Food supply workers hooray! Heroes they truly are.

“Without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.” (from “Solidarity Forever”)

Who, truly, reproduces society?

The corona virus pandemic, and the Morrison government’s handling of it, brings to the fore a simple, profound although neglected truth. No society can reproduce itself without workers.

From that, because ours is a society driven by profit seeking, even this government now recognizes (without saying it) that it is workers whose labour provides profit, not just wages. Investment from employers is dead unless workers apply their “brain and muscle” for so many hours each day to the machinery and equipment put in front of them.

Showing our gratitude: health care … and food workers

Some workers, we are sharply reminded, are so essential that without their work sickness and death reigns.

Now, in gratitude, we stand and applaud our health care workers, including bosses and politicians who want a pay freeze inflicted on them.

And rightly so. Their “brain and muscle” cares for us despite attacks by governments, just like Morrison’s; not just pay freezes but the full range of neoliberal management … budget cuts, staff cuts, casualised and precarious work, commandist management, corporatisation, and privatisation (in which human caring becomes a commodity).

But so far, workers in food and water production and supply are relatively unrecognised. They are the direct farmers, harvesters, equipment maintainers and repairers, energy suppliers, transport workers, factory workers, warehouse and dam workers, and retail workers, especially check out assistants. Transport and retail workers in this “chain” do get a mention here, but not those actually producing.

They deliver both profit and wages and, elementally, the food and water that gives us all, including health care workers, the physical and mental energy to do our paid and unpaid work.

And that’s true for every one of us. We cannot protest and demonstrate, think and act critically or creatively, without the labour of food and water workers.

The starting point for food is of course the soil and its interaction with water. Who owns and controls the soil-water interaction is a very big deal for all of us. (I leave our oceans aside for the moment.)

Turning our back on food workers?

In Australia a big part of this essential food and water work is done by visa workers, often in “wage theft” driven businesses.

What they do is every bit as honourable and brave as any health care worker. They deserve our recognition. Yet the Morrison government deliberately excludes them from the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme.

The government spin is that it must “draw the line somewhere”. Some workers who produce and distribute food and water to us are deserving, some are not.

Why? Because the government believes they can get away with it. Thus, they invite us to consent to that … that some workers are deserving and some are not.

We must not fall for that. Instead, think about it when we shop for our fruit and veg and so on. We must not agree that some food supply workers do not deserve our recognition and respect.

The ACTU has not fallen for that. They still work for excluded casual workers and visa workers to be brought into the scheme.

And there is another reason why we should escalate our respect for all food and water supply workers.

What brought the virus into human contact – the really big question?

It is almost certain, the science so far tells us, that the virus leapt from bats to food workers, and was probably a species of bat with very rare or no previous dangerous contact with humans. Otherwise it would have struck and spread earlier.

The particular location is almost certainly the Wuhan wet markets in China, so-called. (See here, and for further discussion, also here.)

Yes, so far everything points to food production workers being the first humans exposed. If so, we can be certain that that they did not choose to be exposed. And then the chain of human transmission formed and grew exponentially in the way that most of us now understand.

The really big question is this. What is the root cause of the pandemic?

In what ways has food production changed so that, for the first time, the virus leapt from animals in the first place? What had changed in food production that triggered the leap?

Discussing this question is critical. Here is one reason why.

Understanding “root cause” is essential

This past week we have been introduced slowly and carefully to the idea that there may not ever be a vaccine for the virus. Scientists have known this possibility for a long time.

If there is not the possibility of a short term, say 12 months, vaccine that works, the profit-seeking system, and our own social instincts, will push a return to work before a vaccination is available. At the very least, that means hundreds of thousands may remain exposed to the illness, serious sickness and possible death.

And that leaves in place the prospect of another virus appearing with similar potency against humans.

Surely “we” must demand a focus on the root cause and deal with that. The word is “prevent”: prevent new, exotic killer viruses.

And, what happens if a vaccination is found for this virus and, the “new” food production methods continue, not investigated and not dealt with? There will be a new virus.

The “root cause” question is generally neglected across main stream discussion , except for an article here and there that sort of sidles up to the issue and then wanders away. (For example, here.)

