Force Decides: The Problem With 'Join Your Union'

By Joanna Horton and Max Chandler-Mather

The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible … and the worker maintains his right as a seller when he wished to reduce the working day to a particular normal length. There is here therefore an antinomy, or right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides.
— Karl Marx

After the Fair Work Commission’s decision in February to cut Sunday penalty rates for hospitality and retail workers, it was virtually impossible to scroll through Facebook without seeing a post urging angry workers to join their union. Union membership was presented as the means to resist not only the Commission’s decision, but all of the industrial woes of our time. In a way, this response was understandable. After all, unions have fought for and won every protection and entitlement that we enjoy today.

Our purpose is not to minimise the historical importance of the Australian union movement – we have been union members for our whole working lives precisely because we appreciate this importance. However, there is a striking dissonance between the portrait of union power painted by our Facebook feeds, and the material reality: declining rates of union membership (now about fifteen per cent of the Australian workforce, down from forty six per cent in 1986) and the evident inability of unions to address record-low wage growth and the increasing casualisation of the workforce. Why, when unions once wielded such strength, are they today virtually powerless to resist the erosion of rights and conditions, including penalty rates?

The Commission’s decision, far from surprising, can be seen as a key marker in a long process through which the industrial arm of the labour movement has been subordinated to its increasingly detached political arm, the Labor Party.

This process began in 1983 when the Hawke Labor Government, seeking to respond to the economic crisis of the 1970s – a crisis partially produced by organised labour’s ability to win wage increases above and beyond increases in productivity –  struck a deal with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to implement the Accord. The ACTU agreed to restrict industrial action and wage demands, and in exchange the government agreed to limit inflation and improve the social wage. However, many of the promised social wage improvements failed to materialise, and instead the ACTU and Labor ushered in a legal architecture that fundamentally undermined trade unions’ industrial and social power. The Accord precipitated a rapid collapse in real wages and trade union membership, and a steady increase in income inequality.

Elements of this legal architecture include:

  • A shift to negotiating agreements at the level of the organisation, with wage increases linked to the productivity of individual businesses;
  • The illegality of strikes outside of strictly defined enterprise bargaining periods. Within these periods, strike action must be approved by the Commission, voted on by secret ballot and assessed against a strict set of criteria, and workers cannot be paid during strikes;
  • The inability of workers to strike on matters not directly related to their particular enterprise agreement; and
  • The illegality of strikes in solidarity with other workers.

The ACTU and Labor attacked unions that resisted the Accord. Labor deregistered the Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) in 1986 in response to the BLF’s campaign for a pay rise and better conditions, which Labor believed threatened the Accord. In 1989, the Hawke government assisted in hiring in scab labour to break the Australian Federation of Air Pilots’ strike, which began in response to prolonged wage suppression precipitated by the Accord.

The Fair Work Act (2009) reinforced this architecture and did little to improve conditions in the post-Work Choices era. By allowing the Commission to determine conditions based on legal criteria, the Act’s modern award system separated the determination of Awards from industrial struggle. The cut to penalty rates is a direct result of this system.

It’s arguably one of Australian history’s more perverse quirks that the legal architecture effectively hobbling union power was implemented by the Labor Party, with the support of most unions themselves. However, this is, in fact, crucial – the social weight carried by union endorsement of the legislation meant that it was accepted without much serious resistance. Unions’ relationship with the Labor Party meant that Australia’s organised labour movement signed its own death warrant – and kept coming back to sign it again.

Legislation itself doesn’t necessarily render unions helpless – after all, Australian trade unions have organised strikes in hostile legal environments. However, this history does highlight a major tactical shift by unions in the 1980s, whereby workers’ conditions were almost always subordinated to Labor’s electoral success.

Aside from representing individual members in disputes, the industrial (as opposed to political) role of unions has largely been reduced to conducting Enterprise Bargaining negotiations in which ambitions are framed almost solely around the imperative not to go backwards. Without these actions, many people would be worse off. However, they hardly represent the realisation of organised labour’s potential.

In tandem, unions have pivoted toward an overwhelming reliance on state institutions like the Commission or ‘friendly’ Labor governments to improve conditions, no longer able (with some rare exceptions) to deploy real industrial power. For instance, the ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign was ultimately reduced to an electoral tactic – the Fair Work Act was the result.  The penalty rates decision represents another predictable defeat of this strategy. By willingly subverting industrial muscle to legal processes – processes fetishised to the extent that Labor initially refused to campaign on protecting penalty rates, instead parroting the apparent virtues of the ‘independent umpire’ – the union movement forfeited its once immense power.

These failures do not, however, detract from the importance of unionism. Collective organising is needed now more than ever – but the most exciting trails are being blazed by grassroots organisations unconnected to formal unions. When UK meal delivery service Deliveroo tried to slash pay rates, the couriers self-organised a strike. Their union, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, itself founded recently by former members of two older unions, only got involved after worker-led protests had already begun. Their success (Deliveroo rapidly backed down) demonstrates the possibilities that emerge when workers’ organisations are not tied to political parties or established interests. New unions are also being started by workers dissatisfied with their current representation – for instance, the Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union has recently formed in response to the systemic failures of the SDA.

In a sense, we agree with those who stress the importance of joining a union. Everyone should be a union member, because unionism represents the chance to fight back against the notion that we are all disconnected individuals with no collective interests and no collective power. However, simply joining a union is today not enough to ensure positive change. Members must keep unions accountable by lobbying for party disaffiliation; self-organising when union leadership fails or hesitates; and remembering that we joined to organise in our own interests, not the interests of the union executive or the Labor Party. When those interests diverge, we should not be afraid to name the divergence, and to resist it.

In the fight between capital and labour, force does indeed decide. The political class’s mantra that a rising tide lifts all boats is proving false in an environment where organised labour has been subordinated to a political sphere with little interest in reconstituting a powerful workers’ movement. Company profits surge while wages fall.

Unionism represents a chance for workers to hold power, but it’s unlikely to be realised as long as party affiliation continues. Our response to attacks on workers’ rights should not be ‘Join your union’ but rather, ‘Join your union – then fight to change it for the better’.

Joanna Horton is a writer and radio producer living in Brisbane. Her work has appeared in Overland, the Millions, the Toast, and other publications.

Max Chandler-Mather is a Greens organiser based in Brisbane.

This article was originally published in Overland.