Howard's Grave-Diggers

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In one of the greatest modern works of insightful polemic, The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx wrote ‘What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers …’

In this age of reduced expectations we might now read that prophetic announcement as meaning that capitalist assault will, in time, produce its own working-class response. Courtesy of the reactionary assault on working-class employment conditions occasioned by the Coalition’s capture of the Senate, we see, at present, a process of class politics re-emerging.

Not yet the grave-diggers of capitalism, frightened and angry workers may yet halt the Howard Government’s neo-liberal assault that aims to bring globalisation of the labour market closer to home.

In the world envisaged by Howard, Australia will soon have a working poor. This will dilute the power of organised or regulated labour. Instead of the dole acting as the benchmark of whether one will accept employment or not, it will now be the worker next to you, brow-beaten into reduced conditions, who will serve as the measure of what is acceptable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, stonemasons and building workers won the right to an eight-hour day. The ‘8 Hour Day Monument’, which celebrates that achievement, stands adjacent to Victorian Trades Hall Council in Melbourne. It now looks like a futuristic piece of art.

Thanks to Alan Moir.

As wages are driven down among unskilled labour and those pockets of white-collar labour that are in long supply, we must expect further assaults on unemployment benefits. The logic is inexorable. If anything gets Howard’s heart beating faster than a regulated labour force, it is the socially secured unemployed.

The sad thing is that Labor paved the way for the present situation.

Beginning with the Hawke Labor Government’s close relationship with business and trade union leadership, the 1980s witnessed the weakening of working-class organisation. As union leaders demobilised militants in the union movement moving instead to the provision of discount cards and cheaper dental services a new form of politics emerged in Australia that eschewed collective commitment.

It was the Labor Government that attacked compulsory unionism and it was under Labor that historically high levels of union membership up to 50 per cent in the 1970s began their downward slide to 40 per cent in the mid 1990s and around 25 per cent today.

The 1980s were marked by an ideological assault that used the spectre of global competition as the sledgehammer to nail unions to self restraint. Threats of capital flight if Australia didn’t ‘deregulate’ were used to cajole workers to accept a weaker bargaining position and to accept centralised negotiations.

The social wage promised by Labor’s tripartite Accords between government, employers and workers produced a 15 per cent decline in wages over the decade it was in office. The Hawke and Keating Governments’ historic achievement was to weaken working-class organisation, not by malicious intent, but by being carried away with notions of global competition and capitalist nation building.

When workers broke from the straightjacket of fiscal discipline and arbitrated wage rises they were demonised such was the fate, for instance, of the Victorian nurses whose 50-day strike in 1985 “6 sent Laborites into a blue-blooded rage worthy of Thatcher.

However, no comment on Labor presiding over the decline in working-class living standards can proceed without recourse to irony.

The first irony of Labor’s first years in office is that Australia in the mid-1980s was not so much reacting to global conditions as acting as a pioneer for the neo-liberalism that was soon to be ascendant globally. That Australia had its own nomenclature for this is indicative we called it ‘economic rationalism.’

The second irony is that Labor, in pioneering a new way of seeing the world, would give rise to ideologies of new individualism that would undermine its own electoral position. Stock market postings became as avidly read in some quarters as AFL results. Later it would be property prices.

Labor delivered the aspirational voter to the Liberal Party. It turned unionism into a defensive position for workers, and it released hundreds of thousands of overly confident workers into the clutches of financial advisors.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Now, as the screw turns, for many the question of unionism is a matter of calculus of what they can personally gain. There is now an army of workers who will only be recruited to the union if a gimmick is offered or the threat of dismissal is looming.

Union delegates the country over are now telling prospective members that surely the cost of union membership is not prohibitive, especially given the gains in wages that have been secured by various Enterprise Bargaining Rounds. The response is sometimes telling. ‘Sorry, got to pay off the investment property,’ ‘sorry, my finances are so poor,’ ‘sorry, but I think I’ll look after myself.’

The greatest challenge facing Australian unions is not recruitment but the re-creation of the notion of solidarity. While unions will grow in the short term based on the fear of Howard’s IR agenda recruitment will mean nothing unless that ethic of solidarity re-emerges.

Howard might not like it, but he will be the very source that will drive this new ethic.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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