Getting the Gong – A Tale of Two Cities

Posted: December 8, 2015 in Uncategorized

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.  (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

The city of Wollongong has an Indigenous name, the meaning of which is contested. For tens of thousands of years before white invasion, the people who lived here cared for and helped to shape country. Today, Wollongong is a city of contrasts and contradictions; a beautiful city nestled between the mountains and the sea and blighted by the ugliness of heavy industry and pollution; a city of wealth and poverty; of over-work and mass unemployment. During the past century Wollongong has been a steel and coal city and a progressive city with a rich multicultural history.  For much of this period, Australia’s biggest company, Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP), was the major employer, wielding significant political and economic power. Its steelworks and mines marked the landscape and its rhythms of industrial society were central to the Illawarra region. The predominance of an industrial workforce, many of whom were employed by a single employer, also helped to create a strong class consciousness. As well, the region has a long history of social activism, the most powerful and influential collective expression of which has been the labour movement.

The Bloodhouse

The depression of the 1930’s saw a massive program of industrial expansion at the Port Kembla steelworks and unemployed people made homes out of the discarded packing cases in which the new equipment had arrived from England. A large shanty town grew up in the shadow of the works. Hungry men would gather around the gates desperate for work, waiting for the whistle to blow. The sounding of the whistle meant that somebody inside the plant had been injured, or perhaps killed. So there would be a new job available. By the time the victim’s blood had been washed away, the replacement would be on the job. Consequently, the steelworks became known as ‘the Bloodhouse’.

The maiming and killing of steelworkers was still a regular occurrence when a short film about the steelworks, The Bloodhouse, was released in 1976. The film highlights how the steelwork’s management sacrificed workers bodies and lives while pumping out pollution and propaganda “designed to get more for nothing out of the pockets of Australia’s working people.” While detailing the exploitation and environmental damage caused by BHP, the film also focuses on the treatment of migrant labour, and includes criticism of the steel industry’s ‘tamed’ right wing ‘grouper trade unions’.

During the 1940s, the Federated Ironworkers’ Association FIA (the largest steel union and now part of the Australian Workers Union) was organised by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) under the leadership of Ernie Thorton. CPA member, Jack McPhillips, was elected national secretary of the Union in 1950. After being jailed twice for his union activities, Jack was defeated in his position by the anti-communist ‘industrial groupers’ in 1952. In these ‘red scare’ years, anti-communists took control of many unions. During the 1960s, the CPA and other communists played key roles in establishing FIA Rank & File organisations to oppose the right-wing Short/Hurrell leadership. In 1972, the ‘Rank & File’ ticket won the FIA Port Kembla branch elections with Nando Lelli, an Italian migrant steelworker and a ‘friend of the CPA’, becoming the branch secretary. This broke the national dominance of the hard right in the FIA. However, the Port Kembla branch remained an isolated ‘red’ branch for many years and had to constantly struggle against being sabotaged by the national leadership.

By the later part of the 1970s, after years of determined and often bitter struggle, the workforce in the Illawarra steel industry was increasingly militant and had gained relatively advanced wages and conditions. None-the-less, the steelworks continued to damage workers, the environment, and the community. For example, during the recent past, there has been a great deal of attention given to cancer clusters among workers and nearby residents. The steelworks is Australia’s number one producer of the highly toxic chemical dioxin. Dioxin is a carcinogenic by-product of steel making that affects body organs, the immune system and the reproductive system. The most minute exposure to dioxin during the gestation period can leave unborn children with a reduced immune system. The house I lived in, during the 1980s, was just down the street from the steelworks. So, when the south-easterly winds blew, my family and I were right in the path of its pollution, regularly exposing us to dioxin and a range of other chemicals. After my eldest daughter was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of nine, we wondered – Are these chemicals responsible for her malfunctioning immune system? Is it because of them she couldn’t open a door, brush her hair, dress herself, or walk upstairs without pain?

