It’s time for a union fightback
It’s time for a union fightback
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There are times when the inbuilt tensions of capitalist society—especially over who gets what share of the vast wealth created by the modern working class—come more into the open. Times when, for a variety of reasons, workers have an increased capacity or motivation to fight and to win. These are the times when our side can make a bit of history.

Right now is one of those times.

Rising inflation very often sharpens the class struggle, and it’s doing so now in Australia and many countries around the world. Workers have justifiably grumbled about wage stagnation when inflation is running at around 2 percent. Now we face the prospect of losing 10 percent or more of the value of our wages within a year or two, if our inflation curve follows Britain and the US, and if our wages continue to stagnate.

The surge in inflation, of course, comes on top of two pandemic years (and counting) of disruption, danger, ill health, insecurity and overwork across huge sections of the working class. The pandemic hasn’t always fed into workers organising and fighting. But COVID continues to stoke a bitterness that has the potential to flare into open resistance, especially when workers are offered the chance to challenge an insulting sub-inflation pay rise.

A tight labour market strengthens the hand of workers today. Major employers such as airports and airlines, having sacked workers early in the pandemic, are now scratching around for replacements as work picks up. There is a post-lockdown boom in several industries, while exhaustion and COVID disruption have driven many workers out of industries such as education and health care, leading to labour shortages. Nearly 50 percent of all businesses in Australia are reporting that finding workers is a “significant constraint” on their operations, according to a recent survey by the National Australia Bank.

So we face the danger of inflation wrecking living standards, a widespread and justified sense of grievance in the working class, and a labour market in which many bosses are screaming for labour. These are favourable conditions for workers taking strike action—not only to preserve real wages and conditions, but to reverse years of one-sided class war. It’s an important opportunity for unions to engage in open-ended strikes to preserve and win conditions, and in the process to rebuild a living tradition of workers exercising power where our power begins: in the workplace.

Around the world, we can see glimmers of the sort of fightback that’s possible. In Britain, an inflation rate of more than 10 percent has fuelled a series of industrial disputes—including the biggest rail strike in a generation, as 40,000 rail workers shut down national and city-wide rail networks to press for a pay rise and job security. In the US, there has been an uptick in union organising over the past year, Amazon, Apple and Starbucks being among the notoriously anti-union mega-corporations in which workers have overcome enormous obstacles to unionise.

In Australia, there has also been an uptick in strikes, with the public sector disputes in New South Wales being the most high-profile examples.

It’s important to have a sense of perspective though. The near-doubling of the number of industrial disputes in Australia in the year to March has brought strikes back to the (historically very low) levels immediately prior to the pandemic.

So if the conditions are favourable for a serious industrial fightback, why aren’t we seeing a series of explosive industrial struggles?

History doesn’t always move in straight lines. In particular, working-class struggle comes in waves. How far each wave gets isn’t just some straightforward function of the tides, or the times. The scale and intensity reached by a particular wave of struggle depend, crucially, on organised political forces.

How well organised are the forces trying to calm the waters entirely, or to direct them into calmer “proper” channels? And how sizeable and well organised are the forces trying to extend and intensify these struggles, to get the most substantial victories possible and to build class-struggle forces (both political and industrial) for the long-term fight?

In Australia, there are plenty of political forces vocal in opposing a wage rise of anywhere near inflation, let alone above it. They view better living standards for workers, and the strike action required to get them, as a challenge to ruling-class profits and power that should be diverted, damped down or smashed. “All wage rises will do”, we’re constantly told, “is fuel an inflationary spiral, making workers worse off in the end”.

This is partly bullshit, and partly class-war ideology. Today’s surge in inflation has been driven by “supply shocks”, as companies bid up the prices of energy, transport and other commodities and services after war and COVID dislocations hit supply lines around the world. Wage rises are workers trying to catch up to this inflationary reality—not instigating it.

Every company in the country is increasing prices, pointing to increased costs as a justification. But when workers attempt to do exactly the same thing by winning a wage rise to cover our increased costs, a predictable flock of commentators start bleating that this will destroy “the economy”. No matter what, it seems, there’s always a supposedly fixed economic “fact” to justify low wages.

Unfortunately, there are few people in leading positions in Australia’s trade union movement who are prepared to be forthright in countering this anti-worker propaganda and publicly championing above-inflation wage rises, let alone organising the sort of large-scale, determined strike action that would be needed to win them.

Typical in this regard is Australian Council of Trades Unions Secretary Sally McManus. McManus is happy enough to defend the idea that wages for the lowest paid should keep up with inflation. But challenged on the idea that the Fair Work Commission’s minimum wage decision might trigger a rush of wage demands, the head of Australia’s union movement went into retreat. Rather than endorse the idea of real, above-inflation wage rises across the entire workforce, McManus rushed to reassure anyone who would listen that this was never going to happen due to the dismantling of the wage-fixing system of the 1970s.

McManus’ capitulation—refusing to defend the idea that a surge in working-class living standards would be a good thing, rather than a problem—sums up where the leadership of Australia’s union movement is at.

So it’s galling, but no surprise, that within ten days of the supposed “union win” in the Fair Work Commission’s minimum wage case, the Australian Financial Review was able to celebrate “the week pay rise hopes fell to Earth” on behalf of Australia’s business elite. A few days after the FWC decision, the Reserve Bank governor declared pay rises above 3.5 percent problematic. Within hours, Labor ministers were nodding in furious agreement, and within days the peak trade union body was running for cover.

Sacrificing “for the good of the economy” has led us to overwork and exhaustion. Low wages and precarious work are endemic, and traditions of industrial action and active solidarity are at historic lows. Meanwhile, it’s hard to find a billionaire who hasn’t doubled their wealth in the past few years.

Our side’s reaction to the gaggle of pro-capitalist commentators preaching about the need for wage restraint “for the sake of the economy” should not be capitulation, or ducking and weaving, or declaring that real wage rises for the whole working class couldn’t or shouldn’t happen.

Our side’s response should be a forthright defence of the idea that workers deserve every cent we can win. This applies to the low paid, but it applies to every other worker as well.

Alma Torlakovic, an administration worker and leading militant and socialist at Sydney University, put it this way recently:

“We’re striking for decent pay and conditions. Our labour made [the university’s] $1.05 billion surplus; we should get a slice of that surplus. Not merely because we want to be able to afford fresh vegetables, or pay the electricity bill, but because we want nice things, too. In other words, we don’t just want crumbs—those previous pay rises that barely cover inflation. We want bread, but we want roses too, as the old union slogan goes. We need to strike early, and continue doing so until we win.”

Every worker deserves a pay rise because every worker deserves a decent life—and because every cent of the wealth was created by us in the first place. Historically, it’s often been gains won by better paid workers with industrial power that have inspired less well paid or less powerful groups of workers to take up the struggle themselves.

Our side has an important opportunity to shake up a dreary, decades-long history of defeat and retreat in the union movement, and to revive long-dormant traditions of collective struggle. The forces pushing to seize this opportunity might be small and scattered. But as shown by various articles in this edition of Red Flag, and far beyond, there’s plenty of flammable material to work with.

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