Winning back basic industrial rights won’t be easy but it’s time to fight

This is one of the best written summaries of why the ACTU’S campaign – “The Rules are broken – Change the Rules” – is entirely logical (from a worker’s point of view) and should be taken forward in a big way by all of us, not just elected union leaders.

#JeffSparrow says, for example,

“The union movement was founded, almost by definition, by people with no respect for the law – given that the Combination Act of 1799 imposed draconian punishments on anyone who organised against their employer.

“In 1834, magistrates sentenced six agricultural labourers from Dorset to transportation to Australia after finding them guilty of “unlawfully administering oaths”. The so-called Tolpuddle Martyrs – lawbreakers all – are acknowledged as union pioneers in both nations.”

Jeff’s reference to the English “Combination Act of 1799” (1798?) is spot on and entirely relevant to our 21st century challenges.

“Combination” was the world used back then to describe workers meeting together to discuss why and how they could effectively negotiate with their employer for better wages and conditions. Judge made law described such meetings as “conspiracies”. It would lead to imprisonment and also deportation on a convict ship. What the employers did then was “work with” their friends who dominated the parliament to to shift the anti conspiracy laws made by judges into a statutory law.

Creating a union was legally defined as a “conspiracy” against the employer(s). It’s purpose: to prevent workers all over Britain from learning how to combine together to form unions as we know them today.

Yes, the people who created unions were workers who had not yet joined a union. Just like Uber drivers are doing right now, and it appears with the respectful support of the Transport Workers Union.

When workers prevailed and succeeded in winning a better deal – through “combination” not begging for more as a heroic individual as in Dickens’ Oliver Twist – they learned quickly that their “win” might be set back because their bosses’ competitor would be at an advantage. There would be downward pressure on what they had gained if the new standard could not be applied in the “non combined” competitor.

The solution? They had to meet – clandestinely – with the workers employed by the competitor to encourage and teach them how to win the same improvement to wages and conditions.

This is called solidarity organising and the method was learned the hard way by workers’ themselves, although it appears also supported by progressive thinkers in groups like the London Correspondence Society.

Workers had to struggle, not rely on charity, and break the law to create new democratic rights.

The 21st century Australian version of the anti combination laws, contained in Labor’s Fair Work Act, in its own way represses and penalizes workers who seek to act in solidarity with other workers.

That’s the whole framework of bargaining and associated activity that gives a huge advantage to employers over their work forces. The Fair Work Act, and its special oppressive extension in the Australian Building and Construction Industry anti worker and anti solidarity police force, can impose on workers who act in solidarity as in the late 18th century, statutory fines, common law damages and jail terms.

That’s why a fully fledged strategy – including industrial action – is necessary to educate about these rotten laws, to build active workers’ defiance against them, and struggle for new 21st century democratic rights of workers to industrial and other action that can challenge the powers of their employers.

Thats another reason why Jeff Sparrow’s take on this is interesting: the eventual defeat of the anti combination laws of the early 19th century was achieved by the growth of unionism off a very low base. Just like today.

In the 1967 an Australian union campaign that stretched over 10 years defeated the anti worker penal powers that were created by the Menzies government and governed by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission of the day. That workers’ victory – that culminated in national strikes in 1967 – was achieved on a foundation of relatively high union density especially in big productive workplaces, although the unions themselves were divided with the right wing unions backing a yellow and Arbitration driven approach to workers’ problems.

The only new restrictions in 21st century democratic labour laws that should be introduced are those that prevent employers going on strike with the capital they have taken from the wealth generated by workers in Australia, as many are currently doing.

In our history there is a uniquely Australian way in which respect for solidarity between workers, especially solidarity bargaining for improved wages and conditions, can be restored in a 21st century form.

We will be continuing our discussions of this on 3CR radio’s Solidarity Breakfast this coming Saturday morning.

Posted in Uncategorized

The real face of penalty rate cuts

Tania is 60 years old. Widowed for almost 40 years, she’s raised three children as a single mother and now helps with the care of her eight grandchildren. Tania has worked at Spotlight in Wollongong for 21 years. She has never had a pay rise.
http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-cruelty-of-penalty-rate-cuts-20170616-gwsfsk.html?btis

Posted in Uncategorized

UK election: British capital in disarray

This is a strong political economy analysis of the outcome of the British election. Michael’s suspicion of another election before the end of the year on the basis of Corbyn’s courageous and intelligent campaign that connected to working people and the young among them drives me to a re-watch of “The Secret State” for clues about what might happen after that. Corbyn’s trajectory at this time is left social democratic but we must have a strategy that defends it if and when it is successful. That would be our big strategic breakthrough.

Michael Roberts Blog

The UK election result is a personal disaster for the Conservative leader Theresa May. She called the snap election to get a big majority and crush the opposition Labour party and its left-wing leadership. But instead the Conservatives lost seats and its majority in parliament and Labour under leftist Jeremy Corbyn increased its share of the vote dramatically after a vigorous campaign.