Learning to Labour

Come all students of High,
Hail to the black and the green,
Proudly shall our flag fly,
Flag of the emerald sheen,
Black for the coal that gives life to our mills,
Green for the meadows that slope to our hills,
Let your voice ring as we joyfully sing,
Wollongong High School are we!

(Wollongong High School Song)

In 1978, at the age of sixteen, I fled Wollongong High school and went on the dole. I joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and became a full-time cadre, working at the Party’s bookshop in Lowden Square, operating the Party’s offset press and becoming active in a range of local organisations and campaigns.

During this time, the Illawarra had elected left-wing ALP Members to both State and Federal Parliament and the most powerful and influential local unions were led by ALP members committed to their party’s ‘socialist objective’ and/or by CPA members committed to a not dissimilar reformist party program. The Communist Party was well respected among broad sections of workers, giving it significant influence beyond the size of its membership. CPA members and sympathisers were in leading positions in the coal, steel, waterside, and other unions. Party member Merv Nixon was the long-standing secretary of the South Coast Labour Council, the peak regional trade union body and hence also a member of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) executive.

After working for ‘the Party’ for a year, some senior comrades encouraged me to apply for a job in the steelworks or the pits. CPA cadre on the shop floor were highly respected and the Party was keen to replenish its number of rank-and-file activists. Although it was difficult to get work in either industry, as ‘the company books’ were now closed and the era of mass sackings was about to begin, strings could be pulled and a position would be found for me. This was considered a generous offer and a sign of respect for my work. However, I was a young punk and my favourite band’s lyrics were ringing in my ear.

Face front you got the future shining,
Like a piece of gold,
But I swear as we get closer,
It looks more like a lump of coal,
But it’s better than some factory,
Now that’s no place to waste your youth,
I worked there for a week once,
I luckily got the boot.

(All the Young Punks, The Clash)

Instead, I became active in the unemployed people’s movement via various local attempts to create a union of the unemployed. This was a decision I was able to make thanks to the support of my comrades, friends and family. At the same time, many others were fighting for jobs in the steel industry (e.g. Jobs for Women campaign) and soon mass retrenchments began in both the coal and steel industries.

Through the 1980’s, the Illawarra felt the impact of major economic and technological change, as capital relentlessly attacked organised labour and deliberately targeted areas of worker’s militancy for ‘restructuring’. Mass sackings, unemployment, poverty and social crisis gripped the region. At the start of the 1980s, twenty five thousand people worked for BHP Steel and thousands more worked in the local mines. The sackings of the 1980s would see the closure of three quarters of the pits and the destruction of thousands of steelworker’s jobs. Over a number of years the steelworks’ workforce was slashed to five thousand.

Wollongong’s unemployment crisis brought out a collective response as the city’s people turned outwards in anger and protest. This included the infamous Kemira stay-in strike, the storming of Federal Prtw marcharliament by Wollongong workers, the Right to Work march from Wollongong to Sydney and the formation of the Wollongong out of Workers’ Union.  The militant actions of Wollongong workers played an important part in bringing down the Fraser Government and in the election of the Hawke Government in 1983 (for more on this period see Working for the Class).

 ALP/ACTU Accord

Leading up to the 1983 Federal Election, it was argued by BHP and its supporters that if the Government and workers weren’t willing to make significant sacrifices the Port Kembla steelworks faced imminent closure. When the ALP Government was elected it had secured an Accord with the ACTU. In Wollongong, the nature of the Accord process was made evident with the implementation of the Government’s Steel Industry Plan. Here the ALP and the ACTU accepted BHP’s long-term strategy and supported the provision of hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to the company to invest in job-displacing technology. The Steel Industry Plan was rejected by local unions when they were told what it entailed. They argued that BHP was using the ‘steel crisis’ to achieve long-standing objectives of rationalisation and restructure. But as the steelworks’ general manager pointed out at the time – “there is nothing like the contemplation of the hangman in the morning to get people to co-operate.”

