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John Passant

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April 2011



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Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

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Does the Australian working class have the power to change society?

Marxism is the theory and practice of proletarian revolution. It stands or falls, therefore, on the capacity of the working class to carry through such a revolution. However, the working class is not trapped in time but is constantly evolving in line with changes to the structure of capitalist industry and general trends in capital accumulation.

These changes, and the consequences of them for the power of the working class, have been the subject of vigorous debate for more than a century as enemies of Marxism, social democrats and liberals, as much as reactionaries, have sought to cast doubt on the revolutionary capacity of the working class.

In the past two or three decades, a range of left wing writers, including some who identify as Marxists, such as David Harvey, John Holloway and Toni Negri, have concluded that the capitalist offensive against the working class has rendered it incapable of leading a fight for revolutionary change. They point to the undoubted decline in working class combativity in many Western countries, with union numbers falling and strikes at historic lows.

They raise a series of arguments. One is that in a globalised world, if workers organise, the bosses can simply shut down their operations and move overseas. Fearing such an outcome, workers keep their heads down. Second, that the old blue collar industries of big factories, construction sites and mines have been replaced by small offices and “service” work dominated by baristas and IT staff. Such workers, writers suggest, lack the collective power of blue collar workers as they are not concentrated in sufficient numbers to organise unions and do not have the traditions of blue collar industries. And third, that working class unity is next to impossible as the “permanent” or “standard” workforce is now being overwhelmed by the rise of the “non-standard” or “precarious” workforce stuck in “McJobs” and who shift from one unstable job to another.

Women in particular are thought to suffer from this precariousness. Some feminist writers conclude that women workers have distinct and counterposed interests to those of male workers, which can only be advanced by means other than the allegedly “male” weapon of strikes.

If these arguments are correct, the working class movement is in big trouble. But are they? At best, they are only a partial representation of some elements of working class life today. But most of them are just plain wrong. The working class retains the power to change the world. Let’s look at the evidence from Australia.

The death of the working class?

Rumours of the death of the working class are much exaggerated. The working class is made up of those who sell their ability to work for a wage and have little or no formal control over what they and others do in the workplace by virtue of their lack of ownership or control over the means of production.

In Australia, the working class comprises about 70 per cent of the 11 million-strong workforce whose only wealth is in the form of home ownership and superannuation. To these 7 million-plus employees we should also add their dependents, the unemployed and working class pensioners. The working class stands in sharp contrast to the capitalists, who are a tiny minority of the population – 200 rich Australian households each hold wealth of more than $200 million.

The working class has changed in structure substantially in recent decades. Rural industries accounted for 9 per cent of the workforce in 1966 but only 1.5 per cent today. Manufacturing has shrunk from 26 per cent of the workforce to only 9 per cent. By contrast, retail has grown strongly, as have jobs in health care and social assistance and a range of personal and business services. As the industrial structure has changed, so too have occupations. The share of tradespersons, labourers and miners in the workforce has dropped from 37 per cent to 25-28 per cent. Professionals have more than doubled, from 10 to 22 per cent.

But these data do not at all suggest that blue collar workers are an endangered species. The construction workforce – at 10 per cent of the workforce – is at a record high. And blue collar workers can be found throughout the service sector, including truck drivers, forklift drivers, postal workers, garbos and security guards. And workers in a wide range of jobs that were once incorporated in manufacturing – for example, catering and cleaning staff employed in factories – have been outsourced to contractors and are now counted as service sector workers. The same applies to people who used to work in food processing but now cook in restaurants.

Any idea that white collar workers are somehow not part of the working class or lack power is completely false. Compare the work experience of assembly line workers in a factory with that of call centre operators, supermarket check-out staff and nurses: all experience routinised and fragmented jobs; all suffer from a lack of control over their work, and all suffer common workplace injuries.

White collar workers have the ability to hit the capitalists hard if they withdraw their labour. Teachers and nurses perform a crucial role maintaining the health of the working class and training workers in important skills, both of which allow the capitalists to maximise the rate of exploitation of workers in productive industries. When they strike, they undermine the flow of profits. Bank and IT workers, as much as wharfies, have the power to throttle commerce. And with much more capital equipment in their hands, and with just-in-time techniques increasingly common, manufacturing workers have enormous power to disrupt business.

