Union and Community Summer School 2010


For what it’s worth (which may not be much), I thought I’d write down a few thoughts I had following the Union and Community Summer School 2010 held at Trades Hall on December 10/11. I only attended part of the conference, and thus am presenting only a (very) partial account. No doubt there’ll be other, more complete accounts in the weeks ahead, and I’ll link to them as and when I discover them. Otherwise, a series of proposals was agreed to at the end of the conference, and the School will take place again next year.

To begin with, the conference brought together activists and union officials from across the non-ALP Left in an attempt to reinvigorate debate within these ranks. [1] Disillusionment in the Labor Party is hardly a novelty, and criticisms of its machinations have been articulated many times before. [2] But recent years have, arguably, witnessed the beginnings of what may be a permanent break between the ALP and The Australian Left™, and thus an opportunity for leftists in the Australian labour movement to seriously re-consider their political strategies. [3]

A few key themes were present in the program and animated much of the discussion: principally, the relationship between the trade unions (and the labour movement generally) and the ALP. Beyond this, Dave Kerin summarises the School’s intent as follows:

Most left political traditions will take part in the school, which aims to strengthen unity on issues for which there is agreement. The approach will be one of problem-solving. To usefully tackle the big challenges confronting the union movement — such as the fight against anti-union laws and the struggle for a sustainable economy — … setting out the concrete questions these challenges pose to unions and labour movement activists.

The thoughts of some other participants–Rob Durbridge, president of the SEARCH Foundation, Shirley Winton of the Spirit of Eureka (Melbourne), and Susan Price, Socialist Alliance national trade union coordinator–may be found in ‘Can the union left build greater unity?’, Green Left Weekly, December 5, 2010.

[Blah blah blah]

As is common knowledge, while there are exceptions, on a national level trade unions are in decline in terms of membership, as well as influence. (The exceptions are industrial and occupational, gendered and generational.) The reasons for this are many, and may be found in the changing nature of Australian political economy–the decline in full-time jobs, the rise in tertiary industry and so on–but also, and of greater relevance in this context, the declining industrial utility of unions. That is, the extent to which unions–in the face of an incipient economic crisis, hamstrung by the recent introduction of anti-unions laws, and suffering from a longer-term political decline–find it difficult not only to carry out their otherwise routine function but to retain existing memberships, acquire new members, and continue to pursue a broadly ‘social democratic’ vision. The super duper love unions which resulted from the forced amlgamations of the late 1980s and early 1990s have been super for some… but not very many. [4]

In terms of the current malaise, and how it came to be, all the usual suspects featured in the line-up: the ALP, of course, which controls the trade unions, and does so in its own, particular interests–interests which even Blind Freddy can see are not necessarily in accord with those of trade union memberships, the labour movement, or the working class as a whole; the historical legacy of the Accord, which gutted the unions and coincided with the destruction of the few unions which failed to recognise its enormous benefits; and the subsequent establishment of a repressive legal framework (WorkChoices/Fair Work) by successive Coalition and Labor Governments, the jewel in the crown of which is the ABCC. The two recent trade union campaigns which were referred to in (largely) positive terms were the MUA dispute (April–June 1998) and the campaign against WorkChoices (2005–2007) aka the campaign to get Labor re-elected.

In real terms, both I think can be considered nominal failures.

Thus while the MUA dispute [5] did succeed in mobilising large segments of the labour movement and the public generally to defend the MUA, management did eventually manage to realise most if not all of its goals. And while the 2007 election was won by Labor, the new industrial relations framework the triumphant government adopted is different to the one the previous mob instituted only in degree rather than kind. Having largely fulfilled its function, the ACTU’s “Your Rights at Work” campaign has become largely moribund.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) (which allegedly costs The Australian Taxpayer $35 million a year to fund and—D’oh!–narrowly avoided triggering an industrial dispute through the eventually unsuccessful–fnarr fnarr–prosecution/persecution of Adelaide unionist Ark Tribe) came in for particular criticism, as did the ALP’s continued support for it. In fact, in labour terms, the case against the ABCC is a Lay Down Misère, which is one reason why Labor’s failure to abolish it has generated so much sound and fury.