During the Hawke government years, the left ALP/CPA alliance was cemented through the Accord process. The CPA worked very closely with the ALP, promoting and policing the Accord, and had soon liquidated itself. The deepening of the Accord process, and the Hawke government’s implementation of neoliberalism, led to increasing tension  between those involved in unemployed people’s unions and many of the labour organisations backing us. Unemployed people were excluded from the Accord yet we were expected to support a strategy that would result in cuts in real wages, attacks on the social wage, and continuing sackings.

As unemployed unions continued to resist the Accord’s corporatist strategy, they were increasingly deserted by sections of their previous support base. At the same time, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) decided to classify people trying to help organise the unemployed, as subversives. As trade union power and support for the organised unemployed receded, the federal government intensified its crackdown on unemployed unions. In 1987, the government introduced an activities test which was then used to cut the benefits of jobless people attending protests and those active in ‘political’ organisations, since they were deemed not to be ‘actively looking for work’. Faced with growing attacks from the state and withering support from the labour movement, most unemployed unions disbanded.

Today, unemployment in Wollongong is higher than the national average, and nearly one in every two young people are out of work. The average income of Wollongong workers is now significantly less than the NSW average and the lack of local jobs sees twenty five percent of the workforce commute to Sydney each day for work. Many of Wollongong’s unemployed remain economically and socially marginalised, condemned to a life of poverty and insecurity, consigned to the worst public housing estates and subjected to police and Centrelink harassment.

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In 2002/2003, BHP demerged its steel operations and renamed them BlueScope Steel. Since then job losses have continued, wages have been cut and production has been increased. Today, the steelwork’s workforce produces around 500,000 tonnes of steel more than the Australian market needs. With the imminent closure of the domestic vehicle production industry, this excess will rise. At the same time, China’s steel production and exports are rapidly increasing. The current global oversupply of steel has already led to thousands of job losses at steelmakers around the world.

In July this year, BlueScope’s Port Kembla management were negotiating a new enterprise agreement with local steel union representatives. The company initially said it wanted $12 million in savings. After three months of negotiating, the company’s head office delivered an ultimatum, they now wanted $200m in cost savings, of which $60m had to come from workers, or the steelworks would be shut down. The unions and the NSW and federal governments were told, ‘it’s up to you to save the plant’ — and were given until mid-October to do it. If they didn’t, five thousand people’s direct and ten thousand people’s indirect jobs would go, $3.3 billion would be lost from the region’s economy, and the official unemployment rate would rise from an estimated 8.2% to 17%. (Since the regional unemployment rate is probably closer to 15% the estimate should be 24%)

The local union response was to brand the announcement ‘‘corporate blackmail’’ and ‘‘an example of corporate greed and arrogance,’’ explaining that; “We are being set up to fail” and; “The bosses’ Plan A and Plan B are not a plan for saving our industry, they are self-serving strategies to shut it down.”

However, since BlueScope was now demanding a full restructure of the workforce and the way work is done at Port Kembla, the steel unions’ national leadership got involved, with the Australian Workers’ Union’s (AWU) national steel officer, Daniel Walton, dealing directly with BlueScope’s ‘head of people and performance’, Ian Cummin. According to media reports, the two of them agreed that this would not be a normal union/company negotiation: they would instead treat it like mediation – a ‘problem-solving’ exercise. They also went to see the President of the Fair Work Commission (FWC), Iain Ross, to ask for a mediator, and Ross asked his deputy Adam Hatcher to do it. Before his appointment to the FWC (by Bill Shorten, the then Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations), Hatcher’s career had been spent as a lawyer representing unions, so he was regarded as ‘a union man’.

The negotiations got underway in late August at the NSW Industrial Relations Commission’s offices in Wollongong. According to media reports; “Early on in the negotiations, the local union reps still thought they were in a negotiation.” So, according to BlueScope sources, the AWU’s “Daniel Walton took them aside and convinced them to look at it differently, that it was life or death. The BlueScope people in the room say they can’t speak too highly of him.” Later in the process, when local union representatives again attempted to bargain with the Company, it was ‘union man’ Hatcher from the FWC who intervened, to give them “a lecture on the importance of seeing the process through.”

