Trade union organisation has always tended to centre in the better-off sections of the working class. But that tendency has been sharpened in the neoliberal era by increased inequality within the working class, and union organisation receding into more limited “bastions”.
In Australia — and in general — trade unions have been able to hold on to a degree in some strongholds, but in my working life, 45 years now, the influence of trade unions in society has markedly decreased.
Unions have become much more bureaucratic.
Most union leaders put the trends down to the anti-union laws which have been introduced, particularly in the English-speaking countries. But I think unions have to a degree been their own disaster-makers, particularly in the blue-collar area.
They’ve gone down paths like big amalgamations which have made unions not stronger but more bureaucratic and remote from the membership. The bigger the union, the harder it becomes to see a union representative.
In some areas unions have still been able to get good wage outcomes. Particularly in Australia, unions have gone along a path of increasing dues, increasing the size of the bureaucracy, and sustaining that by getting quite high wage outcomes in some small sectors.
That is mirrored in the United States. In some pockets you have quite dense unionism, but surrounded by a vast sea of non-union workers who are the big majority of the blue-collar workforce in most industries.
And I don’t think that has been only because changes in the mode of work in blue-collar industries. Unions themselves have failed spectacularly to deal with changes. They’ve taken an easy path which has led to vast areas being de-unionised.
Take the coal industry in Australia. In the mid 80s it was 100% unionised, and today it’s probably only about 40%.
Australian coastal shipping used to be virtually all unionised. Today it’s almost all de-unionised.
Or take the construction unions.
They represent fewer than 10% of the people who work in construction. They are strong only on some big projects, mostly in the Central Business Districts (CBDs).
I live 4 km from the CBD in Brisbane. There have been eleven big construction jobs in the area in the last five years, big enough to use tower cranes, and only one of them has been a union job.
Yet in Australia we have 35% more union officials, with only 15% of employees in union membership, than we had when there was over 50% union density. That’s funded by higher union dues.
A wharfie [docker] on the highest wage bracket in Australia (which probably most of them are) pays about AU$3,000 a year in union dues. Longshoremen on the East Coast of the USA pay 5% of their wages in dues, so about US$5,000 a year.
Q. Alongside the big and very bureaucratic unions, we now have, in Britain anyway, some smaller unions which are much less bureaucratic: IWGB, UVW... And there’s RAFFWU [Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union] in Australia. In some ways they parallel the IWW of over 100 years ago, but there’s also a big difference. A lot of their activity is working the legal system or the industrial relations system for their members, whereas the IWW refused even to sign collective agreements.
A. I don’t think there’s an equation between the IWW and those small unions of today.
The great strength of the IWW, particularly in the West of the USA, is that it organised “harvest stiffs”, male itinerant workers who went from place to place for harvest times.
In Australia, RAFFWU has done some great legal work, but whether it will ever get recognised by Coles or Woolworths [the two big supermarket chains] is another question. It would have to organise on the job to get thousands of members; but that isn’t its orientation.
I think the legal system of industrial relations may eventually eat up the small unions too. Especially in Australia, which has the most legally jacket-bound union movement in the world.
The good legal work that is being done by some unions in the UK and Australia will, if they’re not careful, be picked up from them by a big law firm. In Australia at the present time, a big law firm and an international litigation funding firm are running massive wage-theft against labour-hire firms in the coal-mining industry.
Enterprise bargaining [a highly-regulated system of collective bargaining, partially replacing the old industry-wide “awards” system, introduced from 1991] has played a major role in bureaucratising unions in Australia. Particularly in the MUA [Maritime Union of Australia], union organisers spend most of their time not organising but tied up in EBA procedures.
So the bureaucracy continues to grow, while the membership declines. This makes the unions much more dependent on being under Labour Party or social-democratic umbrellas which mean money flowing to unions in various ways.
Despite all the neoliberal talk of “deregulation”, the legal frameworks for industrial relations are still there. You can sometimes use certain laws to help organisation, but in the end those legal frameworks are there to constrain the working class.
Unions continue to tumble into reliance on the legal frameworks, because they’re happier with those than open class struggle. The CFMMEU in Australia says it’s “lawless”, but it still pays all the fines when it breaks the laws.
