahead will require a number of other focuses of struggle of at least equal importance. I concede that we might all have different priorities when we consider what should be the focus of struggle at the present time and for the time ahead. They would include reduced hours of work, higher pay, greater autonomy at work, earlier retirement, job sharing, more innovative salary packages…the list is endless as our individual circumstances differ at different times in our working lives.

Some instances during the Patrick’s dispute convinced me that from a collective viewpoint there is one overriding purpose of struggle. I see the great philosophic divide of this period in history as managerial economism versus true humanism. In this contest the various collectives of workers (whether traditional or otherwise) should be single minded in their opposition to managerial economism and in support of the dignity and personal rights of each worker. As capitalism evolved into economism and as the ruling capitalist class evolved into a new and ruling managerial class, the nature of industrial struggle underwent a profound change…one that is largely unrecognised by the trade union movement and by political labour. “Economism” is the philosophy which is characterised by its insistence that the value of a man or woman is measured solely by his or contribution to the productivity of the corporation or the economy. It is “managerial” because the levers of power are now in the hands of managers rather than owners of industry. 

The effect of these changes on work are enormous. Permanent employment has gone, casualisation is the order of the day, security in one’s own job is gone, (now one has to apply for one’s own job each year). Direct employment is giving way to vicarious employment…the list goes on as the changes also go on. It is the nature of this new type of enemy that ought to be provoking the union movement into rethinking its organisational structures. It is also this new style of opponent that ought to be the focus of struggle in the years ahead.

There are two aspects of union and labour struggle in the foreseeable future deserving of comment. They are not alone, but they are paramount. One is philosophic and the other is practical. The philosophic dimension of future struggles is by far the most important. If one word could summon up a vision of its dimensions it would be “solidarity”…the Polish Solidarnosc. It involves “solidarity” in its very broadest sense; far beyond mere union unity and mutual support. In its breadth it is a very hard concept to define. Jennie George came closest when she described the emotional commitment of union and political labour society during the Patrick’s dispute as being a restoration of “family”. Gone were all differences, gone was factionalism and division; once again we had labour heroes to follow in Jennie George, John Coombs, Greg Combet and others. From one end of society to the other out came men and women of courage and commitment to line up without qualification or restraint with the MUA. Hazel Hawke perhaps represents this class of Australian best. The picket line at Darling Harbour was made up of nurses, teachers, clerks, stockbrokers, public servants, barristers, solicitors (even judges) with the occasional MUA member to stiffen the ranks of the amateurs. The very memory of those days makes one’s heart beat faster. When Jennie and John Coombs led the triumphant waterside workers back through the gates how many of those watching that moment did not have a tear in their eyes? That is what I mean by “solidarity” and that ought to be the end result of a reorganised and revitalised union movement.

The Patricks dispute did not stand alone in this regard. The Hunter Valley No:1 dispute represented the same spirit in the mining industry as Patricks did in the maritime industry. The same highly emotional commitment to the miners struggle against Rio Tinto at that mine was brought to the fore when the Newcastle Knights won the League Grand Final and on returning to Newcastle the first port of call was to the picket line at the mine where the Johns brothers stood in solidarity with their father, a striking miner. The father and the two sons represented the Hunter Valley community, both union and non-union, against the savagery of Rio Tinto and that company’s hatred of worker collectives. We can readily call to mind the other mining disputes which evidenced the same solidarity. Had the MUA been able to offer fraternal membership to supporting Australians on the day that the dispute on the wharves ended it would have become the largest union in the country overnight. There is alot that can be said for offering membership in the trade union movement to everyone in the nation who would like to join. Solidarnosc in Poland was not confined to the workers in Gdansk. It was a popular movement that overturned an unpopular government.

The practical aims of union and labour struggle in the years ahead would seem necessarily to include taking advantage of the one great weakness that managerial economism has. Its “soft underbelly” is the shareholdings of workers held in the industry superannuation funds. Each year these funds grow by millions of dollars. In the not distant future the workers will own trillions of dollars in equities. The thought that a significant proportion of Rio Tinto’s funds could be owned by industry funds without that company at least moderating its anti-union policies is nonsense. It would not be long before Directors from the industry funds will have to be appointed to the Boards of major corporations as other superannuation, roll-over funds and the like are represented. The impetus toward investment in ethical investment funds gathers pace each year. I cannot imagine anything more ethical to qualify to attract unions and worker money than corporations which have a good industrial policy and which respect workers for their humanity rather than their attribute as a mere resource for industry. There is a quiet battle being waged by Reith, Abbott and others on behalf of the Howard government. That is the battle to end industry funds and to take the Boards and trusteeships out of the hands of union officials and worker representatives. Their mentors in big business dictate that this is a battle which they have to win. They have no problem with workers having to place their savings at the direction of big businesses management funds, but they do not want workers to ever have any say in the direction of those investments nor the management policies of the companies in which the workers funds have been placed.