Pay Up… Or Don’t

Something like 250 people attended the conference, but the only note of real anger I saw (but likely not the only one expressed) was when someone spoke of the pressures those working in the community sector face, and the general reluctance of workers in the sector to take industrial action; not because workers enjoy low wages and poor conditions (including stress and a resulting very high turnover rate), but because doing so disadvantages their clients (aka the poors). [6]

After many months spent virtually kissing Joolya’s arse (the img above being of the postcard workers were encouraged by the ASU to send Joolya ahead of the 2010 Federal election), the ASU’s ‘Pay Up’ campaign has to nobody’s surprise flopped: the Government declaring that, because it will simply cost too much, it will no longer be supporting the union’s wage case. [7] (The ‘Pay Up’ campaign was preceded by another flop titled ‘Respect The Workers Sustain The Services’). [8] A “furious” union has declared that on Thursday, December 15, the ASU and other unionists will be conducting rallies–“the biggest mobilisation for Equal Pay in history!”–in the vain hope that this might alter Joolya’s mind.

Or perhaps not. Given plummeting approval ratings–not least as a result of some rather unfortunate remarks on the potential prosecution/real persecution of Julian Assange–Joolya might be moved to try and salvage some respect in the eyes of a feminised workforce, and in some other way sustain the hope of a better deal for the 200,000 workers in the social and community services sector. [9] In any case, Joolya herself manages to scrape by on a measly annual salary of $354,671 (plus bonuses!).

Union Solidarity / Workers Solidarity Network

There was also some disco at the conference on Union Solidarity / Workers Solidarity Network. Rather than write some blah blah blah of my own, here’s links to a few articles which debate some of the issues raised by such networks in the context of radical struggles against capitalism: Pro-revolutionaries & trade unions, Anthony Hayes, Mutiny, No.49, April 2010 | Radical Unionism, Lindsay Hawkins, Mutiny, No.51, June 2010 | Against Capital; Against Work, Anthony Hayes, Mutiny, No.55, October 2010 | A perspective on directions in 2011, Liz Turner, Renegade News, No.2, 2010 [not available online].


I don’t think I’m gonna get my teef fixed anytime soon.

I’m tipping Collingwood for 2011 AFL Premiers.

Who knows, I might even live to see it.

See also : Editorial: A union fightback can stop the rot, Solidarity, December, 2010 | Gramsci and Left Managerialism : Kees van der Pijl.


[1] Note that the conference was also attended by current, former, recovering and (presumably) future ALP members, non-aligned activists, and various leftists and socialists of one stripe or another.
[2] Vere Gordon Childe’s 1923 essay ‘How Labour Governs’ is a notable case. The IWW and other, earlier socialist political formations also had some choice words for this ghastly political machine (the internal workings of which that slack bastard Mark Latham recently and memorably dissected in his Diaries); the IWW’s ghost continues to haunt the labour movement.
[3] ACTU President Ged Kearney has recently expressed some mild criticism of the ALP (October 13, 2010). This break–at this point, hairline fracture–is also obviously contingent upon the continued ability of the Greens, and its embrace of a more progressive industrial relations policy, to act as an alternative pole of attraction for unionists.
[4] See : ‘After Labourism: The Neoliberal Turn by Labor Parties and the Response by Trade Unions’, Jason Schulman, 2009 (PDF). See also : “A dose of libertarianism would enhance our democracy” — and if my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.
[5] See : ‘War on the Waterfront’, Tom Bramble, Brisbane Defend Our Unions Committee, October 1998 and elsewhere on Takver’s Soapbox; What was the “victory” on the Australian waterfront?, Terry Cook, wsws.org, April 13, 1999.
[6] See : Deborah Robinson, Gender pay gap costs Australia $93 billion each year, Australian Women Online, March 15, 2010; Why are women still paid less than men?, ABC, June 11, 2010. Lots of disco on the subject @ Larvatus Prodeo (Gillard betrays low paid workers, Kim, November 19, 2010).
[7] Alex White, among other ALP members, reckons it was a bad decision (November 19, 2010); a worker from the DVRVC explains the relevance of the case here (December 7, 2010). Note that in Queensland the ETU–which is also reportedly “furious” at the State government’s selling off state/public assets–has threatened to form its own party (Anna Bligh ‘has lost the plot and is ‘behaving like Sir Joh’ says union leader, December 6, 2010). The “extremist and militant”–but otherwise remarkably civil, seemingly honest, and even entertaining–Peter Simpson was one of a number of former(?) True Believers to address the conference.
[8] See : ‘Behind the ACTU’s latest pay equity ‘campaign”, Linda Waldron, Direct Action, No.22, May 2010.
[9] The Australian Community Sector Survey Report 2010 (PDF) provides some useful data on the sector, employment, funding and conditions.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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9 Responses to Union and Community Summer School 2010