At the end of the talks, an agreement had been reached to get rid of five hundred people’s jobs, to freeze wages for three years, to suspend the remaining workers’ bonus scheme, and to include an ‘affordability’ clause if it was reintroduced. However, the company reportedly believes the most important union concession is the removal of the ‘status quo’ clause from the enterprise agreement. Since the Steel Plan in 1983, awards and enterprise bargaining agreements at Port Kembla have always contained a clause that said – if the company and unions could not agree the status quo would prevail. The new agreement says that if the parties don’t agree, a senior member of the Fair Work Commission will be asked to mediate and/or arbitrate. BlueScope management believes this “will allow them to regain control of the plant, and in particular allow ongoing change.”

Save Our Steel’ – ‘Defend Aussie Jobs’

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During the ‘mediation’ with BlueScope, the local union movement launched a ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign involving petitions, rallies, etc., gathering support for the continuation of steel production at Port Kembla and lobbying State and Federal politicians to protect the steel industry. As a result, there has been a growing chorus of voices calling for taxpayers’ dollars to be spent on supporting steel jobs in Australia. Steelworkers, the union movement, the ALP and the Greens have demanded a legislated requirement for Australian-made steel to be used in all state and federal government infrastructure.

Another suggestion by steel unions has been that Port Kembla be used to help build the new $40 billion navy ship fleet. Joining the call to arms, the AWU’s Port Kembla branch secretary Wayne Phillips hailed as a great success the securing of the Navy fleet construction on Australian soil and said the next obvious step was to make sure the ships were built with Australian steel. “This is an opportunity for the federal government and in particular the Prime Minister to show his credentials on promoting and defending Australian industry,” he said.

Sacrificing Workers

The union concessions to BlueScope are worth $40 million. The New South Wales government has also deferred $60 million in payroll tax payments over the next three years and the company intends to save a further $100 million through “worker flexibility”. Taken together, these savings provide the $200 million that BlueScope said would be necessary to keep the steelworks open.

In early October, a mass meeting of steelworkers endorsed the new agreement. But if anyone thought that, after decades of struggle, the Port Kembla workers were now totally cowed and broken, they needed to think again. According to reports from the meeting, it appeared the steelworkers were going to reject the agreement and there was anger directed at union officials. It was a concern that saw local AWU branch secretary Wayne Phillips beg those in attendance not to vote against the proposal. “Don’t vote no, please don’t,” he said. “It’ll be ‘see you in the dole queue’ if the no vote gets up.”

Of course, the threat of the dole queue is especially effective in areas of high unemployment, like Wollongong. Welfare benefits have been deliberately kept at poverty levels by both Coalition and ALP governments to help discipline the unemployed and to force workers into accepting worse conditions and poorly paid jobs. After being introduced by the Hawke government, ‘Work for the Dole’ schemes are now being widely expanded and the current Government has introduced the ‘Welfare Debit Card’ to further attack and punish the poor.

At the October steelworker’s meeting, Wayne Phillips admitted the steelworkers were being asked to eat a “shit sandwich”. “But think about if it shuts – what will happen? Where are you going to get jobs paying $60-$70,000?” He also said former ACTU secretary Greg Combet had gone through BlueScope’s books and confirmed the financial straits the company was in were real. Following the meeting, the South Coast Labour Council’s Arthur Rorris praised the sacrifice of the workers. “They’ve taken a decision to swallow a very bitter pill and to shoulder an unfair responsibility for the rest of us,” he said.

A couple of weeks later the BlueScope board announced that the steelworks would be saved from closure. At the same time, they announced a six month profit of $180 million and the acquisition of the remaining 50 per cent of US-based North Star Steel for $1 billion. According to BlueScope, the move to full ownership of North Star “delivers on our strategy … North Star is the most profitable steel mill in North America; it’s cost-competitive and its employees are incredibly productive.” Importantly, North Star’s workers are completely non-union and the company has never had to contend with collective labour contracts nor work stoppages. According to BlueScope, the Ohio plant is 15 years ahead of Port Kembla in “alignment” between workers and the company “but what we’ve seen in the last eight weeks is you can make progress very quickly”.

