Melbourne and Perth: a tale of two union actions
In Melbourne 10000 building and construction workers went on illegal strike against the Victorian Government’s Construction Code and its Compliance Unit. In Perth 3000 workers marched against Gina Rinehart and her attempts to exploit temporary foreign workers through Enterprise Migration Agreements.
The Melbourne strike was a direct ‘up yours’ to both the Baillieu Government in Victoria and the Gillard Labor Government in Canberra. Apart from taking illegal action – can a Government prosecute 10000 workers or will it just try to fine the unions and perhaps provoke an even greater brawl? – the construction unions will also target companies which adopt the Victorian government’s new code for building worker employers.
The Perth demonstration was more problematic. On the positive side it was a direct challenge to Gina Rinehart and her attacks on workers through an Enterprise Migration Award she negotiated with the Labor Government to allow her to bring in 1700 temporary foreign workers on 457 visas for her Roy Hill mine.
EMAs have been set up to address workforce shortages in areas like the early stages of mining where the bosses say it is impossible to attract Australian workers.
In the past the Australian ruling class have attempted to address shortages generally by bringing in skilled and other labour. According to the Department of Immigration skilled workers will make up about 130,000 of the 190,000 immigration intake, and 60,000 people will come in under the family reunion programme. There are just under 14,000 humanitarian places.
The skilled migration program is inadequate. But so too is the skills training program in Australia. One of the paradoxes of increased higher education (at a price) under the neoliberal model is a lessening of the flow of workers into productive work. It’s all very well having a glut of lawyers but sparkies, chippies, engineers and other similar workers are what a robust Australian capitalism needs.
But to have a real training program for skilled workers for say the mining industry would require actually paying for it and the bosses don’t want to do that. Least of all do they want taxes imposed on them to do that since that would cut into their precious profits. Labor and Liberal neoliberalism won’t allow that.
The final thing that is inadequate in all of this is the wages paid to workers in high demand areas.
ABS figures show that the average wage paid to work in often rotten, fly in fly out, out of the way mines is just under $120,000 on average per employee (including workers and managers). The value they create is just under $610,000 annum. The difference – about $490,000 per worker – goes to Gina and Clive and Twiggy and the rest of the rotten crew.
So if there are shortages of workers, pay them more to fill the gap. Ah, but that would cut into Gina’s profit wouldn’t it? So instead the bosses seek foreign workers whom they can exploit (ie pay lower wages to and cut their conditions).
Why are these EMA/457 temporary visas a problem? Here is what the ACTU says:
Workers from these countries [on 457 visas] tend to be at greater risk of being exploited by unscrupulous recruitment and migration agents and employers through:
The potential for recruitment and/or migration agents to provide misinformation during the recruitment process;
A lack of traditional support and family networks in Australia;
Unfamiliarity with the way the Australian legal and administrative system works; and
A lack of knowledge of their rights under Australian law and low rates of union membership.
What do I conclude from this? Australian bosses are the enemy, not foreign workers.
However the demonstrations in Perth was basically for ‘Aussie jobs’. One of the posters advertising the rally said ‘Resource companies should employ local workers first’.
The bosses have pounced on the extreme nationalism and sometimes racism of some sections of the trade union movement and Labor left to try to undermine the union campaign against the exploitation of foreign workers. The irony of the Australian Mines and Metals Association, Alexander Downer and in the media the likes of The Australian and the Australian Financial Review criticising the unions for racism or xenophobia isn’t lost on us.
And of course the bosses use racism as a tool to divide workers. But when an ALP Senator, and former union leader, Doug Cameron, tells Sabra Lane on ABC’s AM program about the Gina Rinehart EMA:
I’m gobsmacked. I just think that in the week where Australian workers are being marched off the job in Kurri Kurri and Tullamarine, that we’re marching Chinese workers on to Roy Hill; it just defies logic to me.
As I wrote previously in an article called Yes to Chinese workers: no to ‘Aussie’ nationalism about Senator Cameron’s comment:
That looks to me like an appeal to racist sentiment. Racism has a long tradition in some sections of the Australian union movement.
It is also a reflection of the failure of the class collaborationist politics of Cameron and the rest of the nationalist left over the last decades. They can’t and won’t fight to defend jobs in manufacturing (other than through protectionist, essentially anti-foreign worker policies.) They believe in and practice class collaboration, the idea that jobs will ‘trickle down’ if we are nice to bosses and basically give them what they want, but keeping the dominant role of the trade union bureaucracy as the retailers of the price of labour power to the bosses.
According to Lian Jenvey in Socialist Alternative in May:
In last month’s edition of Rank and File Voice, the MUA’s newspaper, union secretary Chris Cain stated: “I have made it known to all our membership that we will not stand by and watch foreign labour take our jobs.”
We need to demand not “protection” from overseas workers, but that Australian businesses and governments expand employment. More taxes on the mining and gas companies, more investment by the government, more training, more jobs.
Lian also reports that Aussie jobs became a de facto slogan of the May Day march in Perth.
We on the revolutioanry left must always stress that we are not opposed to foreign workers. We welcome them, and must demand that unions have the power to police awards and agreements, and award rates, or if higher, market rates, and safety and adequate living conditions for all workers including those on 457 visas.
So we can have no truck with racism, or xenophobia, or the disguised racism that disguises itself as nationalism and Aussie jobs first. Here’s how Lian Jenvey put it in Socialist Alternative:
Union leaders are no doubt opposed to the super exploitation of overseas workers. But the call for “Aussie jobs” or even “local jobs” does nothing to address the precarious situation of those workers. The union should have campaigned for the workers to be allowed to continue their employment in spite of their visa restrictions, attempted to organise them into the union and welcomed them as potential allies in the struggle against the bosses.
In fact, the fight against 457 visas and the super exploitation of overseas labour should not be to keep workers out, but to lift all visa restrictions placed upon those who are recruited for projects in Australia. If the bosses are prepared to use and exploit them in Australia, those workers should get full rights like any other worker living here. That would also make it easier to organise them to fight for those rights.
The argument that we should fight for all workers and against the bosses and not just Australian workers has an honourable traditional. Workers of the world unite was the rallying call of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels in the Communist Manifesto. For a divided working class, one that accepts the racist position of the ruling class, cannot win a new world free of oppression and exploitation. Racism is one of the chains that stops our struggle as workers against the Rineharts of this world.
Aussie jobs and similar slogans are part of the problem, not the solution. Class struggle offers the best way to defend foreign workers and win them residency and employment rights and conditions the same as other workers in Australia. That fight can then lead to a fight against the same and other bosses when they sack workers in Australia or cut their wages or conditions.
And that is what happened in Melbourne today. Workers responded to direct government attacks on them by walking off the job, an action that is illegal under Labor’s industrial laws. It may be just the start of a real fight against these draconian laws against construction workers.
Workers in Perth could follow suit, not for Aussie jobs and other dead ends but for more jobs, for permanent residency for all who come here to work, for proper wages, for empowering unions to police all worksites and for more spending on infrastructure, education and training, paid for by the bosses.