  1. Paul Justo says:

    Probably just as well that Liz Turner’s [article in] Renegade News, No.2, 2010 is [not available online].

    Mannnn, they are stoners. They’re putting their “feeling (sic) on the line”, stopping the cogs in the machine mannnn and “building the trust” and “asking the questions” and of course fucking the church mans laws.

    I mean they sound like fun kids to hang out with, they’d be able to score weed no wucking furries but really rather than your blah, blah, blah you refer us, the diligent reader to them?

    Here is the Renegade News in all its anarchist comedy glory –

    “We take a big risk to be revolutionaries; to lay our feeling on the line to say enough is enough. To stop the cogs of the machine, to say fuck your rich mans law, fuck your church mans laws, fuck your laws that entrench us deeper and deeper into fear and despair.
    Fuck the laws and fuck the fear.
    What are we prepared to do?
    Build the trust with each other so we can stand side by side. Ask the questions and let us not think that we or they can have all the answers.”

  2. @ndy says:

    Coupla things.

    I made ref to Liz’s article ’cause it addresses, among other things, some of the issues raised in the exchange between Lindsay and Anthony; I ref to this exchange because I’m unaware of any other disco on the WSN avail online. Liz’s article is also of spotterly interest because it refs to some debate that occurred on the pages of the International Socialist Review inre anarchism and Marxism (see Eric Kerl’s article ‘Contemporary Anarchism’, No.72, July–August 2010, Contemporary anarchism: An exchange, No.73, September–October 2010 and also Tom Wetzel’s review and finally Nate Hawthorne on (What in the hell…) …were the actual politics of the Brick Collective? And Leninist critiques of anarchism).

    I haven’t written moar about US/WSN because: a) I didn’t go to the workshop which was dedicated to its discussion; b) I really only wanted to begin to sketch out some thoughts prompted by the conference; c) I don’t know if it’s something others actually wanna discuss or to do so here and; d) I think it prolly deserves a separate post (maybe not).

    As for yr general characterisation of RAAF… maybe. Maybe not. For one thing, it’s not an anarchist project. In fact, as the same document states, they shy away from ideological labels. This may be naif, but there’s a certain logic to it, and whatever label is or is not adopted, it’s obviously possible for RAAF to be a worthwhile project. Based on my own limited interactions, and irrespective of my opinion of either Liz’s analysis or the hippy elements of the statement on, like, what’s it, like, all about mannn… I think they done good stuff.

    Also: vegetable rights and peace.

  3. @ndy says:

    On the other hand…

    Secret video footage from RAAF HQ:

  4. Ghouleee says:

    As a 20 year veteran of the Australian community services sector and still proudly raking in an annual salary well below the average national wage – which, according to one boss I had I am lucky to get, considering I “get to wear jeans to work every day”! – I intend to honour the national “pay up” day of action on December 15 by calling for a day of mass industrial strikes starting in my workplace. I shall lead by example. I’m tired of marching like some fool lemming through the city getting sunburned following stupid unionists on megaphones shouting at me to get off the road and do what the police say and chant this and wear that colour. I have absolutely no faith that the ASU will help me or any of my workmates. What do they bloody earn? I might apply for a job at the ASU. They all look well fed and understressed and dead righteous. Much like that smug Joolya. Do I sound bitter?