Pointing out the national implications of this ‘progress’, in his weekly newspaper column, Wollongong’s Lord Mayor, Gordon Bradbery, took “the opportunity to congratulate the employees, management and unions for the remarkable efforts and foresight towards collaborative industrial reform in an effort to save Port Kembla steelworks. This type of collaboration sets a benchmark for industrial relations in Australia and forms the basis of reform which is required to secure manufacturing jobs in our country. Gone are the days of adversarial opposing ideological views at six paces. Everyone has to work together to achieve a successful economy and in the common interest of the whole community.” Similarly, Professor John Buchanan from the University of Sydney Business School suggested the Illawarra was now lighting a new way for the nation.

However, the deal was still contingent on the new enterprise agreement being formally ratified. This was due to happen at another mass meeting of steelworkers in early November. But this vote was deferred due to concerns a large number of workers would vote against it. Instead, the Fair Work Commission directed the company and unions to conduct a secret ballot of employees, while they set out to convince the workers to vote ‘yes’.

Many steelworkers were angry that company managers were already enacting conditions in the as-yet-unratified agreement, that they had added extra conditions into the agreement, and were starting to bring in outside labour. They were especially bitter about the purchase of North Star and a proposed $8 million bonus to be paid to BlueScope CEO Paul O’Malley “for achieving his targets, the specifics of which the Board won’t disclose.” The South Coast Labour Council has also pointed out the “incredible coincidence” that a large number of union delegates and workplace representatives had been targeted for redundancy.

Workers at both the main steel plant and the Spring Hill site had to vote on whether to accept their respective enterprise agreements. BlueScope said that if either site voted ‘no’ – the steelworks would close. At the Spring Hill site, the agreement was accepted by a margin of just seven votes. After the vote, South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris told local media; “What this close vote tells us all is that the workers are at the limits of how much they can give back in.”

While local unions, politicians and the media hailed the steelworkers as “heroes” who had saved the steel industry by sacrificing themselves, The Australian newspaper instead highlighted ‘The man who saved the Australian steel industry’ – with leading business commentator Alan Kohler saying – “if one man can be said to have saved the Australian steel industry, it’s Daniel Walton, the 32-year-old assistant national secretary of the AWU. Walton ran the union side of the negotiations . . . which culminated in this week’s announcement that it would continue making steel in Australia. BlueScope says the credit for that announcement should go to Daniel Walton.” Still, regardless of who ‘saved the steelworks’, according to BlueScope’s major shareholder, Perpetual Investments, the decision to keep Port Kembla open is only an “interim measure”, before eventual closure in the next few years.

Poisoning Unions and Policing Workers

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Those in the local union movement genuinely seeking to defend workers have little power and remain under the domination of the ALP and its influence within the labour movement. This influence is widely distrusted for fairly obvious reasons. For instance, the AWU, which covers more than 95 per cent of the shop floor workers at Port Kembla, has been front and centre of recent revelations about the corrupt relationship between the ALP, the union movement and employers. Former union leader Dean Mighell has described the AWU as “a dying union with a woeful history of employer compliance and ALP treachery.” According to Mighell; “The ALP was always the main game for many at the AWU and like so many unions, ALP affiliation was the reason for their existence.”

In 1998, within four years of joining the AWU, current ALP leader Bill Shorten became Victorian state secretary of the union. In 2001 he became national secretary, a position he held until 2007 when he was elected to federal parliament in a very safe Labor seat. In 2006, Shorten came to national attention when his friend, multi-millionaire businessman Richard Pratt, flew the AWU leader on his private plane from the United States to attend the Beaconsfield mine disaster. When asked why he took such a prominent role during the rescue at Beaconsfield Shorten said: “Perhaps it was a bit of company strategy, it was a bit easier for them if the hard questions they might get asked you know the ‘Whys’ of this, we weren’t going to get asked.”

