Category Archives: Common Action

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.

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Tom Uren – outstanding Labor stalwart, a great man of the people

One of my Adelaide friends, Andy Alcock has written a fine in memoriam for the late Tom Uren. He has given me permission to post it here:

VALE: TOM UREN – A COURAGEOUS POLITICIAN & A CHAMPION FOR JUSTICE & HUMAN RIGHTS

Tom Uren was one of the greatest politicians Australia ever had.

I first came across him at Vietnam rallies when I lived in Sydney in the early 1970s. He was a very powerful speaker – eloquent, articulate,
persuasive, rational and warm.

Tom was very sincere, totally opposed to human rights abuses committed against all people and strongly on the side of those who suffered
tyranny. This is why he supported the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, the East Timorese and the West Papuans.

Yes, he was a supporter of left and progressive politics. To him, this meant following the politics of social justice, human rights, equality for
all, fairness between nations and caring for the environment.

At a time when most of the ALP had sold out the East Timorese, he was one of a few who supported the liberation struggle of our former,
valiant WW2 allies. Others in that group, of course, included Richie Gun and Ken Fry.

Because of his strong support, CIET (SA) – now AETFA SA, asked Tom to officially open the “East Timor, Australia and the Region Conference”.
This conference was an international one and it was organised by CIET SA and held at Adelaide University in 1979. Tom made a great contribution.

Frequently, he spoke out about what was happening in Timor and always gave support to activists working in solidarity with the East Timorese.

I see that Bill Shorten has described Tom as a giant in the ALP, which is true. But, I also remember being at an East Timor Activists Conference in
the early 1980s as the right was becoming far more dominant in the ALP. At a party organised by Tom to which he invited conference delegates, I
remarked to an ALP staffer that he must be very proud working with people like Tom Uren. His response was that Tom was a fool for supporting East
Timor and that he was working with others in the ALP to get rid of old fools like him!

Is it any wonder that the East Timorese got very little support from the ALP leadership during their struggle? It was rather ironic that towards the end
of their struggle, it was Laurie Brereton, a key figure in the NSW right of the ALP who turned around the Party’s policy on this issue. Sadly, this did
not follow through and when the ALP took office in 2007, there was no support from ALP MPs to reverse the “Liberal” Party’s policy to refuse to
recognise the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in relation to Timor-Leste – although Australia recognises the UNCLOS principle with
NZ and the Solomons. This has resulted in Australia taking a lot of the oil and gas from Timor-Leste’s half of the Timor Sea.

Tom Uren always stood for human decency in relations between people and was totally opposed to racism.

Even though he was a victim of the Japanese military during WW2, he did not harbour anti Japanese sentiments. Tom had been captured in West
Timor and sent to work on the infamous Thai Burma railway as a POW and later he worked in a slave camp in Japan not far from Nagasaki, where
he saw the atomic bombing of Nagasaki from a distance.

During the official recognition of the 60th anniversary of the end of WW2, I saw Tom being interviewed at Hellfire Pass, a part of the railway in
Thailand.

The interviewer asked him what the conditions were like. Tom’s reply was that it was like hell on earth.

“We were expected to pick and shovel through solid rock to make this cutting. We worked long hours on extremely meagre rations. Many of the men
were extremely sick. A huge number had dysentery and they were literally shitting their lives away. There was virtually no medication for the sick. I
saw men on many occasions drop dead while they were on the job.”

The interviewer then asked Tom what he though about Japanese people because of his experiences. His answer was: I hated every last one of them
and I would not have cared if they had been all wiped out!”

He was then asked if he still had the same attitude. His answer was a definite “No!” Tom then went on to say that, “Í did not keep that opinion for long.
Later, I was transferred to a slave camp in Japan. There I met Japanese political prisoners. These people had the courage to oppose Japanese
fascism on its own grounds. They were very courageous people. They were my brothers. They were my comrades. Many people who harbour ill-will to
all Japanese people because of WW2 do not understand one important fact. And that is that during WW2, we were not fighting the Japanese people,
we were fighting Japanese fascism and there is a great difference.”