  5. @ndy says:

    Dunno how much $ ASU officials earn, obviously, but it’s certainly the case that a number were able to secure a salary increase upon being elected to Parliament, the union having helped the careers of several former and current MPs, including Catryn Abilyk, Liz Beattie, Ralph Clarke, Jann Macfarlane and Brendan O’Connor.

    In fairness to Joolya, it should also be noted–and workers in the sector would do well to reflect upon the fact–that she was reportedly “personally offended” by suggestions the ALP was not honouring its commitments on the issue of equal pay. Assuming this to be the case, it may be necessary for workers to send her not only virtual kisses but perhaps even hugs. This may well have the effect of soothing any ruffled feathers. Alternatively, perhaps workers at the rally could pass the hat around, and buy Joolya a really, really, really big bunch of flowers? The ASU National Office may have given $82,390.00 to the Australian Labor Party (Victorian Branch) in 2007/8, and the ASU’s Vic Authorities & Services Branch a further $84,445.60 in 2008/9, but this can always be augmented by further donations from workers in the sector. I’m sure this would not only be gratefully received, but also go some way–however small–towards compensating MPs and ALP officials for the enormous sacrifices they make, merely in order to represent the interests of working families in Parliament (and the trade union movement).


  6. @ndy says:

    Australia: Labor government opposes pay increase for community services workers
    Terry Cook
    December 8, 2010

    The Labor government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard has intervened into an equal pay case to be heard this month by the full bench of the Fair Work Australia (FWA) tribunal to oppose any significant pay increase for low-paid Social and Community Services (SACS) workers.

    The equal pay application was lodged by the Australian Services Union (ASU) in March this year. More than 153,000 female SACS workers are employed by government-subsidised private providers and charity organisations to deliver basic services to some of the most disadvantaged members of society. They work in programs for the homeless, disabled and youth, as well as women’s refuges, legal aid centres and family counselling services.

    The government’s submission to the FWA tribunal on November 18 insisted that any pay increases for female SACS workers should take into account: “The government’s fiscal strategy—which is aimed at ensuring fiscal sustainability and to return the budget to surplus—which will influence the government’s ability to support the sector in meeting additional wage claims.”

    The submission contained a blunt threat to cut services if the pay claim were granted. “If any additional government funding is provided,” it stated, “this would likely come at the expense of other government-funded services.” In other words, the case will be determined, not by the pressing needs of SACS workers and those who rely on their services, but Labor’s commitment to the financial markets to eliminate the debt produced by the multi-billion bailouts of big business and the underwriting of the banks when the global financial crisis first erupted in 2008.

    As the submission illustrates, Labor’s pledge to return to “budget surplus” means massive cuts to public spending and the slashing of health, education and key social programs, including funds for social and community services provision…

    An ASU survey of over 2,000 workers in 2008 found that 52 percent were not committed to staying in the industry beyond five years and that 40 percent planned to leave for better pay elsewhere. Moreover, 17 percent of managers said they expected a more than 50 percent staff turnover in the following two years and 43 percent predicted a turnover of 20-49 percent.

    Around half of social and community workers are part-time, nearly double the workforce average. An Australian Council of Social Services survey in 2007 revealed that 79 percent of community sector organisations in Victoria had increased their reliance on volunteers and unpaid work from staff over the year. A 2008 study by the Victorian Council of Social Services found that under-funding was a major issue and contributed to an “unhealthy working environment”.

    These conditions did not drop from the sky. Over the past ten years, Labor and Liberal governments alike have outsourced social and community services to private operators, destroying thousands of better-paying public sector jobs and creating a low-paid workforce across the entire community service sector.

    Unions covering workers in this sector have mounted no genuine campaigns to oppose outsourcing or to seriously improve wages and conditions in the increasingly privatised sector. Since early last year, the ASU has claimed that Labor’s Fair Work Act would provide the best means for improving pay through an equal pay case in the tribunal.