“McJobs” a myth

It is not true that today’s working class are all stuck in high turnover “McJobs”. Nearly two-thirds of the workforce are employed on a permanent full time basis, and the figure is much higher once we take out students. Nearly two-thirds of all employees work a five-day week and three-quarters work the same number of hours each week. Average job tenure is seven years and getting longer. Even many “precarious” workers have relatively stable jobs. One third of casual employees usually work a five-day week. Another 11 per cent work six or seven days a week. Three-quarters of casuals and similar numbers of part-timers expect to be still working for the same employer in 12 months time. Forty-two per cent of part timers are employed as permanents and casual workers have on average been employed for four years.

And whether part time or casual, or both, such workers can still be organised into unions and can fight for their rights. Just consider another group of “precarious” workers from an earlier generation – the wharfies. If these workers – unskilled for the most part, some with criminal records, a life only one step up from desperate poverty and confronting a plentiful supply of potential scabs – could be forged into a militant union in the first half of the 20th century, so too can young school and university teachers who are employed on short term contracts today. In Wisconsin, it was university tutors who were the first to move. In Australia the National Union of Workers and Australian Services Union are making inroads into call centres and the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union has organised cleaning staff at the big Sydney hotels.

Women in the working class

This last example should also warn us against any notion that women are an inherently weak or marginalised section of the working class. Far from it: women are far more entrenched in the workforce than ever before. The proportion of women in the workforce has doubled in the past 50 years, from 29 per cent in 1954 to 59 per cent in 2010. The idea, popular in the 1970s, that women constitute some form of reserve army of labour, subject to the sack when business conditions deteriorate, has been repeatedly refuted by the experience of every recession since then.

The entry of women into paid work in massive numbers has led to a big increase in the size of the employed working class. It has brought women out of the closeted world of the home into the public world of work with a degree of economic independence. Women are now equally likely as men to be trade union members. And women in health, education and the public service have been involved in the thick of strikes in the last two decades.

Workers today are not all isolated from each other in small workplaces. It’s true that 2.5 million workers are in workplaces of fewer than five staff, but they are outnumbered by the more than 3 million who work in workplaces of more than 100. And workplaces are on average getting larger – while many factories and steel plants have shed staff, their place as big workplaces has been taken over by hospitals, universities, public service and local government offices, airports and call centres. And there are plenty of small workplaces which are part of much larger businesses – bank branches or bottle shops for example – where workers can easily combine their forces.

The fiction of “factory flight”

Finally, the notion that Australian workers lack power because their jobs may be easily shipped abroad is very misleading. There is a wide range of services – from hairdressing to nursing – that simply cannot be moved but have to be performed on site. Then there are industries that are literally fixed in the ground, such as mining and construction. Even manufacturing companies are usually loath to uproot themselves because of the costs and inconvenience. Some call centre work has been shifted overseas by phone companies and banks but, taken as a whole, these jobs represent only a small proportion of total employment in these companies.

And while globalisation may have weakened the position of clothing workers, historically a weak area of union organisation, it has strengthened the strategic power of the traditionally strong wharfies and seafarers, along with airline and financial sector workers.

Exploitation and working class politics the key

Both continuity and change are obvious from this brief review of the Australian working class. But the changes that have taken place do little to explain the weakening of working class combativity in the past three decades.

The one indisputable continuity is that workers continue to hold enormous power because it is our work that provides the profits that make the system run. In 2009, bosses laid out on average $45,000 on each worker. But they extracted $27,000 in profits, equivalent to a 60 per cent return on their investment. It is this very exploitation that is the source of our strength, whether we are casual or permanent, full time or part time, male or female, in industry or the service sector, in workplaces big or small.