Shorten has admitted that under his leadership the AWU negotiated agreements with bosses that would leave workers much worse off, while the Union received hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments during the negotiations. Just one of these deals lost 5000 workers more than $400 million over 10 years. Shorten has also admitted to receiving more than $40,000 in political donations from a labour hire company that paid the wages of his ALP campaign director for the 2007 election.

Various companies also paid for AWU membership tickets to help boost Shorten’s factional power within the ALP. A deal between Cleanevent and the AWU’s Victorian branch meant the union received $75,000 for not enforcing penalty rates for casual workers. The deal saved the company an estimated $2 million a year and employee names were supplied to artificially inflate union membership numbers. The majority of those signed up to the AWU were unaware they were members. After phantom members were culled and automatic sign-ups abolished, just 15 Cleanevent workers remained as members of the AWU — compared with the several thousand claimed to exist under Shorten’s stewardship. Yet, despite Shorten’s use of such members to boost his power within the ALP, the union lost more than 34,000 members while he was national secretary.

As the Port Kembla steelworkers were considering their future, in one of Wollongong’s more affluent suburbs, Wombarra, another prominent union leader, sitting in her $1.3 million dollar home, fronted the cameras of the ABC’s Four Corners program. Kathy Jackson, the former union official once lauded by the Liberal Party as a “lion of the union movement” for blowing the whistle on corruption, appeared on the show to defend her theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Health Services Union (HSU). Her partner, Michael Lawler, Vice President of the Fair Work Commission, also outlined how he had spent the past nine months on sick leave, working on Jackson’s defence, as he collected his $430,000 per year salary.

In August, the Federal Court ordered Jackson to pay $1.4 million in compensation to the HSU for misappropriating funds. She had funneled the money into a lavish lifestyle, including significant cash withdrawals, luxury goods, valuable artwork, fine wine and dining. Her union salary at the time was $287,000 a year. The serious financial fraud that surfaced in the HSU, including fraud convictions for another two former officials, Michael Williamson and former ALP Federal MP Craig Thomson, provided the Abbott government with a handy excuse to establish the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. When asked at the Royal Commission about her theft of funds, Jackson made the incredible claim that all of the cash she received was no longer union  members’ money once it had been deposited into her bank account. Jackson also siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars of HSU member’s money into a “slush fund” to help support the political and factional campaigns of her ALP allies, which included officials from the Australian Workers Union.

Coupled with the diminishing social power of unions due to changing class composition, low membership, job losses, strict industrial laws and co-option by corporate states, it is not surprising that revelations like these see union membership again falling sharply. Today, under fourteen per cent of employed people hold a union ticket. In the private sector, only one in ten is a member. Membership among young workers is down to one in every twenty.

Responding to the latest fall in unionisation figures, former ACTU assistant secretary, Tim Lyons has described the official ACTU response as “pathetic . . . quibbling over whether catastrophe is immediate or merely imminent.” He also pointed to “those with an interest in unionism continuing to decline” which includes former ACTU president and ALP Federal Minister Martin Ferguson, “loyally mouthing the views of his industry clients.” Yet, indicating the lack of understanding by those supposedly supporting unions, Lyons also argued that; “Unions have one, unchanged, membership model. It delivers terrific outcomes in large factories, and still works brilliantly in places like hospitals.” Clearly he has little understanding of how those in the auto or steel factories feel about their “terrific outcomes”, or any inkling of what HSU members have to say about their union’s ‘brilliant work’.

The relationship between the ALP and the union movement is poisonous for workers. The ALP polices workers on behalf of capital and channels workers struggles into electoral politics. The previous Labor government was elected following the ACTU’s Your Rights at Work (YRW) campaign which mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers against the Howard Government’s ‘WorkChoices’ industrial laws. The YRW campaign revolved around the strategic necessity for an ALP election victory and is widely regarded as having played a central role in the election of the Rudd ALP Government. Yet when the ALP returned to power in 2007, it did so on a platform almost as draconian as WorkChoices, but now with the support of the trade union movement.