    Labor’s measures brought SACS workers under a single federal award rather than separate state awards and the legislation made reference to equal pay for work of comparable value.

    The new provisions, like previous court rulings, recognise the “principle” of equal pay. That does not mean, however, that the tribunal is compelled to grant equal pay as the government’s submission makes clear. The “principle” is subordinated to other considerations, flowing from the requirements of big business.

    In October 2009, Julia Gillard, then workplace relations minister in the Rudd government, signed a Heads-of-Agreement with the ASU, stating that the government would “support the development of an appropriate equal remuneration principle for the federal jurisdiction”.

    The ASU immediately heralded the agreement—nothing more than an empty gesture by Labor amid increasingly adverse poll results ahead of federal elections in 2010—as a significant step forward in the push for equal pay.

    Now fearing a backlash among its members, the union has criticised the Gillard government for going “weak on support for equal pay”. But in the fight for decent pay and conditions, SACS workers should be warned—the ASU also places Labor’s budgetary concerns above the interests of its community service members.

    After acknowledging that pay rises for SACS workers would have “significant budgetary impacts” for the state, territory and federal governments, the union agreed that any increases should be phased in over at least four and half years.

  7. @ndy says:

    Ghouleee, if youse go out on strike you’ll be on yr own:

    “[The ASU] had initially threatened to strike on December 15, after the public release of the government’s submission arguing that a pay increase would affect […] the budget bottom line. But ASU Assistant National Secretary Linda White says Prime Minister Julia Gillard has since clarified her support for equal pay, and a strike is no longer necessary.”

    Instead, the ASU is recommending workers learn a new dance, presumably in the hope that, if the steps are learned quickly and executed well enough on the day, the Government may be persuaded to support the ASU’s wage case. Which, following a favourable decision by the Tribunal, may result in some increases in salaries for some workers, at some point in the future. Or, perhaps, a series of mass sackings, justified on the same basis as the Government has justified its decision not to support the wage case.


    It’s not like the lives of women workers are that important anyway amirite?

    *Incidentally, ASU Assistant National Secretary Linda White is also on the ALP’s National Executive.


  8. liz says:

    Hi all,

    For those who are interested, this is something that myself (sometimes known as the other Liz), Ben and Gavin put to a WSN meeting in Melbourne. Since I haven’t seen the Renegade piece, I can’t comment on it – will it be in the world of the internet ever? – but if people are interested in the politics of the WSN in Melbourne, this is something that we thought might be a useful thing to contribute. Not sure where it has gone cos have not been involved in recent WSN stuff. But here tis for those who may be interested.

    WSN meeting 14th Sept 2010
    Proposals from Liz Thompson, Ben Rosenzweig and Gavin

    This paper contains two concrete proposals flagged at a previous WSN meeting, with a bit of background as to why we think they are important:

    While we don’t have time to make a substantial argument about the current situation, if we did it would probably include a discussion of the seemingly low level of collective industrial struggle in Melbourne, and of the massive proportion of those in wage-labour who are outside of the terrain of the trade unions. We would probably discuss the Work Choices legislation and the ALP’s continuation and extension of key elements of such legislation. (People who work in bottle shops saw their income drop by around forty percent in just a few years, to take one example; does anyone imagine that this was reversed? The ALP, horrified by the Liberal’s restriction to twenty permitted points within awards, thought it was a good idea to instead make it ten. Etcetera.)

    We would probably recall the MUA/Patrick’s dispute, and the ‘community picket’ which played such a prominent role. We would recall that though that dispute included many amazing tendencies, in the end the most promising of those tendencies were shut down. The ‘community picket,’ from which WSN itself and Union Solidarity before it took much of their inspiration, was in this case instrumentalised to help the relevant union “win” the battle to be the ones to enforce flexibility and productivity on the docks – immediately at the expense of every worker there not covered by the MUA.

