Class in Australia Today

By Graham Matthews

[Feature talk presented to the Democratic Socialist Perspective Socialist Summer School, January, 2007, Sydney.]

According to Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto published in 1848, the history of all hitherto existing societies has been the history of class struggles.

Certainly, many would agree that this was the fundamental division of society in Marx and Engels’ day, at the early stages of the industrial revolution, when the masses toiled for long hours in the factories and mines, while the rich capitalists rode in polished carriages, waited on hand and foot by a staff of butlers, maids and cooks.

But is this the case today, particularly in a country like Australia, where the majority of the population would describe themselves as “middle class”, where we can all go to the same beach together, and barrack for the same national cricket team against the Poms, and where the son of a Dulwich Hill garage owner can become prime minister for the Liberal Party? Is this society still fundamentally divided by class and driven by class struggle?

Appearances can sometimes be deceiving. This is where a Marxist analysis can be useful, to search beneath the veneer of our liberal-democratic society, and look at what actually makes it tick, at who creates the wealth in this society, who owns it and in whose interest political power is exercised.

What is social class?

Many sociologists — those who can see no further than the capitalist system — will tend to define class as a matter of income, as a way of categorising society by simply looking at what people earn, or a matter of status or how they are looked upon by society. A Marxist analysis however, looks to a more fundamental explanation of class, rooted in a person’s relation to the productive process, specifically to the means of production — the sum total of a society’s productive capacity that goes to producing things that are sold on the market — commodities.

In order to define a person’s class, Marxists ask what level of control that person wields over the means of production. Another way of saying this, is asking whether you own part of the means of production or not, and if you are an owner, then how much?

Do you own a TV station, a string of factories or a chain of newspapers, for instance — or perhaps you own a significant stake in all three? Perhaps you own a major transport company, are managing director of an international mining corporation, or the CEO of Coles-Myer? If so, you are part of the capitalist class, the class which owns and controls the vast amount of productive capital in this society. In 1998, the capitalist class comprised around 5% of families in Australia. They owned 76% of share and similar investments, 46% of bank deposits, 46% of rental properties and 29% of private business equity.

Marxists don’t base conceptions of class on income. Income can be deceptive for the most wealthy, where income tax minimisation schemes, such as payment in share options, can cut the taxable income of the wealthy significantly — to the point where they are only really paying 13% on their actual income, according to a front-page article in the Sydney Morning Herald on December 20.

So where do you and I fit in? Most likely, you are part of the majority of the Australian population — someone who gets up in the morning and goes to work, whether at a factory, a mine, a government department or a KFC. You do the work you are assigned, a small cog in a larger wheel. At the end of the week, you receive a wage or a salary. You are part of the working class, some two-thirds of the Australian population, whose only productive asset is their ability to work (whether as a nurse, a carpenter, teacher or labourer) — their labour power — which they must sell to an individual capitalist, or the state, in order to receive a wage and make ends meet.

Of course society is not quite that simple. There are also intermediate layers, people who own small farms, or a small business, who primarily rely on their own labour power, or that of their family, and maybe a couple of employees. As a social layer, this petty bourgeoisie is continually being driven into bankruptcy by large capital, only to appear in some other sector of the economy in some other form.

So while the deregulation of hours for shopping giants Coles and Woolworths has driven many small shops to the wall, the rise of the technology industry has spawned a whole range of new, individual contractors. Some individual professionals are also petty-bourgeois — some doctors or lawyers who own their own small practice, for instance.

Why is class so important?

Liberal sociologists tell us that class is just one of the ways that we can divide society, alongside ethnicity, gender, religion or social outlook. Class is just one among many ways to categorise people — no more important than any other. They will also tend to define class descriptively, arguing that the term “working class” really only applies to those who work blue-collar jobs, or those who are trade union members, or excluding anyone who has been to university. By weighting the dice in this way, they can easily come to the conclusion that the working class in a country like Australia is getting smaller, almost ceasing to exist, and that we are all middle class now.

And it’s true that the nature of the working class in a country like Australia has changed over the last 50 years or so. According to ABS statistics, in 2003 over 65% of the workforce were employed in white-collar jobs of one sort or another — from teachers to nurses to bank tellers and public servants. Blue-collar occupations, which comprised over half of the workforce in 1947, are now only one-third of it. The decline in the manufacturing industry in Australia has had a massive impact. In 1966, over 26% of working-people worked in manufacturing. By 2002 it had fallen to just 12%.1

But the vast majority of people who work white-collar jobs are also members of the working class. In many cases, their control over their own work is even less than that of blue-collar workers, and often their wages are lower also.