Nevertheless, serious “root cause” discussion is going on, and it is all about the link between viruses and food production, and who owns and controls food production. We are fortunate this is the case; there are critical thinking epidemiologists and activists in other fields articulating a deeper investigation into cause and effect.

Understanding “root cause” is actually dangerous knowledge. Not for the 90 percent of the population and within them food and water supply workers. Rather, dangerous for the ten per cent who profit from food production methods that enable new destructive virus – human interactions.

A Workers’ Alternative Programme

In Australia, the United Workers Union (UWU, through its National Secretary, Tim Kennedy), has published for discussion a pithy Workers Programme that advances the perspective of the 90%, the majority of the population.

This is such a positive development in the Australian situation. It is the starting point to challenge the government’s desire to “snap back” or “stagger back” to the normalcy that existed before the pandemic. That normalcy included the drift to a recession that would give us around 9% unemployment sometime between June and December.

There is so much that is positive in the UWU proposal. It can help us work out what there is that the government has done that we want to polish up and keep, for example the doubling of the JobSeeker rate. There are other bits that the government might like to keep – subsidies that enable shareholder and owner protection and stricter controls over public association – that we must vigorously resist.

Correctly, the UWU proposal links climate change transition to new jobs creation and the possibilities for renewed manufacturing under democratic public ownership.

However, the UWU proposal is inadequate in some areas. It is silent on “closing the gap” for our First Nations peoples, in my view the most urgent of programmes to tackle rising inequality. It falls short on corporate tax reform and democratic control of financial flows (ie banks, private investors and the stock exchange).

There is a pre-history to the UWU proposal in our union movement. In 1978 the AMWU closed the pages of its famous “Australia Uprooted” with a Peoples Economic Programme.

Readers of this post can help create popular momentum for the UWU proposal and its improvement. It is the seed for the birth of a movement that we need and is possible. Silo campaigning will be a failure.

Every worker is talking with their workmates, their families and friends about their grievances with the present situation. Many of them want to have a go in their own good time. Many know already that they will have to fight for their interests as soon as the conditions allow. Their instincts know that this government and their own bosses cannot be trusted with SnapBack.

The UWU programme can harness those justified grievances towards a more powerful movement.

Urgency

From now through to the next 6 months will be decisive and shape the possibilities for the majority for the next 6 years or so. The absence of a peoples mobilisation behind a polished Workers Programme will load up heavy austerity into the lives of the 90 per cent for the next 6 years or more.

We are all members of organisations. We can encourage them, from below, to seek meetings and dialogue with the UWU to improve on, and put spit and polish into the proposal. We can seek to combine all organisations, including for example the Anti-Poverty Network, into an improved version that appeals to all parts of the Australian working class, the 90%, and shows due respect to workers in food and water supply. There are at least 3 other unions with a strong presence in food manufacturing. They must be involved.

We can start preparing for that moment when we can pursue our demands in public debate, physical delegations, in work go-slows, mass meetings, and coordinated , UNITING public demonstrations and other forms of action used in our past and still to be designed by our collective creativity. To get what we all need: a healthy, fair and democratic society, living and working to create the renewal of the natural world on which we all depend.

Restoring Solidarity Bargaining: is it possible?

Earlier this week, as the ACTU pointed out, the government’s mid year economic update (MYEFO) confirmed that the Morrison government continues to mislead everyone about wages and that wages would remain suppressed for some time into the future. More mainstream commentators are now linking this to other negative trends in the economy that amount to a drift towards economic downturn, maybe recession.

As we drift further into general economic downturn, felt acutely for some years by wage earners, two useful recent bits of information have come to hand. Neither have been widely reported, let alone discussed.

Rate of exploitation

First, from last week’s quarterly national accounts, we see that the rate of exploitation of the Australian workforce continues to rise.

This rate of exploitation is actually somewhat higher because this ABS data includes the salaries of chief and other senior executives who are not exploited. Rather, on behalf of the owners they serve, they supervise and direct the exploitation of the 90%.

Longer term data shows that the current rate of exploitation of workers is about double what it was 50 odd years ago.

The second item comes from research reported by the Centre for Future Work’s Jim Stanford (CFW).