    We would recall the fate of the ‘reform groups’ in Victorian trade unions over the last decade or so: defeated and dispersed, or coopted into existing leaderships to become more-or-less indistinguishable from those they opposed, or successful and seemingly totally unable to pursue even the kind of minimalist rank-and-file unionism people claimed to favour. The words ‘Craig Johnston’ perhaps suffice to explain what we mean by this tendency.

    We might even recall that it is now broadly accepted, though rarely discussed, that people perceived as oppositional within the existing blue collar unions are subject to marginalisation if not expulsion from any part of the industry that the relevant union has the power to have such perceived oppositionists expelled from.

    We would want to discuss the Left nationalism of the blue collar unions in Melbourne and the relation of such Left nationalism to the material divisions within the working class, the hierarchies and stratifications of the division of labour which trade unions must ratify, negotiate and reproduce. The recent proposals from prominent left-wing unions to use border control mechanisms to lock international students and others out of certain occupations, to prevent their permanent entry into Australian labour markets, is only the most unsubtle manifestation of this tendency.

    If we were writing a substantial paper, it would probably reflect a critique of trade unionism per se, as opposed to just one of trade union bureaucracy, lack of democracy, lack of militancy or lack of rank and file involvement.

    But this proposal is not that critique. This proposal is designed to reflect a commitment to what we believe are some areas of common ground within the WSN, and is designed to enable the WSN to put those commitments into practice.

    More specifically, in relation to the WSN, we think that it is important to be aware of, and to create space for on-going discussion of, certain possibilities inherent in this project in its relationships with trade unions.

    These include:

    The risk that the WSN can end up being reduced to the unpaid foot-soldiers of particular trade union officials any time there is an EBA negotiation.
    That the WSN becomes a substitute for mobilisation of workers in workplaces, and not just as some clever way to get around laws, a substitution which incidentally could act as a reduction in pressure on officials to have active and mobilised members (a reduction some officials would certainly welcome).
    That the WSN becomes concerned with ‘credibility’ with trade union officials in a way which leads to a form a political policing, and becomes shy of doing anything which might open up the space for activity that such officials might not like, lest such officials no longer think that the WSN is worth calling out.

    We think that in order to minimise these kind of risks, and create a culture within WSN in which these risks are less likely to become realities, that we should commit to the following:

    That the WSN assist and encourage ‘workers in struggle’ individually and collectively to produce their own material, so that the material produced in struggle is not only that of the union and the WSN.

    If put into effect, this obviously includes the inherent possibility of conflict the first time union officials don’t like the content of something produced, which in turn might reduce the ‘credibility’ of the WSN in this very specific sense. Those officials might say that the WSN is getting involved in ‘internal union issues’ the first time someone writes a leaflet criticising, or just different from, the position of ‘their own’ officials during a dispute, or people could say that the WSN is somehow backing union dissidents. And even if such things are not said publicly, this could mean that union officials decide that the WSN is not or is less desirable on picket lines and in industrial disputes generally – that whatever the WSN brings is not worth any increased possibility that workers might start to think and act, in however small the ways, independently of the union bureaucracy.

    We think that these risks to this version of credibility make it more important that the WSN commit to such a course of action in future.

    The other proposal, for the e-list (a discussion list via e-mail, like yahoo or google groups) was obviously intended to create a space in which all of the above and more could be discussed in an ongoing and detailed fashion. In hopes of creating a culture of discussion which can tease out the actual political and industrial content of struggles and of the WSN’s actions.

    So our proposals are:

    One: That the WSN commit to encouraging and assisting workers in struggle to produce their own material (leaflets etc) so that the material at pickets and during disputes need not come only from the trade union or WSN. And that this commitment – that the WSN is willing to assist workers individually or collectively to produce independent material – be promoted in WSN leaflets and other materials as much as possible.

    Two: That the WSN create a discussion e-list for the purposes of discussion between meetings.

    Signed: Liz Thompson, Ben Rosenzweig and Gavin

  9. Pingback: anarchist notes (march 10, 2011) | slackbastard

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