Our power is confirmed every time workers go on strike, as the wheels of industry grind to a halt. In early March four major construction projects in Brisbane and the Gold Coast were brought to a standstill as 2,500 building workers went on strike for 48 hours against sham contracting and exploitation of foreign workers, costing the two major contractors, Bovis Lend Lease and Multiplex, thousands of dollars a day.

It is not the changing structure of the working class, but the politics of the labour movement leadership that explains why this power has not been aggressively mobilised in recent decades and why the bosses have got the upper hand.

The changing structure of the workforce does nothing to explain why under the ALP-ACTU Accord in the 1980s Australian workers suffered a serious wage cut and militant unions were smashed by the government with the support of the ACTU. It tells us nothing about why the enormous potential for solidarity action in support of the wharfies in the 1998 Patrick Stevedores dispute was frittered away by the ACTU and the wharfies left with a rotten deal. Nor was the changing structure of the workforce to blame for the fact that the mobilisations of hundreds of thousands against WorkChoices were pushed to one side by the union leaders for a “Vote Labor” campaign in 2007 or the continuing prostration of the union bureaucracy in the face of the maintenance of WorkChoices under Rudd and Gillard.

In both 1998 and 2005-06, the unions could have ramped up the struggle to score a decisive victory against the bosses and the Howard government and caused Labor to think twice about maintaining their industrial agenda. But by pulling back, the union leaders only wasted these opportunities and allowed the bosses and governments to resume their attacks. Pointing to the changing structure of the working class as an explanation for the weakness of the labour movement only lets the union bureaucrats off the hook.

Likewise, the argument that Australian workers are powerless in the face of globalisation – it is no coincidence that those unions which have been most aggressively in favour of cosying up to the bosses to “protect jobs and industry” through high tariffs and quotas – the textile, clothing and footwear union and the vehicle builders’ union – have had poor wages and conditions and have done nothing to take real action when jobs have been cut and factories closed. As it is, the bosses often only threaten to move production overseas in order to cow the unions. If our union leaders blink in the face of this intimidation and accept concessions in wages and conditions, then the bosses have won the contest without a fight.

And, rather than making the precariousness that does exist an explanation for why the unions are weak, it should be used to argue precisely why strong unions are needed. The casualisation of the workforce and the use of agency workers and contractors are symptoms of the weakening of the unions, not their cause. When unions have taken things in hand in the past, usually under the influence or leadership of socialists, they have successfully organised these workers. But that invariably means a confrontation with the bosses.

Rather than class struggle, however, our union leaders tells us to rely on the courts, the tribunals, Labor governments or negotiations with the bosses and to avoid strikes, thereby only perpetuating the same rotten class collaborationist politics that have brought us to the current situation.

One-sided accounts of the weakness of the working class by left wing writers, even if motivated by sympathy for workers, only reinforce the power of the bosses and the state by making it seem as if resistance is useless. Such analyses are a godsend for the union bureaucracy, which likes nothing better than a seemingly left wing argument to justify its own passivity. They are, therefore, a dangerous diversion and need to be vigorously challenged wherever they appear.

This article, by Tom Bramble, first appeared in Socialist Alternative. It draws on material from an article to be published in the next Marxist Left Review, out in April.



Comment from Magpie
Time April 4, 2011 at 10:41 am

This article, by Bramble, made me sad.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure Bramble means well. The idea, I imagine, is to motivate workers to join their unions, to demand active unions and take part in union life.

And those are good things.

Where I find Bramble fails (and fails in an alarming way) is in his assumption that inadequate union leadership is THE problem. If only union leaders were more active, he seems to imply, everything would be fine.

But it wouldn’t. Leadership is not THE problem. It may be part of the problem, or a symptom of it. But Bramble’s is a woefully incomplete picture.

As Marxists, I suppose we understood that history is a big socio-economic process, where people are largely pawns. It’s not big heroes that make history, not even big trade union leaders. It’s the whole society.

So, there’s much more to the situation of the Australian working class than an “accommodating leadership”.

And here’s the irony: a decent and competent bourgeois economist, Joe Stiglitz, gets it right and is terribly alarmed:

Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%

A revolutionary, doesn’t.

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