Why we need unions

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Hard Times, first published in 1854, takes the reader into a harsh, polluted and highly efficient society. It is a northern industrial mill town in England given the name of Coketown. The industrialists are unregulated as employers and in their impact on the environment. The leading industrialist in Coketown, Josiah Bounderby, is also the town magistrate, so any troublemakers are automatically dealt harsh punishment.

Hard Times has been noted since the time of publication as a realistic and bleak portrayal of social and industrial conditions before and during the introduction of organised labour and the union movement. The workers in the textile mills, known as The Hands, are as tightly programmed as robots from birth. We see the schooling at the Model School, based on rote learning and hard discipline, conditioning young people to accept their fate as machines who will soon toil from before light to 9pm at night, with one hour off for lunch. This will provide just enough money to rent a small room to live in and necessities. Even having children means dire poverty, with the extra mouths to feed. There seems to be no escape.

The Hands labour like slaves in Coketown. The town ‘of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled’ is so polluted by industry that the town has a black canal in it, and a river that runs purple with ill-smelling dye, and the buildings rattle in time with the piston of the steam-engines.

Dickens reveals the ideological underpinnings which keep the factories going, and the tragedy and spiritual sickness at the heart of it. The factory owners firmly believe that The Hands are lazy, grasping and wicked. Any suggestion that more could be done to prevent pollution, industrial accidents or child labour are met by the owners with cries of ‘ruination’ and threats of throwing their property into the Atlantic Ocean, for how could the economy get along without them.

The plot also includes an arranged marriage, a bank robbery, an untimely death down an abandoned mine shaft and the doings of a group of circus folk and the return of the heroic old circus dog Merrylegs. The Hands begin to organise themselves.

This is a complex and thrilling story with wonderful characters.

Pam Blakeley
July 2019

UnionsACT move on wage-theft crisis

UnionsACT are trialling a Young Workers Centre to help fight rampant wage-theft by dodgy employers. Young workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation in this area. Broken workplace laws and under-funded regulators provide little protection.

The Young Workers Centre is a free service to support any young worker who has questions or concerns about their rights and safety at work.

Employers are required to abide by labour laws which include:

  • Payment of minimum wage and/or penalty rates;
  • Payment of superannuation;
  • Work health and safety standards;
  • Payment for all hours worked, including overtime;
  • Providing proper records including payslips.

For information, and for support if someone you know is being ripped off, go to: www.youngworkerscbr.org.au.

The Centre is calling for donations to help in its establishment.

Averting Climate Catastrophe

Vintage Reds who are gnashing their teeth over the government’s inaction on the global climate emergency will be interested in the views from an evening’s event at the ANU on 9 July 2019, “Averting Climate Catastrophe: Extinction Rebellion, Business and People Power”.

The event was run by the ANU Climate Change Institute. See their Twitter account for posts from the evening.

Extinction Rebellion is a global non-violent civil disobedience movement which came to rapid prominence late last year when its supporters shut down central London, blockading 5 bridges over the river Thames. Media attention to climate change soared. After ten days of civil disobedience in London in April this year, a climate emergency motion was passed by the UK Parliament.

In 2018 the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have only 12 years, at current global greenhouse gas emissions rates, before our chances of limiting global warming to 1.5C are seriously at risk. Beyond 1.5C the consequences for us all are extremely disturbing. We have a very brief window to achieve a rapid decarbonisation of the global economy.

We need to move fast. But how might such a fundamental shift – from business as usual to transformative change – be achieved?

Neil Gunningham, from ANU’s School of Regulation & Global Governance (REGNET), examined Extinction Rebellion’s strategy, its emphasis on non-violent civil disobedience and its impact, before asking: what, beyond grassroots politics, would a transformational movement built around climate change involve? Pressure must be brought to bear on recalcitrant governments from many quarters: not just from grassroots activist groups but from business, financial markets, scientists, unions, school children, and faith groups.

As groups like Extinction Rebellion gain momentum, and join with others, a tipping point may be reached, generating rapid changes across the economic and social system. If so, then bottom up action driven by civil society, in a coalition with its allies, may yet be the catalyst for rapid, radical and constructive action by nation states.

Carolyn Hendriks, from the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, discussed other forms of community engagement, especially those comprising people who are frustrated and distrustful of democratic government. She mentioned Lock the Gates, Knitting Nannas, and some very successful renewable energy cooperatives, all local groups which draw on ordinary people’s practical wisdom and show what’s possible at the small end of community resistance to business as usual. Whatever groups such as Extinction Rebellion can achieve, there will then be a need for decision making groups and citizens’ assemblies in the transition to a sustainable world.