Young workers and award dependence

We see that 67 per cent of “young people” in work (column “Paid by award”) depend for their standard of living on the rate of pay defined in their relevant industrial award. (For employers engaged in wage theft these minimum rates are what they are trying to dodge.) We also know that women workers are far more likely to be on these minimum rates.

Put together, these two separate pieces of information can inform the discussion we must continue to have about our union movement’s ongoing strategy.

Our union movement’s current strategy is a failure, for all but a few

The current union strategy is dominated by compliance with the many “broken rules” of the FWA09 and, within that by enterprise bargaining (EB).

We also know that the parliamentary road to fairness is a dead end. That’s the big outcome and perhaps the big lesson for 21st century unionists from the Federal election result. Those who want us to stick to the parliamentary road must also explain the “logic” of 5 more years passively complying with the broken rules that rob workers of their power and, among other things, are the architecture of wages suppression and rising profits, and the restriction on workers negotiating the purpose of their work.

The enterprise bargaining (EB) addiction

We know that EB is falling apart and is a dead end.  The number of agreements and the number of workers covered by them have been falling for some years now. (See this, and also this.) Union density decline started well before enterprise bargaining but EB has certainly not helped to reverse it.

Our union movement’s fixation on enterprise bargaining can be described as an addiction: it is slowly killing us but every time a threshold EB dispute comes along, we throw our solidarity behind it, while dozens of others receive barely any attention at all, and then celebrate the brave workers if they win (as we should) or complain loudly about the “broken rules” when we lose (as we should).

EB is actually contrary to the core logic, or starting point, of union solidarity: to take wages and conditions out of competition.

What do I mean by that? The very first unionists – discovering their strength in acts of combination – had to learn that workplace only bargaining was the biggest threat to what they would win. A victory in one workplace would be threatened by the competitive advantage to the employers’ competitor that would, in turn, put downward pressure on the victory that had been achieved. The security of one workplace’s wage victory, or improved safety, would depend on it being achieved in the competitor.

Focal points for Solidarity Bargaining

There could be 2, maybe 3, possible focal points that puts Solidarity Bargaining at the forefront of union strategy and pushes EB back to become supplementary action

One of them is industry wide or multi – employer EB, starting from within the current rules. This was discussed a lot during the parliamentary Change the Rules campaign and was one of the prime demands on the Labor Party in the lead up to the election: the restoration of law that enabled industry wide bargaining. (Check here for a recent re-opening of this issue.)

Another is the Annual Wage Review (AWR). These are not mutually exclusive; they can be designed to reinforce each other. For now, let’s take a closer look at the AWR.

AWR: a brief reminder

The FWA09 (current Fair Work Act) requires that each year the FWC (Fair Work Commission), led by its President, conduct a review of minimum rates of pay; not just the statutory national minimum but also the minimum rates for the various classifications in our industrial awards.

2.2 million workers are directly affected by the AWR, plus another unknown number paid marginally above those minimum rates.

The industrial parties – the ACTU on behalf of all workers – and various employer organisations for employers, governments, and some social non-government organisations make submissions about what they say the increase should be.

The rules are stacked against the workers. They remove a bargaining process and replace it with consultations; in effect, for workers and their unions it is toothless because industrial action to support their claim could be defined as not “protected”.

This year the deadline date for the parties’ submissions is March 15th 2020, and the decision must be handed down in late May – early June so that it can be applied from July 1st.

At time of writing we do not know what the ACTU submission will propose. In recent years it has sought to increase the minimum wage to a “living wage”, defined as 60% of the median wage. Last year the ACTU sought an increase of 6% (page 7) to the minimum wage as stage 1 of 2 steps to get the living wage median. They said that if that was granted they would follow up this year (the current Review) with a 5.5% claim.

Last year The FWC awarded 3%, favouring the arguments from the employers in their long explanation.

Alongside of Budget decisions affecting unemployment and associated benefits, the AWR is the single most important annual event that one way or another determines what is happening regarding inequality and the struggle against poverty.

Changing the Rules by doing it?

An alternative, better strategy based on solidarity bargaining must start from within current reality. There can be no rapid shift just because enough of us “call for it”: one day dead end, the next day the light on the hill. It must be developed over time and be rooted in core unionism.