The turnout was 69%, the highest since 1997, when the figure was 71.4 per cent. It seems that young people turned out for Labour, particularly in the big cities. Labour gained 10% to reach 40%, while the Conservatives also increased their share by 5% to 42%. The big loser was the anti-EU anti-immigration party UKIP which collapsed.

There is now what is called a ‘hung parliament’ with no overall majority for one party. This makes the upcoming Brexit talks with the EU in a mess as there is…

View original post 812 more words

Posted in Uncategorized

Australia’s weird new Federal Budget that advocates rapid wages growth: a quick critical note on the commentary

Here, Greg Jericho joins with other mainstream economists in agreeing with the lead analysis of Jim Stanford’s Centre for Future Work, that LNP government’s Budget expectation (requirement) for wages growth is not happening and shows no prospect of happening.

Again the usual high quality info from Greg. But this time, the analysis about why and what might be done is quite shallow, even absent.

Greg’s statistical causation focuses on underemployment. There are other deep factors at play than competing statistical tendencies.  But what establishes and further enables underemployment, and what is its connection to unemployment?

Another deep factor in keeping wages low is the Fair Work Act 2009 systemic, repressive scheme of penalties against workers who seek to exercise their SOLIDARITY power to improve their wages or to improve their job security. The Turnbull government’s only major change to Labor’s own version of this anti worker, anti solidarity wage and conditions fixing regime in the FWA is the harsher penalties against construction workers, including their extension to workers and their unions who do work in association with construction.

This is because Labor’s regime for bargaining and national wage fixing is working perfectly well for employers, not workers, as it was designed to do. This is one of the essential planks of neoliberalism, or Labor’s “neolaborism”, that is not going away … yet.

It beggars belief that this government, and arguably an alternative Labor government, will change the FWA so that workers can help solve their weird wages problem in the macro economy.

The other factor in keeping wages low is the union movement’s failure, so far, to develop a significant strategy that will genuinely restore worker’s right to strike and other forms of collective action, that will include rights to deal with international competition on wages etc., include climate change transition as a bargaining issue, and put worker solidarity back into both minimum legal rights and the development of society.

Mixed up in all of this is the “little matter” of profits. The discussion about profits, or its absence, in Australia is pathetic. Not just the volume of profit, but also what profit is, the exploitation of humans and nature upon which it depends, and profit in relation to total investment, that is the combination of investment in machines, hardware, software development, etc and the workers who bring all of that to life through their labour. We cannot understand the significance of the “wages problem” without grappling with profits and investment. Traditionally, Keynesians are not very good at that. So, we turn instead to our potential as union activists to do it properly?

Posted in Federal Budget, Neoliberal capitalism, Precarious Work, Wages

Why and how the Fair Work Commission’s cuts to Sunday penalty rates can be defeated.

by Don Sutherland, 25/2/17

Last week Australia’s industrial “umpire”, the Fair Work Commission, legalized a big cut to penalty rates for Sunday work for Australia’s lowest paid and most vulnerable workers in precarious work. (Click here and click here for the official summary of the decision.) Implementing the cuts is not compulsory. Anyone who thinks neoliberalism is dying needs to take a deep breath and step into the real world.

Like many others across the union movement and beyond I am very angry on several counts with this decision. Above all it does great harm to the lives of thousands of workers (click here for example), even though it will increase the take home profit of their employers.

There is a lot of material being posted in both mainstream media and in many sources across social media about why this decision is bad, some of it before the decision was handed down and of course a lot since. This article does not add to that.

Rather I focus on ideas about how the workers and union movement can respond.

How should the workers’ movement respond?

In my view not just with anger, but with a widely, deeply discussed and developed strategy to win the reversal of the decision or to prevent its actual implementation.

I am against a “strategy” based on immediate anger that sets our movement up for an urgent, satisfying day out and another “glorious defeat”. And I am also against a defeatist walk into the arms of the ALP as the heroic solution.

Rationale for a strategy

This Full Bench decision of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) comes out of an Award review that is required by the Fair Work Act (FWA). The Award review is very much an industrial relations club exercise. The FWA review involves either union peak bodies or employer peak bodies putting to the FWC ways in which Awards should be changed, with the capacity for others, especially governments and political parties, to join in. The parties present their claims and counter claims, then provide evidence in an increasingly judicial process that involves “expert” research and / or witnesses. There is not much industrial organising that goes on in support of union claims or counter claims these days.

In this current review all Awards are under the microscope. The focus in these particular Awards for workers in hospitality, pharmacy, fast foods has been on their penalty rates, especially the penalty rate paid for working on Sunday.