Lachlan James, a a “venture capitalist” and visiting fellow at REGNET, provided perspectives from the business sector. His most cheering quote came from the Harvard Business Review, “Firms have become too big to let the planet fail”. Sustainable investment is going mainstream; there are huge amounts of capital chasing a shortage of sustainable investment opportunities.

It is clear that the union movement’s Just Transition plan, to secure workers’ jobs and livelihoods, must be part of the coalition of activist groups which will take us all through to a zero carbon future.

In an almost full house at the Coombs Theatre, ANU, it was noticeable how many grey heads there were, even though it is not us but our children and our friends’ children who will be paying the price for our inaction. It is a critical time for retired activists to add our support and be involved.

Photos: Knitting Nannas, GloucesterAdvocate.com.au; @ANU_Climate on Twitter.

Canberra Rally for refugees on 20 July

July 20 – Save The Date,
6 Years on Manus & Nauru, 6 Years too Long!

“July 19, 2019 will mark 6 years since Kevin Rudd took Australia’s refugee policy to a sickening low by announcing that no person arriving by boat to Australia to seek protection would ever be allowed to settle in Australia.” [Refugee Action Committee]

Join thousands around Australia to rally against this continuing horrific injustice.

Saturday, July 20, 1 pm, corner of Northbourne Avenue & London Circuit, Civic.

Refugee rights are Union business.

June 2019 Guest Speaker, Meredith Burgmann

Jane introduced our speaker, Dr Meredith Burgmann, an academic, unionist and feminist, who spoke about the Springbok rugby tour of Australia in 1971. The talk focused on the tour in the context of sporting boycotts in Australia and globally.

Meredith gave an acknowledgement of country and paid her respects to elders.

We were happy to have in the audience veterans of the anti-apartheid movement as well as other contemporary actions such as the BLF’s Green Bans.

The South African Nationalist party adopted apartheid in its successful election campaign in 1948. Post-war Australia was an extremely conservative place, and the common line was that white South Africans were some kind of necessary bulwark against communism. In those days the Australian parliament didn’t discuss foreign affairs much. Meredith found only Gough Whitlam and Barry Cohen to be exceptions to this rule.

In the union movement, the seamen and waterside workers traditionally had international connections, of course. During this period they boycotted South African ships and refused to load cargos.

The first anti-apartheid group in Australia was the South Africa Defence and Aid Fund, a lawyers’ group (see John Myrtle’s essay at honesthistory.net.au). Students also demonstrated sporadically against South African apartheid. The rise of the New Left and student activism, during the Vietnam war, led to involvement in other issues including apartheid.

Sydney’s Stop the Tours campaign began in 1969: Denis Freney, Meredith, and Peter MacGregor were all involved. Sekai Holland was another member (a Zimbabwean who later returned to Zimbabwe and opposed the Mugabe government). That year the Springbok rugby team toured the UK, which gave Meredith’s group some lead time for a campaign to replicate in Australia the very successful opposition to the tour which anti-apartheid groups in the UK had organised. The longer plan was to have the 1971 South African cricket tour called off (which they achieved). Continue reading

Union Aid Abroad Apheda Trivia Night

Two teams of Vintage Reds took part in the Union Aid Abroad Apheda Trivia Night at the Belconnen Labour Club on 12 June.

The event was fiercely competitive (but you can make financial donations to improve your score… ) and unfortunately our brainy table was easily trounced by other brainier tables.

The event raised money for the Karen community. (These are members of a minority group from Myanmar.) We heard from two very good Karen speakers, including one from Harmony Cleaners, a community cooperative business set up as a pilot program with help from United Voice. Many cleaners have experienced exploitation by employers, but Harmony cleaners are paid at the proper rate, work under proper conditions, and set a fine model for any enterprise. An additional bonus is that the company is not-for-profit so invests any extra funds into the Karen community.

Valiant election volunteers

Vintage Reds worked tirelessly in the electorate of Gilmore, beating the pavements in Tuross, Moruya and Bateman’s Bay to bring the union movement’s concerns to voters in the federal election.

We campaigned on themes of fairness and equality, and opposing casualisation, penalty rate cuts, wage-theft and stagnant wage growth.

“Honk for penalty rates” was a particular favourite with motorists, one of whom (not personally known to us) drove on to a local coffee shop and brought back two coffees for our volunteers!

The election results were a shock; but congratulations to Fiona Phillips, the new ALP member for Gilmore.