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.
We’ll need to bring a lot of industrial power to bear if we’re going to win the enterprise agreements we need. That means putting serious organising work into preparing for open-ended strikes.
Early twentieth century Hollywood moguls declared themselves to be the bosses of a “dream factory”. They were the heads of an industry in which fantasies were splashed in technicolour glory across the big screen viewed by millions. Much ink has been spilled over the ideological nature of these fantasies. Less has been written on the reality of life in the factory. When the curtain is ripped away, Oz-like, the truth is revealed: Hollywood, and the film and television industry more generally, are sites of class exploitation and, at times, working-class retaliation.
Under the cover of darkness, at midnight on 7 April 1998, balaclava-hooded thugs swarmed onto Australian docks, confronting workers with orders to “Get out! You don’t work here any more!”. Shocked Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) members, employees of Patrick Stevedores, were frogmarched off the job and replaced by non-union scabs protected by security guards with dogs and mace.
One of the biggest activist meetings in nearly half a decade was last week held at the University of Melbourne, as students gear up to support staff in the National Tertiary Education Union fighting for better wages and conditions.
Thousands of anti-war activists and trade unionists marched through Port Kembla in the NSW Illawarra region demanding peace not war on Saturday 6 May. The South Coast May Day Committee held its annual rally in Port Kembla to oppose any plans to house the AUKUS nuclear submarine base in the harbour just south of Wollongong. A nuclear submarine base would be a disaster for people in the area and represents another escalatory step towards a war with China.
Around 1,000 staff and supporters rallied at the University of Melbourne on 3 May in one of the largest strikes on any Australian university campus in many years.