The ruling class will not “deregulate” industrial relations, because then it would leave itself open to the sort of huge organising drive there was in the USA in the mid and late 1930s.
Some big employers who are concerned to have a stable workforce have a sort of paternalistic strategy. They have inflated HR departments which do deal with many individual cases and tone things down.
The coal mines in Australia were the highest-paid and most militant industry in the country. When the price of coal started collapsing in the late 90s, the mining companies had a HR strategy in new mines where they would employ no one who had a mining background and the workers were all “fly-in-fly-out” and de-unionised.
They have de-unionised not to depress wages but to gain control of the workforce. Often that control is more important to employers than the wage level. They focus a lot on getting control in what they call “choke-points” in their set-ups.
We had 100% unionisation in towage at Port Hedland [an iron-ore port in Western Australia], which is one of the biggest ports in the world by tonnage. That was completely de-unionised by BHP with the use of “partnerships” [where each tugboat worker is not an employee but a member of a “partnership” as, for example, lawyers are].
BHP paid out $35 million in redundancies. They gave the new non-union towage operator a $650 million line of credit.
Now, even if we had the most left-wing Labor government elected and the best law to restrict partnerships, you can’t unionise the area again, because the workers are earning a lot more from the “partnership” set-up than they would under any union agreement.
People on the left don’t want to talk about these things, but we have to.
It’s a sign of the times that I was the only official in the whole CFMMEU, out of 150 or 200, to speak out publicly against the Adani coal development. The union officials are getting further and further away from the trade-unionists of tomorrow, the young people. They are becoming cheerleaders for the multinationals in the steam coal industry.
In Australia now, only 4% of people under the age of 24 are joining a union.
There are some unions like the SEIU in USA who have a conscious policy of increasing the number of officials — but mostly by hiring organisers who don’t do the legal stuff, who aren’t particularly highly paid, but who focus on recruiting, often among low-paid workers.
That may seem like a break from the model I’m describing, and is presented that way, but it isn’t sufficiently so.
Those unions target areas where there is a high turnover of workers. They may recruit numbers, but they aren’t effective enough to build a lasting union presence, or to improve the conditions of their members.
I’ve worked for a while with the NUW [National Union of Workers] in Australia, which is heavily influenced by the SEIU. Their line to organisers is that you only recruit, and all the rest is dealt with by industrial officers in call centres.
Some of these problems are not new. Unions have been bureaucratised for a long time. You can read Engels in the 19th century criticising the sectionalism and exclusiveness and conservatism of the engineers’ union in Britain, which was the strongest union of the day.
There is also a history of unions based among better-paid workers, or sections of those unions, taking the initiative to help organise lower-paid workers.
In the USA, for example, the IWW owed a lot to support from the Western Federation of Miners and its leaders like Big Bill Haywood. They were relatively high-paid workers but rebelled against the approach of the American Federation of Labor under Gompers, who did not want to go anywhere near organising lower-paid workers.
The funding for the great CIO organising drive in the USA in the 1930s came in the main from the miners’ union of John L Lewis, who was an arch-conservative but could see that if they didn’t reach out, then his union too would eventually go under.
But today, what I see is that the better-paid workers, both in their union hierarchies and in their rank and file, have become more and more closed off from other sections of the working class. They look after their own, without the wider concerns that would often characterise the best-off sections of the working class.
For example, the left unions in Australia haven’t supported RAFFWU.
The good wages that higher-paid workers have gained in Australia have caused some psychological damage to them. Their concerns have often narrowed to themselves in their little workplaces, and not the working class as a whole. That is not all of them, but that has become dominant. There’s been a depoliticisation of workers in the traditionally better-organised and better-paid sections of the working class.
And there’s an atomisation of the working class. Workers go to work for their work hours, but apart from that they’re not part of a working-class community.
I was in Chicago a while back, and talking with the long-term workers at the big Ford factory there. They earn $125,000 a year or more. I commented that houses were pretty cheap in the area near the factory.
“We don’t live here”, they told me. They drove 45 minutes or an hour to work, and lived in better-off communities.