A New City

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The ‘realism’ of capitalism tells us to resign ourselves to ruthless competition, exploitation, social insecurity, poverty and joblessness, while fighting a never ending war against other people and the planet. Many people believe there is no alternative to moulding the population of Wollongong to the contours and needs of powerful corporations. But even if we accept the ‘laws of capital’ and live with growing poverty, insecurity and unemployment, it appears the local coal and steel industries have no future.

Capitalist managers utilise crisis, new technology and restructuring to increase exploitation and erode workers’ power. Yet, the hope and promise of new technology is to reduce the need to work for a boss. The potential now exists for a materially abundant and more leisurely era and I have always been more interested in social transformation – how to liberate our lives from domination – rather than defending people’s position within the capitalist system. Importantly, those who want to build a different world are already constructing a new city here in Wollongong, with alternative forms of production, distribution and consumption.

An immediate and growing concern is how to organise production to meet people’s needs and desires without worsening the ecological crisis. In his recent article BlueScope blindsides Port Kembla workers, John Rainford explains that because of Wollongong’s continued dependence on the steelworks, the local economy is likely to be devastated by its closure. But “given that it is probably more likely than not, it is time for the unions and the community to come together and draft an alternative industry policy for the region. Time is running out.” In 2009, John was actually involved in preparing an alternative strategy for the local steel industry when he worked as a Project Officer for the Green Jobs Illawarra Action Plan. This detailed plan for ecological job generation and industry development aimed to protect and restore ecosystems and biodiversity, reduce energy consumption, decarbonise the economy, and avoid the generation of waste through ecology/closed-loop production methods. However, since there was a lack of commitment from big business, State and Federal Governments and both major parties – the plan was left floundering.

Now, we have a situation where an abundance of something as useful as steel is considered a serious problem. We’re unable to use it to improve our lives, unless a rich and powerful minority can gain enough profit for themselves. Instead of transforming industry, work and production, building life-exalting technologies and improving society, we must waste our productive potential to help maintain a system in its death throes.

BlueScope’s industry isn’t ‘our steel’ and this multinational corporation will continue to shop around – seeking the most cooperative governments and workers – in a ‘race to the bottom’.

Meanwhile, given a choice between a ‘green new deal’ and a massive military expansion both the current Government and the previous Labor Government have chosen the latter. When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his defence Minister visited Port Kembla in 2009, the main response they offered to rising regional unemployment was a contract to supply steel for the Navy’s new destroyers and major expansion of the local naval base. The current Coalition government is continuing with the largest military expansion since World War Two.

As global war and regional tensions grow, competition with China has become an important component of corporate strategy. However, we needn’t worry too much ‘because we have a fleet of Navy destroyers to keep China at bay’. More realistically, there will be no naval battles with China, as both nation’s economies and futures are so closely intertwined. Instead, global class war involves pitting Chinese workers against Australian workers and vice versa. As well, the Australian military has been intervening in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria while playing a major role in policing the South Pacific. Australian armed forces are deployed to impose capitalist ‘restructuring’, law and order measures, and the removal of barriers for business.

Another major role for naval forces is the ‘defence’ of Australia’s borders from refugees (who are often fleeing the  military action Australian forces participate in). While capital and the wealthy are free to move wherever they wish and receive massive assistance from governments, workers/the poor face increasingly authoritarian restrictions imposed by a growing militarised state, supported by nationalistic forces, including sections of the union movement and the ALP. At the same time, increased military funding means less money available for socially useful production and development – cuts to social security, education, health, environmental measures, etc.

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When we consider better ways of living, on-going debates about workers’ organisations and the nature of work are clearly important. These debates often highlight the lack of clear demarcation lines between ‘workplaces’ and ‘non-workplaces’, between ‘work times’ and ‘non-work times’, and between ‘workers’ and ‘non-workers’. Many of those in waged work are working longer hours and for more years of their lives, as part of an increasingly flexible, mobile and casual workforce. The imposition of widespread overwork and vulnerability is creating growing psychological, physical and social problems. Meanwhile, worker’s desires for a better life are expressed in their recognition that waged work is undermining social relationships and in their concerns about the ‘quality of life’ and struggles over ‘family and work time’. The uneven distribution of paid work means that while large numbers of people are ‘underemployed’ and the increase in casual work is creating a generation of working poor, a significant proportion of waged workers want less waged work, even if this involves a loss of income. Environmentalists also point out that using productivity improvements for shorter work hours, rather than more output, could mean that technological advancements go towards reducing ecological impacts.

