Memes won't save Australia's unions
Memes won't save Australia's unions)

The Australian Council of Trade Unions under the leadership of Secretary Sally McManus has been marked by ever increasing class collaboration in the union movement, particularly during the pandemic.

 Rank-and-file teachers were forced to fight not only the government but their own union to enforce key safety measures at work. We heard barely a peep from health unions as their members on the front lines were forced to work with inadequate PPE. Union leaders lifted barely a finger anywhere to fight for migrant workers thrown onto the scrap heap and forced to line up in the streets for food vouchers. 

The now disgraced leadership of the tertiary education union was defeated by their own rank-and-file as they attempted to do deals with university bosses to reduce workers’ pay and conditions. The United Workers Union and the Australian Services Union, with the backing and support of the ACTU, joined with employer bodies to reduce the award conditions in hospitality and administration. 

That then Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter referred to Sally McManus as his “BFF” last March gives you a pretty clear indication of what McManus and the ACTU represent to the ruling class.

For public purposes, the friendship with the government is now on ice. The Australian Unions Facebook page, run by the ACTU, has meme after meme criticising the Liberal National government.

This page should be an inspiring catalogue of the might of the organised working class, of our glorious movement leading workers against bosses. Instead it’s just lame, disingenuous trash, with heady statements like “united we bargain”—oh boy, let the ruling class tremble.

The resources the union movement wastes on social media work got me reflecting on the fairly modest things I’ve been able to achieve alongside my workmates in the rail industry and how we achieved them.

Things like getting maternity uniforms and sanitary bins into male-dominated workspaces, winning improvements to health and safety on the job, securing paid pandemic leave, preventing unfair sackings and winning pay rises, among other things.

What was involved in achieving these victories? Conversations, workplace meetings, petitions, marching through the streets, unsanctioned stop-works, picket lines, blockades, occupations of the bosses’ offices, forcing CEOs and senior management to face tens of angry workers and, crucially, strikes

What has never been important to any of these wins? Memes on the internet.

Sure, most of us in activist circles use them. Sometimes they’re a hit. But a strategy centred on them is never going to revive the union movement—especially when designed by the same geniuses who’ve presided over the movement’s decline for decades. 

When I looked up “Upcoming events” on the ACTU website, two of the three listed were for social media training. Never mind training for rank-and-file workers on how to map a workplace, how to organise, how to recruit to the union and build power. Nah, just teach officials how to write a snappy tweet. 

One fact that the Australian Unions Facebook page has been pointing to lately is the decline in wages growth, which it attributes to the last eight years of federal Liberal governments. And it’s one of the rare instances of the ACTU acknowledging the link between a lack of industrial action and low wage growth. 

It’s true that the Liberals are overseeing anti-strike laws. But the ACTU ignores a few important facts. First is that federal Labor governments also presided over anti-worker and anti-strike laws. Second is that, when unions do have the legal right to take industrial action, they mostly avoid doing so, instead opting for class collaborationist approaches to negotiations. Third is that most rights that workers have won throughout history came on the back of illegal industrial action under both Labor and Liberal governments. 

 Our unions are in crisis; fewer than 15 percent of Australian workers are members; wages have stagnated and are projected to decline in real terms over the coming year; insecure work is increasing; and there are constant wage theft and rorting scandals.

Yet all the ACTU gives us is memes, exhortations to call politicians, and photo-ops of union leaders standing outside of workplaces. It’s bad news.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The revival of the union movement will happen inside the workplace. Sometimes it will happen one conversation at a time, sometimes it will happen with a bunch of politicised workers taking an initiative. Sometimes it will happen in a seismic shift—as long as we aren’t drowned in McManus memes in the meantime. 

Every union revival has relied on something of a militant minority: a small but growing layer within the union movement that pushes to get organised, to build strength on the ground and, of course, uses that organising to strike—the only way we force serious concessions from the bosses and build confidence in our own side. 

Radical politics has been crucial to every union revival, from the syndicalists of the early twentieth century, the communists of the 1930s, who organised in situations long thought impossible, or the broad-based radicalism attached to the anti-war movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

This approach isn’t the easiest, and it can’t be done by hiring a few graphic designers and communications directors. But it’s the only thing that works. Instead of memes and bullshit artistry from the likes of McManus, we need to rebuild fighting, rank-and-file unionism. And we need to build a socialist movement to do so.


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