I’m told that dock workers in Denmark come to work in Mercedes and BMWs. They don’t own them, and they have big debts to pay down on them, but getting a car like that is a rite of passage.
Often the big money hasn’t raised workers’ living standards very much, but it has been effective in marrying them into capitalist debt. I know many high-paid blue-collar workers who still live week to week. The big car gives them status, but when something goes awry they’re in trouble very quickly.
I’ve seen it in the oil and gas industry in Australia, and on construction projects where workers were earning spectacular money. I’d say about 25% do better, about 45% do the same, and maybe 30% end up, after the big money finishes, worse off than when they started.
That’s new. There have been sections of industry where there have been booms and very high wages, and you would think those workers would come out with a very high standard of living, but mostly they don’t.
In previous eras, it wasn’t possible for workers to get into the levels of debt they fall into now. There were pawn shops, but that was small-scale by comparison. Now you have workers who are trapped by capitalist consumerism and running into debt to get their cars and other consumer goods.
The MUA [Maritime Union of Australia] is having its conference again at the Jupiter’s Casino on the Gold Coast. In the USA, unions have their conferences in Las Vegas.
During the Oaky North dispute, in Northern Queensland, the union paid the locked-out miners $1,500 a week, in the hand, for eight or nine months. As it happened, the employer, Glencore, didn’t kick the workers out of their company houses, and they still could eat in the company mess.
Or the CUB dispute by the electricians and the metalworkers, which went on for 24 weeks — the workers were all on $1,400 a week strike pay.
You can sustain that sort of thing only for small and selected groups of workers. It’s not a basis for any real class struggle.
And, oddly, today you’re more likely to get workers saying they “can’t afford” to go on strike, even for one-day strikes, than you were say 40 years ago. That’s true even though the workers today are better off than the workers of 40 years ago, with more access to credit to cushion hard times, and probably more likely to have other earners in their household than them.
So many workers are drawn into the financial system in a way that means, even though they have high wages, they’re constantly under pressure from their debts.
On the Brisbane ferries, where the workers are average-paid, the union offered $40 or $50 a day strike pay. And two-thirds of the union members were claiming it from day one.
When workers get more in strike pay than the average Australian earns in work, it becomes impossible to have a big strike for any length of time.
Unions are operating on the basis that everything is fixed up by money. But it’s not. It’s fixed up by politics. And they don’t have any politics. Or just stupid Labor Party politics.
It’s true that before the 1984-5 miners’ strike in Britain, lots of people — including people on the left regretful about it — were saying that the miners would never again have a long strike. Too many of them had big mortgages.
Then they did. They struck for a whole year. But the miners still lived in coal-mining communities, in strong working-class communities.
And the level of credit and indebtedness is much higher than 35 years ago.
On an abstract level financialisation might have a different impact. The extension of credit can also give workers more flexibility: if you don’t pay your mortgage for a couple of months, you won’t get evicted, whereas if you don’t pay your rent, you may be.
It’s the combination of financialisation and atomisation that’s been deadly.
The other thing is that there is less pressure to be in unions. In Queensland up to the 1980s there was the “preference clause, where preference had to be given to union members for work. Now people know they can get the same benefits as a union member without being in the union.
In a lot of areas unions have become almost sect-like.
Unions have done relatively well with teachers and nurses, but in many blue-collar areas they have done very badly. The United Auto Workers tried to win recognition in a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Volkswagen wasn’t against having a union. And still the UAW lost. There’s something horribly, horribly wrong there.
In this era of social media — even though people can get involved in demonstrations and so on quickly via social media — there’s a sense of internalisation and atomisation and alienation. Anxiety levels have gone through the roof, especially for young people.
That may be effect as much as cause of the downturn of the trade union movement, but it’s a fact.
Then there’s the speed of restructuring industry. In the 1930s there were big and long lay-offs, but the big factories, like the Detroit car factories, were not closed down permanently. In the recent decades whole industrial areas have been shut down. Whole industries have disappeared from some countries, or been moved. There are as many car workers in the USA now as there were in 1979, but a lot of them now are in new factories in the South.