The processes of rapid technological change, job mobility, social dislocation and universal cynicism combine together to blunt the effectiveness of worker collectives. They also make much more difficult the focus of struggle. In some ways there are too many targets. “What is to be done?” remains the question to be answered. In practical terms the answers are plain to see.

The unionisation of the workforce requires broadening the base of union membership beyond the small and shrinking circle of registered unions. It involves the union movement recognising that every worker, whether employed or unemployed, whether casual or part-time, whether employed from home or from a work-place, whether working through an agency or directly, whether paid or not should be treated as a member of the working milieu and have the right to join and be active in a union. It involves every worker collective, that is not an employer front, being recognised as a legitimate part of the trade union movement and being embraced within the broad concept of “solidarity”. If that makes for hundreds of unions of great variety and strength, so be it. The unions should have the same right to organise the labour force as have the employers. The establishment of union owned and operated worker cooperatives or agencies as non-profit-making services to members will go far toward redressing the power balance between the labour movement and the employers. 

The careful monitoring of the investment portfolios of the industry investment funds to ensure that they are ethically and socially based will be of importance. Both concepts would include investing in environmentally sensitive companies as well as companies with humane industrial relations policies. Such organisational changes would go far toward arming the industrial workforce for the struggles in the years ahead. There would, however, remain on most important struggle to be won. That struggle is the struggle for the minds and hearts of the workers…it is the struggle to bring all worker-collectives into the “family” that inspired the nation during the Patricks dispute. It is the need to foster through struggle traditional feelings of loyalty, fraternal union and unselfish commitment to the cause of industrial labour. The American sociologist, Richard Sennet said: “Without ties of loyalty, authority and fraternity no society, nor any of its institutions, could long function. Emotional bonds, therefore, have political consequences.”

One should not underestimate the task facing the union movement in the years ahead. More than anything else the various elements in social collapse preoccupy workers to the exclusion of their own institutional needs. Workers families increasingly rely on two incomes to survive—and it is just survival. The children face their school years distracted by a pervading atmosphere of drugs, violence and domestic despair. The established institutions of society, churches, political parties, stable employment, and the like, offer little certainty into the future.

Despite all this there is much truth in the comment by Toynbee:

There is, however…a dialectic of disintegration as well as of growth, and the supreme crisis of social collapse, which proves to be an insuperable challenge to most, has also the power of evoking a supreme response in others. Those who neither acquiesce in the disintegration of their society nor seek to hold back the tide with artificial substitutes for creativity, but who have the vision and the spiritual courage to confront the challenge have it within themselves to participate in a greater act of creation than is witnessed in even the most vigorous stages of social growth.

In Australia’s history employer repression, duplicity and greed have usually promoted a surge in union militancy and stronger union organisation. On Norfolk Island in 1790 two convicts were flogged for asking for reduced hours of work…slowly conditions there improved. The set backs in the 1890s led to the arbitration system and the recognition of unions by the law and the courts. In the present climate the miners and the MUA struggles have inspired all unions to look to their powder.

There is beginning to be heard powerful voices challenging the orthodoxy of economic rationalism. People’s bank are springing up, protection of our manufacturing base is a strident metal trades demand, the sale of public assets is slowing, private consultancies are being found to be expensive failures, the list goes on. Public revulsion with extreme conservative governments is finding increasing reflection in political swings to Labor and the left. Even the high priests of casino capitalism like George Soros and Ricardo Simler have publicly condemned laissez faire ideology and the anti-union rhetoric of managerial economists.

It is only necessary for a revitalised union movement, inclusive of every element within the working class, recognising every worker collective as a valid part of it…to seize the moment. Solidarity with the marginalised members of society should come easily to such a trade union movement. There has been a traditional affinity with the Aboriginal community, with single parents, the unemployed, the retired…indeed all the people who have been dealt out of a good life by economic rationalism and managerial economism. Union members who are not pro-active on behalf of all such marginalised people will surely join their ranks. The union members prepared to commit themselves to such a struggle will see their organisations as effective means to an end rather than an end in themselves. They will see that while today may belong to the managers of the economy tomorrow will belong to the workers for whom the economy exists.