Of course there are exceptions. Some small sections of salaried people receive such large incomes, often including significant perks, as well as shares and other property, that they should be considered a part of the capitalist class, or at least its intimate ally. The likes of judges, for instance, or permanent heads of government departments, or CEOs of major companies fall into this category. Then there are also salaried people, the nature of whose jobs places them outside the working class. Socialists see police and prison officers in this category for instance. Their role in society — as agents of state repression — puts them outside the working class.

But that still leaves around two-thirds of the population, who, when defined by their relation to the means of production, are members of the working class. Objectively these people own no stake in production other than their ability to labour — whether with their hands or their brain. They are forced to sell this ability to capitalists (or the state), and in return receive a wage. The capitalists provide them with the tools of their trade, the materials they work on or sell and take the profit for themselves.

Marxists call this exploitation. Workers receive only a portion — in most cases a very small portion — of the wealth they create, in the form of wages. The majority of that wealth — also called surplus value — is expropriated by the capitalist class.

What do Marxists mean by
ruling class?

Power relationships don’t begin and end at the office or factory gate. While every adult citizen of Australia formally has equal rights under the law — the right to vote, the right to protest, the right to petition government, and the right to run for office, it’s a fact that some people’s rights carry more weight than others. As Anatole France put it: “The law … in its majestic equalitarianism, forbids the rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg on the streets and to steal bread.” The fact is that those who own wealth — capital — in this society carry more social weight, more power, than the rest of us.

When you or I disagree with what the government is doing, we might swear at the TV. If we’re a little more adventurous, we might write a letter to the newspaper, which may or may not get published. Better still, we might join a demonstration, even join a political party like the Socialist Alliance, and by joining with others, make our voice a little stronger.

But when Rupert Murdoch disagrees with what a government is doing, governments take fright. The weight of daily newspapers in every state capital city buys a lot of power. So when Murdoch, or shock-jock Allen Jones, or the CEOs of Qantas or Coles-Myer speak, politicians listen.

In fact, the capitalist class doesn’t often have to tell politicians or governments what they want. Because the politicians generally know their place. Almost all of them rely on the patronage of one section of capital or another for their position and they’re unlikely to want to risk losing capital’s political and financial support. And then there is always the state — that faceless body of police, soldiers, judges, screws and bureaucrats — which implements the law in a way that invariably seems to protect the interests of those with the most to protect.

Class and class struggle

The existence of class struggle is an inevitable result of the division of society into classes. By their very nature, the existence of classes leads to class struggle. The division of society into classes appeared in human history at a point when the production of a stable social surplus — in other words, the ability to produce more wealth than would normally be consumed by the society in simply staying alive — became commonplace. This started around 15,000 years ago with the development of agriculture. The surplus was not enough to guarantee everyone a better existence, and so there emerged a struggle over who was to get it.

The division of society into classes means that one class is exploiting the labour of another and therefore expropriating the social surplus created by the productive class for themselves. This was more open and obvious in precapitalist class formations, such as slavery — where the slave was owned entirely by the slaveowner — or in feudalism — where the serf was compelled to work for free on the lord’s lands in return for the right to cultivate a small plot. In capitalism the exploitation is more hidden. Surplus value — the value a worker creates in excess of their wage — is extracted at the point of production, seamlessly.

In this way the employment contract can seem an equal one — workers bring their labour power, employers bring their capital, and both go away appropriately paid. This is how high school economics explains it. As we’ve seen, however, the worker produces far more value in a working day then they are paid for — this is surplus value, which is expropriated by the capitalist, by virtue of their ownership of the means of production — the factory, the raw materials — and the finished product that is sold.

But the division between what portion of social production goes to one class or the other is not fixed. And so, throughout history, we have seen a continual struggle between classes, over which one will have the larger share of the wealth. Much of the standard of living that workers in Australia enjoy, as well as our civil rights, were won through this struggle — class struggle.

