Unions NSW is currently hosting one of the world’s great thinkers in Professor Robert Reich; academic, commentator and Clinton labour secretary; a man with a mind as big as the dilemmas progressive politics face right now.
He comes at a moment in history when we are licking our collective wounds; an ascendant Howard government, a dazed and confused opposition and a looming legislative assault on unions.
Like many in America, where the conservative ascendency is even more pronounced, we risk entering a siege mentality, entering a period where we will be compelled to fight to defend hard-won rights for working people.
Reich’s simple message – that the imperative for nations in the global economy is to build and nurture a smart, creative workforce – is a tonic right now.
Listening to Reich speak about our need to build a positive agenda is a pleasure because you get a thinker, a leader and a teacher rolled into one. But the real pleasure is where his ideas take your own thinking.
Having sat through a number of speeches, roundtables and interviews this week, what struck me was how so much of what passes as our political discourse, is really about tactics.
Organising workers is a tactic; developing policies to target at certain demographic groups is a tactic; even the choice of leader is, ultimately, a tactic.
But to what end? Unionising workplaces and winning elections are themselves only tactics to … and here our thinking often stalls. We talk of social justice, equity and fairness, but their manifestations have become blurred. We have lost our moral language.
To Reich, we have lost our sense of narrative of where our political activity will take us; and in losing hold of this narrative we are dooming ourselves to failure.
From the high point of the civil rights movement, the Left has lost control of the moral high ground; in the face of the certainty of the Religious Right’s fundamentalist views on private morality hot housed in a climate of fear and uncertainty.
At a time when the family is under siege by labour market deregulation, creating a world of loneliness, dislocation and family breakdown; the hot moral topics are gay marriages and abortion.
The challenge is to build a picture of our economic future; the industries that will sustain us and the growth that will be generated; the jobs we will do and the way that we will work; and then write a moral story around these choices.
It is in doing this intellectual heavy-lifting that we can reframe our political activity and hold governments to account for the moral cost of allowing unregulated markets to run rampant.
Reich’s narrative, which was so influential during the Clinton years, is a good starting point: a partnership between workers and employers building a skilled and creative workforce, to build the corporations, to build industries to build prosperity.
From this vantage point, different economic arguments can be mounted.
Families need a strong economy; but economies also need strong families “ to produce a labour market that can take the high growth path; workers who have a stable home life; a loving platform, a sound education.
A high growth economy is not served by cutting labour costs; or forcing workers to live insecure existences; these sorts of policies actually undermine a nation’s competitiveness.
Through this prism, any industrial relations policy based on breaking workers down into single bargaining units so they can be paid less; is not only bad for workers, it is bad for companies; and bad for the nation too.
All of a sudden our negative campaign against deregulation has become a positive campaign “ not for a system of industrial relations, but for a vision for building a higher value labour market based on stronger family units. Who would argue with that?
The issues facing labour movement are bigger than any one mind, but the conversations that Robert Reich sparks could well set us in a direction where we can build a positive agenda for the coming year.
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