Therefore, over the next few years, and starting as soon as possible, we could restore a focus on an industrial strategy that might start in compliance but then, step by step, some of them big, some of them small, and some in-between, move to defiance. Seeking to win by a big “critical mass” defying the law, not just complying with it.

It cannot be rash or self-indulgent defiance. The strategy must be shared and disciplined, certainly starting small with a decent enough group of unions willing to pursue it, and then accumulating more support and participants as it goes through each stage.

Just as the defensive campaign against the Ensuring Integrity Bill (for more check here) provides a common focus for the whole movement, and requires online and face to face lobbying tasks, an offensive strategy on the Annual Wage Review that escalates solidarity bargaining can start in the same way.

Physical demonstrations can be deployed at selected moments, each having the purpose of informing more members and the broader public of our intent and conducted to attract more people into the actions that will follow, aiming for successively bigger demonstrations.

Every task and action is done to educate all participants that they are together building a 3-5 year strategy.

Think along these lines. What if 600 people – from a good range of unions – rallied in front of the FWC on March 15th (or thereabouts as agreed) to coincide with the presentation of the ACTU’s claim for the AWR now under way?

And then on May Day a couple of months later, on the actual day, there is a follow up with 3000 or 6000 people doing the same, or maybe in front of the headquarters of a major employer organisation?

And, in between, there are smaller but creative physical demonstrations at major events attended by the Treasurer, the Prime Minister or the Workplace Relations Minister.

All the while there is online and face to face lobbying of key politicians, the FWC itself and major employers in support of the ACTU claim and, bringing into play – on the offensive – the 40-45,000 click activists who have been involved in the fight against the EIB.

And, why we oppose the EIB can be a part of the public learning about our demands on the AWR, and associated with that wage theft, built around the theme of fighting inequality.

Union growth can be built into the tasks and actions that drive the strategy in all sorts of ways.

Remember, 67% of young workers are dependent upon the AWR for wage increases because the AWR lifts the rates for each classification in each award (or not). Every union will have members and potential members younger than 35 whose standard of living is defined by the AWR.

Compliant enterprise bargaining is not useful to them, whether they live in poverty, on its border line, or marginally above it. Solidarity bargaining is far more relevant to them.

The economics for this AWR

What follows does not take into account, yet, the impact of the climate change driven bushfires on the economy, although we know already that there is nothing good for tens of thousands already affected.

This AWR is the first since the previous economic downturn in 2008-9 that coincides with both wages suppression and the steady drift into general economic downturn. (For example, read here, here, and here.)

Back then the Rudd Labor government took emergency measures to soften the impact of the global economic crisis in Australia.

However, these did not include changes to Howard’s notorious Workchoices industrial laws, nor better law for annual minimum wage fixing. The so-called “reforms” of the FWA09 did not start until late 2009.

Howard’s fair pay decision maker, Stephen Harper, an academic economist was still in place. and he decided that the pay increase for the year of that downturn, 2009, would be 0%.

Harper is now on the board of the Reserve Bank. The Reserve Bank’s approach to wage suppression is to say that it is a serious problem and then ask employers to give a bit of a wage increase if their employees ask for one. They have never endorsed the ACTU approach to minimum wage increases and probably never will.

Now is a good time

Today, 21st century workers are being exploited at twice the rate that workers of the late 60’s and early seventies.

Enterprise bargaining unionism has contributed to that situation.

It’s time to restore an industrial strategy that re-builds the foundations of power that provide industry and class wide power for workers … it’s called solidarity bargaining.

We defeat the “Ensuring Integrity” Bill: tactical victory or strategic breakthrough?

How should union movement activists define the first defeat of the Ensuring Integrity Bill (EIB)? A major strategic breakthrough or a significant tactical achievement? And why does it matter?

The May Federal election showed the limits of a union strategy focussed almost exclusively on the parliamentary road to fairness.

During the election campaign Morrison and the LNP policy showed no appetite for this Bill. But the employers did and they wasted no time making sure that the new Lib – Nat government would go after unions in a big way, even though the current Fair Work Act 2009 (FWA09) is heavily stacked in their favour, loaded with what we have called its “broken rules”.

Remember, the government’s full Review of the FWA09 is also under way, as required by the employer organisations and their gross lie to the Australian public that the FWA09 is loaded against them, not workers.

