WORK - IR
people face the toughest attack since our forebears put an end to
convictism. The latest bout of IR laws is not intended to contain
unions. Nor is the aim to smash just one group of militants. The
objective is to put an end to all forms of collective bargaining. Unions
might be tolerated as social clubs - providing they operate off-site.
Hence, this battle is
many times more important than the struggle against Penal Powers in the
1960s. We face far far worse than the de-registration of the BLF in 1974
and again in 1986. The 1998 attack on the Maritime Union was but a
tactical try-out for this strategic onslaught.
If we lose this battle,
we are back to 1834. In that year, agricultural labourers in Dorset -
the Tolpuddle Martyrs - were transported because they conspired to
resist a cut in their wages. Unions were then illegal. The IR attacks
render union activity illegal whenever it is likely to be effective.
Because the struggle is
crucial, we need to be clear about where the attack is coming from, and
why. For a successful fight-back, we must identify the sources of the
attack. Several misconceptions have to be swept away.
The attack is not
happening because Howard is a nasty person. Howard is viciously
anti-working class. But his personality is not the reason for the
Workchoices Legislation. (Its use of “choices” does fit with his
pathology of lying.) If he dropped of his twig tomorrow, every Coalition
member would volunteer to push on with the offensive.
So we must name our
enemy: Big Business – Multi-National Corporations - global capital.
Driving the attack are the Top 100 corporations in the Business Council
of Australia. They are backed to the hilt by the Chamber of Commerce and
Industry. The Coalition serves as their political agents.
Some pundits prattle
about the laws being “ideological”. The attack is no academic
crusade. True, every part of life has an ideological component. But the
war against the workers is not intended to satisfy some intellectual
fancy. Mass Murdoch cannot live off the lies peddalled through his
media. Such propaganda is part of the armoury arrayed on behalf of all
capitalists to grab more of what workers produce.
The Coalition and the
Business Council recognise that the history wars are not some academic
dispute over Post-Modernism. From the 1980s, Hugh Morgan at Western
Mining knew that corporate profits depended on blocking land rights.
Howard told the Quadrant crew
at their 50th anniversary dinner how much he resented the
class struggle being part of Australian history courses. The call for
its erasure coincides with the stepping up of the class struggle.
Of course, we need to
fight back in the realm of ideology. First, we must call the new laws
what they are – an attack, an onslaught. Don’t let the bosses get
away with throwing phrases such as “IR reform” or “IR changes”
in our eyes.
The prime source of
ideas is daily life. The government spent $60m to sell its laws. That
package of falsehoods failed to shift public opinion. Why? Because its
spin bears no relation to what we have experienced at work in the past
thirty years. “Choice” lets bosses choose to do what they must do to
profit. “Flexibility” helps them to make us work whenever they will
profit most from our capacities.
Moreover, we need to be
ready for diversionary attacks on the ideological front. The failure to
sell the IR attack means that the Coalition must fight the 2007
elections on other issues. The next “Tampa” has already sailed into
sight – Howard’s abuse of Muslims. The anti-Terror Laws are aimed at
Australian workers just as much as is the campaign of workplace terror.
Just look at the police-state powers of the Construction Industry
The error in blaming
Howard is like the mistake of seeing the attack as merely
“ideological”. Both flow from confusion about capitalism. Thirty
years ago, the Left knew why there could never be a “fair day’s
pay” under capitalism. Capitalists must expropriate the surplus value
that we wage-slaves produce. Even the most highly paid electrician is
exploited in this way. Indeed, the rate of exploitation is likely to be
greatest for those on the highest wages.
That paradox is one
reason why the IR onslaught is not primarily about reducing the rates of
pay. The point is to discipline labour times. The clock is to the
corporation was the whip was to the convict overseer. To maximize
profit, the capitalist strives to pay only for the minutes when we are
adding value. That necessity imposes broken shifts, casualisation and
To impose that
discipline over labour time, the bosses need to tryannise the workplace.
They can brook no resistance about when workers start and stop. The
employers must have the power to set the hours for which we get paid. In
addition, they have to be able to impose speedups. Only then can they
discipline workers into adding the maximum value per split second.
The presence of an
organised workforce impedes that achievement. The expansion of capital
must first replace collective agreements with AWAs. The final solution
is to abolish all agreements. “Do what you are told when you are
told.” That is the endpoint of the IR onslaught.
That despotism is what
they’re after. What do we want?
It is nowhere near good
enough to go back to the IR laws as they were in 2005. Nor is it enough
to go back to the law before 1996. Australian workers have always lived
under laws that reinforced the reign of capital. Two hundred years of
struggle blunted its worst features. In the short to medium terms, we
have to defend as many of those protections as we can.
Yes, the IR laws are
repressive in the extreme. But we must not beat up on ourselves by
focusing on being victims. Workers are scoring victories. Hence, the IR
laws have not blocked successful industrial action outside
A prime example was at
AMCOR in the Melbourne suburb of Preston during August. The 100 workers
resisted the sacking of their union delegates. The rank-and-file knew
that once they lost their delegates, the game was up. Unionists at AMCOR
plants around the country came out in sympathy. At first, the
corporation tried to bully the pickets. Their unity, with support from
the community-based Union Solidarity, got the delegates reinstated. The
company dropped all threats of fines and injunctions. A few days later,
Toyota workers won a similar result.
The focus on electing
the ex-Labor Party is another way of making sure that union members do
not become active in their own defence. If they do, they might get ideas
about running their unions. Why do some union leaders seem more
frightened of their rank-and-file than of the IR attack?
We dare not wait till
elections late in 2007. Should the ALP fluke a win, we will need to
campaign to keep those bastards honest. If the ALP collapses again as it
reaches the finish line, we will need to confront the IR Laws head-on.
Hosing down struggles now will make it much harder to gear up after the
elections. Athletes win by keeping fit. Workers need tactical experience
to wage the class war.
Do not think for one
moment that the 2005-6 laws are the end of the onslaught. The BCA has
always demanded more. Look at the powers given to the Inspectors in the
construction industry. They are the template for the next round. The
next pounding will be dished up either through a Coalition government or
by the ex-Labor Party.
Were the ALP ever to
win, and were whoever was then leader still prepared to tear up the new
laws, what would happen next? None of the pressures on capital to expand
can be abolished by changing the law. Competition between capitals
compels each firm to intensify its discipline over us as its
wage-slaves. That necessity will outlast even Howard’s prime
ministership. Workers need an analysis and a strategy to carry us
through the long haul.
Without a vision of a
world without exploitation, we are less able to win on tactics.
Throughout these skirmishes, we should look towards a strategy which
counters the grand narrative of the expansion of capital. We should
promote a society that move towards social equality across generations.
One starting place is
to build on the principle of fair-go. What would it mean to extend that
value into the fundamentals of capitalism? The unfairness of that system
is not grounded in the level of wages. Its injustice is not confined to
the discipline over labour times. The taproot of those inequalities is
that the vast majority of us have to sell our human capacities to the
corporations that control the resources of production.
What insights can we
carry forward from recognising that the current IR attack is a necessity
for capital? What forms of organization can we build out of opposing its
latest onslaught? If we take up those questions we won’t be sitting
ducks for the next attack.