It is also important to remember that despite the continuing poverty and degradation imposed on unemployed people, most continue to live worthwhile and valuable lives. They are not just powerless victims to be pitied and feared. Throughout Wollongong the poor are making positive social contributions in their homes, streets, neighbourhoods, and throughout the community. They are often involved in effective activities that create progressive individual and social change. None-the-less, there is a desperate need for greater solidarity and more support for the self-organisation of unemployed people, precarious workers, and all workers, here in Wollongong and across the globe, to increase our social power and to ensure we’re not a threat to other workers.

While the idea of shared interests between corporations, like BlueScope, and the people of cities like Wollongong, continues to restrict worker’s power and imaginations, unionists are still engaged in important struggles within their workplaces and outside them. Recently, there has been a proliferation of struggles around re/production – involving the creation of new organisational forms, alternative ways of being and different social relations. In Wollongong, unions remain an important part of these struggles. Still, traditional unionism is increasingly outdated and unable to represent a variety of domestic workers, students, unemployed people, cash-in-hand workers, the poor, mobile and flexible workers on short-term contracts, all of whom actively participate in social production and wealth creation.

There is clearly a need for democratic and powerful worker’s self-organisation to strive for better jobs, wages, working conditions and shorter work hours. A range of contemporary social movements are engendered by the bureaucratisation, corruption, conservatism and internal immobility within the union movement. These new forms of ‘social movement unionism’ are an organised expression of people doing something for themselves across the entire realm of social labour. They reflect changing ideas and practices of work and new strategies that seek to empower the individual and the collective.

Today, in Wollongong important struggles include;

Mutual aid and solidarity networks supporting individuals and collectives – most obviously young people, women, queers, refugees, indigenous communities, disabled, unemployed and poor people – via a wide range of activities and initiatives. From the micro to the macro level, social movements are countering patriarchy and transforming gender relations, challenging racism and constructing anti-racist community action. 

                                               stop forced closuresWollongong march against forced closure of Aboriginal communities. (May 1st 2015)

Many people are experimenting with different ways to address issues of personal and collective safety, around issues of peace, terrorism, domestic violence, mental health, well-being, etc. helping to create alternative forms of relating, communicating, cooperating and re/producing. 

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                                       reclaim the night 2015Wollongong ‘Reclaim the Night’ (October 2015)

illawarra people for peace

There has also been a growth of consciousness raising, radical education, media and cultural production – including alternative news & analysis, gigs, performances, blogs, reading groups, radical history production and dissemination, films, videos, online debates, discussion, publication, etc.

fem soc

University of Wollongong Feminist Society – Free School.

radical Wollong Premiere

Premiere of the film ‘Radical Wollongong’ (2014)

 

Here in ‘the Gong’ powerful environmental movements range from those opposing coal seam gas and other fossil fuel production, right through to a growing network of alternative food production, distribution and exchange experiments.

csg

Green connect

Current ‘work’/‘workplace’ struggles and contemporary class power is more diffuse, fluid, mobile, diverse and informal than traditionally understood. Many people are seeking to develop new ways to survive without capitalist work, to thrive in opposition to capitalist institutions, to unleash people’s power and potential, to build more democratic relationships, so we can better organise our own lives. Confronting capitalism involves much more widespread and complex considerations of wealth, the value of wages/money and consumerism. In Wollongong, a wide range of contemporary social movements involve a deep questioning of the purpose of work and production. They also remind us that the future tale of this city is yet to be written.

Nick Southall

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Comments
  1. […] to intervene to save jobs. This is not surprising as asking for government intervention is an increasingly common strategy of unions whose members are facing job losses and the organisational links between union leadership and the […]

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