The United Auto Workers in the USA now has only 350,000 members in it. In 1972 it had 1.1 million. But unions today are more concerned about defending their bureaucracies than about expanding their base. That’s the problem.
Another example: the Japanese seafarers’ union. In the 1980s it agreed to the flagging-out of 1,000 Japanese ships to the Panama flag as long as the union was paid US$500 a year for every seafarer on those ships. Without a fight they gave away twenty or thirty thousand jobs, but the Japanese seafarers’ union bureaucracy was saved, because the deal gave them an income.
Amalgamations have not been about making unions stronger or more receptive to the rank and file. They have been about making sure the bureaucracies stay together.
The bureaucracies have tried to take certain sections of workers with them by two-tier deals.
Two-tier deals are common for pension arrangements. The unions made a two-tier pension deal in the public service in Australia in the 1980s. In the USA you get two-tier deals where some workers can be on $10 or $15 an hour less than a longer-established worker doing the same job. In the recent General Motors settlement, the workers who have been there a long time get an $11,000 bonus, and the new hires only get $4,500, and it’s only a 1.4% pay rise. It’s a lot cheaper for a corporation to pay workers a bonus than to pay you a straight pay rise which feeds forward into 20 or 30 years of your later working life.
On the Australian waterfront, up until about 1983-4, the difference between classifications were quite small, but it has increased hugely since then.
Unions have not dealt well at all with contracting-out. That creates a different sort of two-tier workforce. In Australia, it’s common to hear people saying their agreement says that the worker from a labour-hire company has to be paid the same as the directly-employed worker. But the labour-hire worker’s employer is the labour-hire company, and their pay and conditions are determined by the agreement at the labour-hire company, not at the main business. The only answer is to get direct employment.
There’s been a decay of the core of political activists in the unions. Where the Stalinists have retained a hold, they have become social-democrats, but their whole way of thinking and acting is still Stalinistic. That expresses itself in extreme forms of bureaucracy, and it means they’re unable to move with the times. They’re still talking in the language of the 1950s.
In Australia, there is not the same prevalence as in Britain or in the USA of union officials being recruited straight from university or from NGOs. A lot of them still come up from the shop floor, but they come up through the Labor Party or some channel like that.
To become the general secretary of a teachers’ union you have to have been a teacher, to become the general secretary of a nurses’ union you have to have been a nurse. There are some exceptions, like the Australian Workers’ Union; and the National Union of Workers, a union which considers itself left-wing and oriented towards organising the unorganised, has lots of officials recruited from outside.
Unions are mostly not very democratic. You can’t call Unite, in Britain, a democratic union, when the only official the members vote for is the general secretary.
But I’ve seen problems in long-term committees on job sites. Where the same people are elected again and again over many years, the committees become a law unto themselves. They become undemocratic. They get the trips, they get the union time off. The rank and file on the shop floor tend to end up feeling it’s all too hard. The committee becomes a grey-hair brigade, often trained and shaped by decades of defeat. I believe issues should go to the shop floor and be decided there.
I’ve become sick and tired of hearing about yesterday. I hear wharfies and seafarers in the MUA talk about the struggles they have been through, but there hasn’t been a major struggle on the Australian waterfront where people have lost wages, beyond a day’s pay here and a day’s pay there, for over 60 years. Even in the 1998 waterfront dispute [where a major port operator tried to sack its whole workforce and replace it by non-union labour], in the end all the wharfies were paid for the duration of the dispute. That was part of the settlement.
Many of the older delegates have almost atrophied as trade unionists.
Bob Crow adapted the saying from Millwall Football Club: “Everybody hates us, we don’t care”. You’re not going to build a mass movement on a position like that. The West Australian branch of the MUA run on that same line. The CFMMEU in Victoria have a t-shirt which says: “God may forgive, but we won’t”.
That sort of thing might work for a small, tight workforce, but it won’t win over the mass of young people. Statements like that are exclusionary.
• Bob Carnegie was secretary of the Queensland branch of the Maritime Union of Australia 2015-19, and has been a trade union activist since the 1980s, in seafaring, construction, and other industries. He talked with Martin Thomas from Solidarity.