Class struggle is endemic to class society. As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto:

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

"Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes".2

The state

Where you have class struggle, unless there is to be continual civil war, you need an institution that arbitrates disputes between classes, sets the laws and enforces them. This role is played by the state. And the state is there to defend the interest of the most powerful class in any society, the class with the greatest wealth, who can exert the greatest power — the ruling class. Under capitalism, as Marx and Engels point out in the Manifesto: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Far from being neutral or above class conflict, the role of the state under capitalism is to ensure the smooth reproduction of capitalism from one generation to the next, protecting the property of the propertied classes, maintaining a military to defend and extend the interests of the ruling class overseas, a judiciary to enforce the laws that protect property, a police force to keep us into line if we start to question too much, and prison-officers — screws — to keep us in jail if we step out of line just a bit too far.

But the state only works at the level of repression in the last instance. Capitalism and capitalist relations seem to reproduce themselves as though naturally in this society, as though they were common sense and there were no alternative. And it’s a vital role of the state to make sure that things happen that way. And so the school system, the courts, the bureaucracy and the parliament, all enforce and bolster this idea, discouraging any idea of stepping outside of the free and democratic system that we have.


The idea that capitalism is eternal, that inequality is natural, and that competition is necessary, are central ideas that govern mass behaviour under capitalism. Capitalist ideology — by which we mean the system of ideas that presents capitalism, parliamentary democracy, social inequality, and respect for power as natural and common sense — is crucial to the smooth running of capitalism in an everyday sense. We get up, go to work, respect the boss, respect police, popes and politicians, because that’s what we’ve been taught to do. Institutions as basic as the family, the church, school, and other social institutions, set up and reinforce these ideas in our heads from cradle to grave. It’s only a minority of working people, during normal times, who will fundamentally challenge these ideas, grasp the really exploitative nature of the system and struggle to change it.

Limits to democracy

Nevertheless, part of liberal capitalist ideology is the idea that we live in a democratic society, and while democracy under capitalism is rather limited, it is real. We are permitted to vote once every three or four years. We are permitted to protest in between times. We are even permitted to establish our own parties, and to run on whatever policies we might choose, and of course, the candidate with the most support gets elected, and the party with the most candidates elected forms government.

However wealth intrudes even here, to have its voice heard louder than you or I. For while Lachlan Murdoch and I each have only one vote on election day, Lachlan Murdoch, or the CEO of BHP-Billiton, can have a greater impact on the result of an election than you or I, both by giving money — serious money — to the political party whose policies they support most, or by using their newspapers, TV stations or radio stations, to present their preferred candidates as the best, most sympathetic, or most in the “national interest” and thereby secure them greater exposure and more votes.

This is the way the capitalist class — the ruling class — make sure that whichever government gets elected, it serves their general interests.

And what about the workplace, or the school or university, where most of us spend the better part of our waking lives, or else stuck in traffic going to and from? How much democracy is there? Try asking your boss for a vote on how much the workers should get paid against how much profit the company makes — and see how far you get.

Of course, limited as they are, democratic and civil rights are not illusory, and must be defended at all costs. In certain circumstances, socialists can use this democratic space to advantage, at least in getting a greater hearing for our politics, but in some cases in winning elections, and being able to offer a pole of attraction, and make an argument to masses of people from the parliamentary platform.

Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks in Russia, understood this. Even in the limited franchise of the Russian parliament — the Duma — after the defeat of the 1905 revolution, Lenin insisted that the Bolsheviks stand candidates, and that those that were elected use their parliamentary seats as a platform from which to educate the mass of people on what the government was really doing and so build support for socialism. The Scottish Socialist Party is another example of how socialists can effectively use parliament to build support for socialism.

In Australia, the Greens dominate the electoral space to the left of Labor at the present time and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future, until and unless they attain some share of power and come under pressure to either implement their radical policies or bend to the will of capital. Either way, the openings will then be larger for socialists.

Nevertheless, it is still important to pose a serious socialist alternative in elections. The small vote that socialists attract at the present time indicates a solid and conscious base of support for socialism in many cases, and in some cases, socialists can be elected to particular positions, as in the case of Steve Jolly, who was elected councillor for Yarra City in Melbourne in 2004 local elections, and went on to win a very respectable 6% of the vote in the recent state elections.

Nevertheless, with so much wealth behind the parties that support capitalism and against a socialist electoral alternative, any notion of electing a majority of socialists to a state or federal parliament and wielding power is an unlikely one, to say the least. And even if a majority of socialists were elected to parliament, the permanent and unelected portions of the state — the police, judiciary bureaucracy and army — defend capitalist property and would attempt to frustrate a socialist parliamentary project by any means necessary. As Karl Marx said in The Civil War in France, written about the Paris Commune of 1871:

"But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.