His analysis of the conflict between Australia and Japan avoided the racism against all Japanese that the Bruce Ruxton’s analysis embraced.

Because of his experiences during WW2, Tom became a devoted peace activist and was opposed to nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry.
His quest for social justice led him to be a strong advocate for socialism.

Tom Uren was a giant physically, but a gentle one. He was also a boxer, but more importantly, he used his strength and energy to fight for a fairer and
safer world.

Farewell, Comrade Tom. You will never be forgotten.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock
Information Officer
Australia East Timor Association SA Inc

Common Action to Oppose the first budget of the Abbott- Hockey / Business Council Alliance

Common Action, starting in Sydney, is trying bring together the dozens of points of opposition to the Australian neo-liberal Agenda of the Abbott government. And out of that develop a common, comprehensive and independent alternative economics and programme.

For more on Common Action click here and also follow them at their Facebook page and Twitter account.

As part of their actions they are organizing a post budget activists meeting, details as follows:

Wednesday May 21, 6.30pm-8pm,
Sydney Mechanics School of Arts,
280 Pitt St, Sydney.
6.15pm for a 6.30pm start
$5

What an excellent idea!

We use to do this in Adelaide in the 70’s and it was a great opportunity for young activists to learn about the political economy of budgets, especially how to analyze a taxation or spending decision (or proposal) through the prism of what it would mean for working people, the unemployed, women, ethnic communities and so on.

Those post budget sessions analyzed the Liberal budgets of the Liberal Party’s Fraser governments.

The sessions and analysis was led by political economists who were committed to plain language and working class oriented perspectives. Economics was thus demystified and turned into the common property of workers and other activists who had not gained either secondary or post secondary economic learning opportunities.

The contributors ranged from Keynesian and the more powerful critical analysis of independent Marxist views. However, there was practically nothing in the line of ecological perspectives. Women activists insisted, sometimes but not always with support of men, that the specific discrimination against women in budget decisions, be brought into the analysis.

After a few years these events waned but not before a new popular economic concept evolved: the social wage. The social wage described the connected impact on the standard of living of BOTH the industrial wage (the outcome of industrial, union led wage bargaining) and taxation / government spending, ie the social wage. We could see therefore, that in the dominant framework of Australian capitalism, the possibility that industrial wage gains could be nullified by a bad outcome in the social wage, mainly delivered in budgets Federal and state level).

The connections between inequality, the industrial wage and the social wage were described in an outstanding pamphlet: Australia Ripped Off. Australia Ripped Off was produced by the National Council of then Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union (now the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union). Its foremost author was the recently late Ted Wilshire from the unions National Research Office.  (Australia Ripped Off followed close behind an earlier pamphlet, Australia Up Rooted, that dealt with the impact on manufacturing industry of the biggest mining boom (up till then) in Australian history. Australia Up Rooted sets the standard in Australia for plain language economic education and learning for workers. It featured the wonderful cartoons of Bruce Petty.)

There is an opportunity for this revived form of activist learning re-ignite this class based, critical analysis of the Budget, connect that to what is happening to the finance sector, and integrate a strong environmental / ecological dimension. We lay, then, a foundation for a strategy that can eat away at the dominant economic messages of neo-liberal capitalism.

On this point, we who attend must demand that this is what the Common Action organizers provide: pressure from below can prevent the tendency for economic analysis that is soft and founded on assumptions that accept the dominant economic framework.

The system, 21st century capitalism, is founded in two interacting and mutually depend exploitations: the exploitation of most humans by a minority, and the exploitation of NATURE by that same minority. Associated with this, the system can at best offer only a very stunted form of democracy, that is, a somewhat compromised parliamentary democracy.

Finally, we can – collectively – build a coherent and unifying ALTERNATIVE political economic dynamic: both in policy and also strategy for that policy and its underpinning principals to challenge and become dominant. The potential for this exists in the dozens of campaigns that are points of resistance already to the dominant destructive momentum that is in our face every day.

These resistance campaigns are fragmented but they can be brought together and harnessed in a new and dynamically democratic alternative. We then have class based struggle happening again in a 21 st century form, just as it is forming in many other places around the world.