As Australia heads to the polls it is worth keeping in mind that all the signal advances made toward a socially just Australia have been accompanied by an upsurge of strikes and labour movement militancy.
The great strikes of the 1890s were key events that ushered in the system of conciliation and arbitration, and also much of the “Deakinite Settlement” that saw Australia become a social laboratory admired from afar.
The surge of strikes and militancy in Sunshine lead to the Harvester judgement of Justice Higgins, which gave us the minimum wage but also, much much more importantly, the idea of social citizenship.
The Keynesian social democratic order, what Stuart McIntyre has called “Australia’s boldest experiment,” is often attributed to the sacrifices of World War Two and Keynesian economic ideas that spread amongst the political classes following the effects of the Great Depression.
What is ignored is the massive upsurge in working class militancy in the 1930s that saw significant strike action, especially sit in strikes. In the United States, for instance, sit in strikes played an important role in ushering in the New Deal. The capital owning classes were especially frightened of these, for a workplace occupation is but a step away from seizing the means of production.
When sit in strikes occur with sufficient scale and frequency society starts to move toward a prerevolutionary situation.
The social, cultural and economic reforms of the late 1960s are often attributed to charismatic leaders, such as Gough Whitlam, or, when charitable, to the new social movements that arose at that time such as the antiwar movement, the antipatriarchal movements and so on. Both of these were surely significant, but left almost out of history was the upsurge in labour movement militancy that also occurred at that time. This provided space and resources for the new social movements to act, and give these new movements added bite.
That rise in strike action has been dubbed a “flood tide” in a most fascinating historical survey of trade unionism from the 1960s to today by Tom Bramble. In this work, Bramble shows that the Clarrie O’Shea general strike led to a flood tide of industrial action as the erosion of the penal powers freed the working class to strike a better bargain with the capital owning classes.
Prior to that, we ought not neglect, the Communist Party of Australia engaged in numerous actions on indigenous rights, multicultural rights and the like when very little within white Australia were prepared to do so. These too played a catalytic role in the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Since then we have had neoliberalism, and the neoliberal era has been defined by an attack not just on the real, tangible, manifestations of social justice but upon the concept itself. Everywhere, including in Australia, neoliberalism has been accompanied by an “ebb tide” in strikes and labour movement militancy.
This has happened because the capital owning classes have used the structural power of globalisation to engage in moment by moment capital strikes, because the coercive powers of the neoliberal state have been used to smash unions, the essence of the neoliberal state is to attack its own population, and, especially in Australia, because class collaborationist peak union bodies have used corporatist industrial relations models to discipline the working class in the interests of neoliberal policy making.
The pattern is clear. Advance Australia Fair is accompanied by strikes and union militancy. Social regression is accompanied by weak, defeated, class collaborationist unions.
Our task as a movement is to defeat neoliberalism; to confine the neoliberal era to the dustbin of history. It is not to stop Tony Abbott. It is not to stop Malcolm Turnbull. It is not to rely on Bill Shorten or any other Labor Party leader to do what they cannot in the absence of a mobilised and determined working class. It is also to be conscious of the structural realities of globalisation.
To end neoliberalism will require an upsurge in strikes. Only when production is threatened or stropped do the capitalists pay attention to “the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders.” Production is the lifeblood of their system. That is why strikes have been, are, and will always remain the most potent weapon of the working class.
Phone banking during election time won’t stop neoliberalism. A purely electoral strategy won’t even come close to doing this. There is no substitute for the strike. The reliance upon electoralism and social movement unionism exhibited by Australian unions arises either because unions are unwilling or unable, perhaps to say both would be more apt, to build an industrial movement striking at the very core of the neoliberal order.
To revive the strike will require, to no small degree, at least two things.
Firstly, the development of a grassroots insurgency within the Australian trade union movement.
One of the lessons of the Campaign for a General Strike to Stop Tony Abbott is that the union movement lacks participatory forums and participatory decision making bodies. The Australian trade union movement is highly hierarchical, and from this hierarchical arrangement comes class fragmentation, the dissipation of class consciousness, and bureaucratic inertia.
An insurgency within the labour movement for a more grassroots participatory unionism is the first step toward ending neoliberalism. The lessons of history loom large here. The flood tide during the Clarrie O’Shea general strike and after happened because there existed a network of militant unionists pushing matters in more proactive directions.
We need to revive such a network again.
This movement would need to address the penal provisions of the Australian industrial relations system that limit strikes, but it also must be prepared to boldly defy those provisions in the spirit of joint action and solidarity.
Secondly, the labour movement needs to come to grips with globalisation for the reasons stated above. One way that this could be achieved is by developing the highly insightful and thoughtful ideas of “the global picket line” promoted by Australia Asia Worker Links. To defeat neoliberalism is to attack it at its source, namely the globalised system of production.
Neoliberalism is just an ideological fig leaf under which the reality of globalisation rests.
We need not just more strikes. We need more strikes that target multinational corporations in solidarity with workers beyond Australia. We need to bring to consciousness the reality that we are all workers existing in an international division of labour. For the working class to be conscious of its existence as a class today requires knowledge of the fact of the international division of labour and the manner in which one as a worker fits into the global machine.
But this too requires grassroots participatory unions, for ensconced union hierarchies have little interest in looking and acting beyond their local fiefs.
This is how we beat neoliberalism. Remember that when you put the Liberals last. Putting the Liberals last is the first thing, at best, we need to do not the last thing.