Defeating the renewed EIB became an immediate priority for us because it would hit hard at workers’ capacity to use both compliant and defiant unionism And, we had to build that fight very quickly on the rocky terrain of a dispirited and somewhat confused activist base arising from the election result. This necessary defensive engagement was consistent with but could not expect to break through against the FWA09’s anti-worker “rules”. The activist base of our depleted union movement responded strongly in a lobbying campaign and has been defined as the main reason for last Friday’s win.

Our victory means we are marking time, not set back, nor marching forwards towards a “fairer” Fair Work Act, of which the most important feature is the “the right” to strike. What remains at stake is how we go about fighting wage suppression, wage theft and inequality, and associated climate catastrophe. Can we entertain strategic options beyond the “parliamentary road”?

There are 3 good reasons for talking about last Friday’s “win” as a tactical achievement.

There will be a round 2 of this battle pretty quickly

The first and the most obvious is that the Bill will be returned to the Parliament probably next week for reconsideration early next year. The battle will have to be won again, but next time over the torpor of the summer holiday funk that most union activists yearn for. The terrain for us to win again might improve if, in the meantime, the government loses out in the Taylor affair, and on other fronts like its proposed changes on religious discrimination. One self-indulgent, careless act by any union leader in this time will have consequences.

Whatever the thinking behind the ACTU’s courtship of One Nation (ON) and its leader Pauline Hanson, this was a necessary tactical decision; not because of the headline rapprochement with Hanson, but because it paid due respect to the significant working class cohort in the ON electoral base. However, ON’s rejection of the Bill at this Senate vote will not necessarily be repeated. Hanson is rarely consistent or logical. Repeating our effort will depend again on our movement’s effort to mobilise working class ON members and hangers on to tell Hanson and Roberts to vote NO once more. Where Senator Lambie will go next time is also an unknown.

We should never forget that ON politics is based on a racist view of the world that in its essence divides the working class. All the more reason not to build our offensive strategy for the future on tactical necessity to persuade their leaders in the short term.

What type of unionism: compliance and / or defiance?

The second reason for defining this win as a tactical achievement lies in the character of the unionism that we wish to practice both immediately and into the future.

Much of the “mainstream” debate was framed around militant unionism being bad and obedient unionism being acceptable. The EIB is an attack on both. The Bill’s primary spokesperson, Attorney-General Christian Porter, defended the Bill because it would inflict no harm on the Shop Assistants Union that he defined as a “gold standard” union.

To be accurate about it, the ACTU’s messaging was not always about this: highly regarded union workers like nurses, teachers and firefighters, need to to defy the “unprotected action” laws of the current FWA09 to run effective campaigns on healthy employment ratios and the like.

However, this messaging was not always promoted to the broader public. Pushed along by Senator Lambie’s bargaining position, the tendency to “CFMMEU bad, nurses good” was quite prominent.

The modern parliamentary ALP wants compliant unionism. It was the primary architect of the “broken rules” of the FWA09. At the May election it advocated quite narrow reforms if it won government that would reward cooperation with employers and not include an advance on the “right” to strike. There are enough union leaders around who are quite comfortable with that model of compliance.

But do we want an early 2020 tactical campaign to allow ourselves to be defined as “compliant”? What is wrong with defying laws that deny workers the bargaining power to deal effectively with employers on a single employer or industry basis, or to intervene industrially in issues of great social consequence, for example anti-apartheid, anti-war and the march to climate catastrophe?  Compliant unionism has been a dominant feature of our union history but the great historical breakthroughs have been made by defiant, militant unionism that stretch and even break the law. They have NOT been produced through cooperation with employers.

From defensive actions to a new strategic offensive

For 2 to 3 years our union movement has followed a parliamentary road to fairness as its prime strategy. The development and use of restored industrial power was pulled back until a Labor government would “Change the Rules” of Labor’s broken FWA09.

With some exceptions, business as usual has meant obedient grievance handling, compliant enterprise bargaining, and inadequate and obedient annual wage review interventions. These are the elements of the current strategy. But this strategy is not working: it is not generating momentum for union re-growth let alone breakthroughs against wages suppression or defining the role of workers in dealing with climate change, or fixing unions in the public mind as the effective leaders against wage theft.

