Aussie Rules: Trade Unions and Capitalist Realism

Capitalist realism maintains its cold, grey grip over Australian society.

Australia’s conservative parties managed to barely win a majority at the federal election on May 18. The result was generally seen as a surprise with the election reported as Labor’s to lose. The conservatives lacked vision, were internally divided and putting the third parliamentary leader of their  six-year term of government to the electorate. Yet in response Labor could only manage its second lowest primary vote since the Second World War.

The overall situation has similarities with the UK’s 2015 election and has been described as Australian Labor’s ‘Miliband moment’. Shorten and Miliband both came across as awkward, wooden leaders with a shopping list of mostly worthy policies that somehow managed to maintain a sense of continuity with the neoliberal era. In both instances the election loss was an opportunity for relatively right-wing Labor parliamentarians to walk back on the moderately progressive and redistributive elements of the platform in order to better connect with an imagined conservative working-class base.

It is here where the pathways back to power for the UK and Australian labour movements must at least temporarily diverge. It is not just that Australia does not have a Corbyn or a Sanders figure to puncture a grey political discourse, it is that the rules, norms and culture of Australian Labor operate to extinguish the possibility of such a parliamentary leader emerging. Daily political discourse tends to resemble a garfield minus garfield webcomic — dark, alienating and absurd. Labor parliamentarians control 50% of the voting block for federal leadership elections. Preselections are tightly controlled by internal administrative bodies. Policy-making rests largely in the hands of parliamentary leaders. No one like a Corbyn or Sanders would be let anywhere near parliamentary leather.

There was not even a contested leadership ballot with Anthony Albanese elected unopposed. This means that renewal in the Australian labour movement will not, in the short-term at least, cohere around a parliamentary contest. If the labour movement is to be in a position to pierce the dark veil of capitalist realism in Australia then it will need to emerge from workers and the trade unions.

One cannot, however, take the “if” in the previous sentence for granted. Strike action, union density and worker confidence more broadly is at an all time low in Australia. Trade union activity and collective action are more tightly regulated in Australia than in most other democratic countries. For the past two years, Australian unions have been putting considerable resources in terms of money, staff time and worker activity into the Change the Rules campaign. The hopes of a movement were placed on the election of a Labor government in 2019. Those hopes were dashed against the first hurdle.

It is the nature of any breaks with capitalist realism that what seemed almost inevitable after a rupture feels highly unlikely or almost laughable beforehand. And so the break in Australia may start with an institutional turn rather than a leadership change.

The National Union of Workers and United Voice are in the advanced stages of an amalgamation process to create a new union — United Workers Union. Both unions have strong reputations for innovative organising campaigns and courageous industrial action. United Voice has been leading early childhood educators off the job as part of a transformative campaign to change wages in the sector. The NUW is fresh of a national strike against the Chemist Warehouse retail chain which led to life-changing gains for insecure and precarious warehouse workers. Significantly, the new union will have a strong pre-existing membership base in the strategic areas of logistics, healthcare and education.

During the mild Australian winter 150,000 workers will get the opportunity to vote on creating United Workers Union. This could be the ballot that opens up the horizon of radical change amongst the broader Australian workforce much like the UK Labour leadership ballot of 2015. The proposal represents more than a traditional merger between two unions but a radical and transformative proposal that reimagines union structures to be fit for purpose in the precarious world of late capitalism.

The Australian union movement is highly regionalised. Most unions operate on a federated basis with different branches of the same union often having different membership eligibility, demographics of membership and organising capacity. Instead, United Workers Union will be one national union with a single leadership team exercising responsibility over different industry and campaigning teams with a national scope. This removes some of the artificial barriers to solidarity present in union structures that hinder the building of relations of trust amongst key union activists in strategic economic nodes.

While industrial and workplace organising needs to be the overwhelming priority in any effective union growth strategy, United Workers Union will have the potential to build new relationships and connections when it comes to the community. Rank-and-file leaders will be elected from organic communities at a scale that reinforces human connections. Moreover, its rules make provision for non-industrial forms of membership, including on a community and political basis.  Contained within the very DNA of the new union are the structures that can make real the new union’s declared aim of putting “the voice of the people back at the heart of our economic and political system”.

The fight will be to make this possibility real enough to bring hope back for Australian workers and communities. The alternative is a grey, dark and isolated future for Australians.

Godfrey Moase is the Assistant General Branch Secretary at the National Union of Workers in Melbourne, Australia. He’s previously written for the Guardian, Overland, Jacobin, and New Matilda. On Twitter he’s @gemoase.