From the outset of the Covid-19 crisis, capitalists have been looking for a way to make workers pay for it. Across the Pacific in the United States, despite massive unemployment, billionaires are raking in more profit than ever1. This is no different in Australia, where businesses are being provided tax breaks, rental assistance, and many having the paychecks of their workforce covered, whilst many see a windfall in profit. Although workers have been protected by government assistance in the immediate aftermath of the first wave of Covid-19, we are now faced with the prospect of a massive counter attack by business and their government allies to pay for these corporate bailouts, with unions under pressure to concede workers’ pay and conditions under the guise of saving jobs.
The last two months have already seen the few first volleys. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) attempted to set up a ‘national framework’ that would cut pay and conditions industry wide under the false pretense of saving jobs, failing only because of intense worker resistance to the union bureaucracy2. Successful court action by the Shopkeepers and Distributors Association (SDA) in conjunction with McDonalds and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) have seen massive condition cuts to part time workers in the fast food industry, undermining the rights of hundreds of thousands of workers3.
These are the first steps in a broader industrial assault. Scott Morrison recently announced that a key component of his economic strategy is changes to industrial relations through courting an “accord 2.0” between business, government, and unions, which would seek to find a common agreement on Australia-wide changes to wages, conditions, union action, and workers rights4.
We can learn a lot about how insidious Morrison’s accord strategy is by examining the last time unions were courted into a deal with governments and business. The original accord was an agreement brokered in 1983 between the Hawke government and labour leaders that attempted to institute ‘labour peace’ in exchange for social welfare programs for workers. This was, as Liz Humpreys points out, a result of unions accepting the capitalist logic that their successes in pushing wages up had led to social division and price inflation, meaning that collaboration with the state was a necessary to defeat the common enemy of inflation5.
This strategy to combat inflation required unions to collaborate with the state and businesses to collectively manage the economic situation, necessarily requiring compromises from the union movement. The content of this deal was an agreement to forgo wage rises and militant action in exchange for social welfare programs and wages indexed to inflation. However, not only was the content of the deal a radical break from the workplace militancy that dominated many critical industries in Australia across the 60s and 70s, but the style of the deal – politically brokered from the top down without the consent of workers – lay the foundations for the state-oriented, bureaucratic union bodies that we see today.
This political deal was, unsurprisingly, an unmitigated disaster for the average rank and file unionist, whose resistance was cracked down on not only by the government and business, but the labour bureaucracy as well. This most notably resulted in the ACTU supporting the deregistration of the radical and rank-and-file run Builders Labourers Union (BLF) in NSW, the use of legal action to fine manufacturing workers who struck ‘outside the accord’ in the late 1980s, and abandoning support for airline pilots during a massive strike in 1989-90, leading to more than a thousand pilots leaving the industry after the military was called in to strikebreak, among others6. These actions were deliberate assaults that aimed to demoralise rank-and-file union activity, and empower the labour bureaucracy to make deals on behalf of the workers. Although there are many other factors that have led to the decline of the union movement in Australia, it is no surprise that when the union leaders sold out workers’ autonomy and let business ravage radical unions, the enthusiasm to fight for power on the shop floor was subsumed by pithy electoral demands.
The original accord highlights the broader contradictory position of the union bureaucracy, as opposed to rank and file unionists. Union bureaucracies (habitually elected officials, organisers, union lawyers, ect.) are both bound to win wages and conditions for the workers that put them in their position, but are also dependant on the preservation of the current capitalist system, which will seek profit at the expense of workers’ at any cost. The way to resolve this contradiction in their favour is to strike deals that undermine worker autonomy to their own benefit – this move was in effect the original accord on a massive scale.
We can see parallels to the approach of unions to this current crisis to the economic turmoil preceding the original accord. With union density at record lows, unions have a far weaker bargaining position to make deals with the capitalists for workers rights. Instead of the carrot, which in the case of the first accord were social welfare programs, the Morrison government will be looking to use the stick to strong arm the union movement to accept changes to industrial relations, which will undoubtedly seek to legally contain workers’ autonomy to win wages and conditions. This will give immense power to bosses for them to cut wages and conditions, which will allow them to either externalise the costs of this economic crisis or exploit it for their own benefit.
With this analysis in mind, how can anarchists respond to this crisis effectively? If we are to remain true to our principles – that the revolution against capitalism will come when the mass of workers revolt and take ownership of their destiny – our answer cannot lie in abstention, but must be, using our analysis, forming the appropriate mode of struggle within the labour movement for our current moment. Given the anarchist principles of building rank-and-file power, and denying bureaucracy and hierarchy, we can perhaps more accurately reframe the question: in what ways can anarchists engage with unions, in a way that builds revolutionary power, and in a way that doesn’t concede to the reformist tendencies of the union bureaucracy? This question will be interrogated in depth in the next bulletin.
The above bulletin was produced by a new anarchist-communist reading group organised in Sydney. Check out their Facebook group for more information.
- Elizabeth Humphrys, How labour built neoliberalism : Australia’s accord, the labour movement and the neoliberal project, 2018. Pages 173-4.
- As above, pages 185-195.