The enterprise bargaining addiction – despite our deeply felt complaints against it – is particularly harmful. It is a dead end: the number of agreements is declining and their general quality, not just the reduced wage outcomes, is worsening. Nevertheless, we are so addicted that we celebrate the occasional enterprise bargaining victory as a reflection of a noble undertaking. The addicted get their hit and we stagger on blindly searching for the next one. We consent to the logic of competition between employers and in supply chains.

This is the fruit of strategic compliance pushed along by leaders and accepted by members who have not developed thinking and messaging for a new strategy beyond working to get the ALP into government.

We desperately need a new strategy that restores the primacy of industrial campaigning, not least because unions are at their core workplace and industrial organisations. Social intervention depends on that primary rationale, not the other way around. Unions that do not struggle to take wages, conditions and safety out of the competition between employers and their supply chains will wither. The current strategy does not stand up to that core test.

A new strategy means a different line of march that starts on the terrain we are on and that includes limited union consciousness, although strong instincts, among our members, not just those who have not yet joined.

Restoring industrial power to workers will not come from wishing for it, but rather from lots of union education (not just in classes) and less meming, and steadily building industry wide actions that provide experience of it, rather than calling for the “right” to do it. This means building towards common, shared industry-wide defiance, not jumping immediately to it. That means some unions who think they are ready for it now, must be patient and help bring lots more unions into it.

We can see this strategic possibility (instead of the current one) by paying attention to the possibilities that lie in the Annual Wage Review (AWR), conducted by the Fair Work Commission under the requirements of the FWA09, that include the denial of protected industrial action rights. (For more on how this works, please read here.)

The Annual Wage Review (AWR): struggling industrially against wage suppression, instead of complaining about it

The AWR is, potentially, the most important annual event in which workers, led by union workers, can be the prime protagonists against wage suppression and wage theft. (The last decision can be read here.)  It is an opportunity to practice the fight against rising inequality and associated rising rates of exploitation by shifting it onto better terrain.

The AWR outcome impacts directly on low paid workers, those on the minimum wage or on or close to the minimum rates in our industrial awards. However, the outcome also spins off to affect those who are on wage rates that are above those minimums. (Basic union education can explain how and why this is important at all levels of our union movement.)

The current AWR is now underway. Each year the ACTU lodges a claim on behalf of all workers, not just union workers. At time of writing, the ACTU claim for the current review has not been announced. In previous years its claim has aimed to lift the current minimum to what it defines as a “living wage”, that is 60% of the overall median wage. (Keep in mind that the median wage includes the salaries of chief and senior executives thus understating the real median of real wage earners.)

This year’s review will proceed as the global economy, and the Australian economy along with it, drifts into downturn and, possibly, even worse. And this coincides with the fiery burn to climate catastrophe.

The common chorus from across the ruling class – employers and their organisations, their LNP government, the mainstream media and economics commentators, bankers, and the Reserve Bank – will reject a decent increase because it is not affordable. Wage increases should be left absolutely within the power of each employer. The Reserve Bank Governor calls for wage increases but will not support the ACTU claim.

Historically, economic downturns have usually pushed Australian unions into retreat, and more recently, the FWC have directed a zero increase.

But we do not have to comply. We could defy, and do it socially and industrially: building steadily towards an actual demonstration of popular union power that builds in and attracts new union members. We grow by calculated and measured, steadily escalating, industrial actions.

In April and May there were big Change the Rules demonstrations on working week days, 120,000 plus in Melbourne and 6000 (possibly more) in Sydney.

Next year let’s have 6000 or 60,000 workers from all incomes demonstrating and packing out the FWC hearing rooms. That does require a strategy of imagination and defiance. But it has been done before and there is nothing in the genetic makeup of the 21st century Australian worker that says it cannot be done again.

Every union has members, and importantly, thousands of potential members who will be directly affected by the AWR outcome. The outcome will spread to that minority of members who are on enterprise agreements. A movement wide campaign is an opportunity to give living effect to class solidarity, making our singing about it dynamic instead of a ritual.

We do not wait for “the market” to restore wages as if there is some ordained law that demands our obeisance and humiliation. We work away from enterprise bargaining. We fight our way out of the morass with calculated, educated defiance rather than blind compliance.