Employers in the industry and beyond have over several years invested big money and resources to convince the FWC to agree to cut penalty rates for Sunday work. They have been supported by the Murdoch press, a big posse of commentators from right wing think tanks, and all major employer organisations. The union movement has been the major source of opposition. Originally, employers wanted cuts to all penalty rates but decided for a strategic reason to focus on Sundays. Do not doubt that their “victory” last week to get Sunday rates cut is a foundation for a renewed assault at some time in the future for further cuts into both Sunday and Saturday rates and public holiday rates.

While the employers were investing big in their own way to achieve their victory, the workers’ effort – mainly through their unions – was valiant and well-intentioned but puny in comparison. It was entirely defensive, and accepted the rules of the Commission and the Fair Work Act.

The employer strategy successfully used prominent Labor politicians, some of them willingly, and ex politicians (most notably perhaps Martin Ferguson, formerly a President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions).

The employer strategy relied very much on today’s working class  historic memory loss  about what an Award actually is. Nothing significant has been done by unions to counter this with worker education. Australian unions, generally, have opted to devote most resources to enterprise agreements as the vehicle to protect and improve wages and conditions.

Remember, the employers originated and escalated this war on living standards, not the Fair Work Commission.

This very bad outcome is a reflection of the current balance of power between Australia’s 21st century capitalist class relative to that of the working class.

That is the situation that our strategy must change.

A working class based approach to our strategy

Can we build a strategy, loaded with mindful militancy, that can reverse this decision and also the whole current momentum against working people? (Facilitated in the bosses’ favour by the Fair Work Act, e.g. lockouts, agreement cancellations, and the new Building Industry Code to be enforced by the construction industry’s own industrial police force against construction workers and their unions.)

Of course we can. Here are some ideas.

The first big strategic decision for all union leaders no matter what level of the union movement we are active in: should we leave the reversing or whatever of the decision to heroic leaders, those at the “top” of the union movement and especially those in the ALP and the Greens in the parliament? Will calls to the government for the government to change the statute re-build our numbers and our power?

Or, should we return en masse to a conviction that the workers in these industries, and their brothers and sisters in others, can grow together as a socio-political force to reverse the decision themselves through their own industrial and political action?

The union movement at all levels must, absolutely MUST, embrace this second approach. Why? Because we must see workers of the twenty first century as capable of learning to struggle for their objectives not as objects whose conditions of existence are decided for them by elites, well-meaning or otherwise?)

That still means lots of education work and lots of communication that is educational (not cheap slogans or cute and clever memes,) leading to days of action on carefully selected dates. Days of action can be seen as the building blocks to more serious forms of action, including a national strike that can decide the struggle in favour of the workers.

Industrial strategy leading the way

The Commission is now waiting for submissions from the parties about the timing and process for phasing in the new reduced rates. Depending on each award, the critical dates seem to be in late March and early May.

After that the Commission will set dates for the start of the new reduced rates, probably later this year.

So, for example, this year these union / workers days of action might be 2-3 days before or on the day of the “submissions” hearing and then again 3 days before the start date.

Remember, employers can chose not to reduce rates. Embedded in these days of action there must be a workplace, public, social and political demand that each individual employer NOT implement the decision, but infused also with basic education and learning about “what is an Award”, “who are the employers”, “what is their strategy”, and “what is the Commission”. (Of course, many employers will try to “stay sweet” with their workers by telling them that it’s not their fault and they have no choice but to implement it.)

To the extent that it is necessary, a secondary level of campaigning in these 2 periods might help reinforce worker pressure on MP’s to come out at a local level to urge local employers not to implement the decision.

How long will it take to win – the trajectory for winning?

The second big strategic decision is a notional time frame that this campaign will take 2 to 5 years to win. It would be nice to win sooner but expectation that we can – in my view – misjudges the power of those who want this decision against the current power of those of us who oppose it.

We need time for education work and union growth organising to build the power to win. We do not have it right now, just the same as the employers did not have enough power to win their objective in 2007. The employers have understood strategy much better than us and have been ruthless enough against working people and their unions to stick to their strategy and be flexible in applying it.

We have to be every bit as cold and calculating as they have been and more.

Therefore, these days of action MUST be educational and  must be seen as building blocks to very big and powerful actions in the future that will be more decisive.

Our strategy will have to escalate over that 2-5 year period in the spread and depth of awareness among the workers immediately affected and those who will experience the flow on effects of it.

A strategy of this type must culminate with the consequence of economic pain for the employers who wanted this decision and who decide to implement it.

The next award review will be in 4 years or so, possibly less. That is the moment for the first “really big culmination” of our strategy in which employers can face the prospect of real economic consequences for their actions.

Within it there is the opportunity for the union movement to actively regrow from within the 21 st century working class, basing that on education-driven organising of both union members and potential members.

This decision to cut penalty rates is one element of ruling class momentum against all workers … the whole of the working class.

We can add to that the employers threat to re-locate operations to off shore low wage havens, use of lock outs during bargaining, demand for major concessions in enterprise agreements, and refusing to bargain for any improvements about job security or wages or safety, employer applications to cancel agreements and drive their workers back to the minimum wages and conditions in Awards, penal powers against any workers who take industrial action that is not approved by the FWC, and the government’s new Building Industry Code policed by the building industry commission. This is a considerable array of power for employers that is facilitated by the Fair Work Act.

Penalty Rates Plus

Genuine working class power can be built to demand at the next Award review and even before not just the restoration of current penalty rates but also a significant increase in the minimum Award rate, and automatic casual conversion after 3 months for those who want it.

These issues are relevant to all other Awards as well. We are talking about common, multi industry actions to take on common big employment problems.

This will be a campaign for all workers because the huge gap between award rates and union negotiated agreement rates is contrary to the fundamental rationale for unionism, and should not be acceptable to any unionist.

The focus of the whole movement must turn steadily (although not absolutely) to AWARDS and away from enterprise agreements.

Finally, this “ordinarily people” rooted strategy will require that the Fair Work Act (including its penal powers against workers) be defied, and probably broken, and ultimately genuinely re-written for workers’ benefit.

That’s not a reason not to do it but it is a reason for a lot of educational work in preparation.

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Why Trump Won–And What’s Next (print)

Jack Rasmus

The following is my follow up article, soon published, analyzing the Trump election win and its consequences. Dr. Jack Rasmus

Why Trump Won—And What’s Next
Copyright 2016

“US real estate billionaire, Donald Trump, is president-elect. In an age when 97% of all GDP-national income gains since 2010 have accrued to the wealthiest 1%–of which Trump is one—how could American voters come to elect Trump? How could they vote for a candidate that they simultaneously were giving a ‘negative rating’ of 60% to 80%? That fundamental question will ever haunt this election.

What the election shows is that American voters in electing Trump wanted ‘anything but the above’ Obama policies of the previous eight years, policies which were just extensions of the neoliberal regime established in the 1980s in the US since Reagan. And voters didn’t care about the political warts, past or present, of Trump. They just wanted something different…

View original post 2,455 more words

Posted in Uncategorized

Australia’s Penal Powers for the 21st Century

White Australia was born as a penal colony. And throughout its history since there have been plenty of laws that fine, impose financial damages and lock up both the original inhabitants of the land and the working people of all nations who came here to make a living. Those laws swing into play whenever landowners and employers needed a government instrument to protect their profit making and wealth accumulation from the collective action of aboriginal communities and their supporters, and also combinations of workers whether members of unions or not.  (For more on this read Jack Hutson’s From Penal Colony to Penal Powers.)

This story (click here) describes how Labor’s Fair Work Act of 2009 replicates that history so that it systematically prevents workers from exercising their collective power in the twenty first century.

Some of us who have been around for a long time know very well that there is NO END to the hypocrisy of employers when it comes to the exercise of their power. Employers like Bluescope Steel, in their own right and through their associations like the AIGroup, AMMA, and the Business Council of Australia, constantly whinge about the role of outside third parties in industrial relations.For them, “outside third party interference”means unions, especially those that coordinate effective worker action across industries, and a Fair Work Commission with genuine democratic powers to ensure that workers human rights to organize and take collective action are protected.

But, they made sure, when they negotiated the Fair Work Act to replace Howard’s Workchoices in 2008-9, they kept and re-energized that extra third party power that would punish workers for exercising the only power they have – collective industrial action. And, what is more, new ALP negotiators and certain (not all) union leaders let them have it.

What we see here, as we have seen in other disputes, is the PENAL PROVISIONS OF THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY.

The penal provisions of the 20th century were neutralized in big disputes through the 1960’s that culminated with the national strike when Tramway Union official Clarrie O’Shea was jailed for refusing to pay fines imposed by the courts because union members were taking industrial action in defiance of the so-called “bans clauses” of the day.

The industrial strategy that led to that great union and democratic victory was ten years in the making.

The Australian workers of the twenty first century need a strategy that defeats the penal powers of the twenty first century. It is all about a deeper meaning of democracy than the very limited form that too many of us are sort of comfortable with these days.

Electing a genuine reforming Labor government backed up by the Greens and genuine pro worker and democratic independents to get rid of these undemocratic industrial laws will make a difference.But this was never on the radar in recent Federal elections.

So, that will not happen unless it is part of a conscious strategy that creates a massive and independent movement of workers that makes it impossible for Labor and Green politicians to dodge their responsibilities.

Posted in Australian union movement, Common Action, Corporate behaviour, Engineering Services: metal workers- fitters, mechanics, boilermakers, electricians, techicians, TA's, labourers, Labour and union history, Solidarity
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