"The centralised state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature — organs wrought after the plan of a systematic and hierarchic division of labor — originates from the days of absolute monarchy, serving nascent middle class society as a mighty weapon in its struggle against feudalism."3

The state is set up and staffed by the capitalist class at its highest echelons. It will not sit idly by and simply accept its own democratic displacement. The history of coups against left-wing governments is an example of this capitalist self-defence when democracy makes the wrong decision.

How can the working class
change society?

So if the capitalist system, with its state that defends capitalist relations, tilts the playing field against the working class; if we can’t use the capitalist state to fundamentally change society, and if the power of the most concentrated, most wealthy and strongest ruling class in history is arrayed against us, how can we hope to change the world? Is socialism just a utopian idea after all? Were Marx and Engels just starry-eyed dreamers? Should we just accept a little amelioration of the system around the edges?

Well, if we believed that, I doubt we would be here on a Saturday afternoon in early January. But if we can’t change the system through the system, how can the working class change society?

The answer comes from the very place that the working class occupies in production. We own nothing but our ability to labour, which we are forced to sell to capital in order to receive a wage. The other side of this equation though, is that all industry requires workers in order to keep running. If we stop work, the economy stops work. Individually we are weak, but together we are powerful.

This is the basis to the revolutionary potential of the working class. It is the first ascendant class in history that represents the vast majority in society, who cannot liberate itself, without overturning the whole system at the same time.

As Marx and Engels put it, again in the Communist Manifesto:

"All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.

"All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air".4

Unfortunately though, matters are however, not quite that simple. While the working class retains the potential for revolutionary action, the unity needed to carry that through, particularly the unity behind a revolutionary leadership, remainselusive.

This has impelled some socialists to give up on the working class as a whole in countries like Australia — imperialist countries whose wealth helps them dominate the globe. They argue that the working class, while a class in itself, inasmuch as it exists as an objective social category, will not become a class for itself, a revolutionary class able to cause society to be “sprung into the air”. They argue that the divisions that rend the working class in an imperialist country, particularly differences of race and national origin, are simply too great to overcome.

What prevents working class unity?

Certainly it would be foolish for socialists to ignore the material and ideological phenomena that have tended to divide the working class in a country like Australia. They are not problems that can be leapt over in our attempt to forge revolutionary unity. They must be contended with and ultimately overcome.

Primary among the divisions in the working class in an imperialist country like Australia is the existence of a more privileged strata of the working class — what Engels and Lenin called the aristocracy of labour — a section of the working class, which because of its strategic position in the workforce, is systematically bribed by the capitalist class, using a part of the wealth it accumulates as a result of monopoly production.

From around the end of the 19th century, the economies of countries like Australia came to be dominated by monopoly capital. The emergence of new industries such as the oil industry or the highly industrialised mining industry, which required massive amounts of capital to get under way, changed the nature of the economy. Their sheer size excluded all but the largest capital from playing a part. This huge capital merged with financial capital, making massive industrial /financial concerns, which dominated the economy. Today the Macquarie Bank is an example of one such concern.

By their dominance of whole sectors of the economy, these firms could severely restrict competition, and so command monopoly profits — far higher than the average return on capital. In many cases, this capital was also exported to less developed countries, where natural resources and cheap labour were ruthlessly exploited. Think of Australian capital’s continuing domination of PNG or Fiji, for instance.

A portion of monopoly super-profits was used by the monopolists to systematically bribe a section of the working class into support for the system. A far higher standard of living was guaranteed, but only for a minority. This minority — usually the most organised in the most strategic industries — then became the social base for class-collaboration in imperialist countries, a section of the working class that identified its interests closely with those of the ruling class, which while it sought to maximise its wages and conditions (often at the expense of other, less-organised workers), identified with the so-called “national interest”, which means the interest capital as a whole, and has been won to restricting its horizons to remain within a capitalist framework.

Traditionally, the aristocracy of labour in Australia has been composed of well-organised, white, Anglo men. Women, migrants and of course indigenous Australians, generally fall outside of its ranks, and are confined to less-organised, poorer paid, often part-time or casual jobs.

Statistically this division of the working class is not difficult to identify. From the 1940s, when migrants from southern Europe were forced in large numbers into the dirtiest, lowest-paid jobs that many Anglo-Australians would not take up, to the 1970s and beyond, where Vietnamese migrants were funnelled into the sweatshops of clothing manufacturers, or the dead-end process jobs on the factory floor. In New Zealand, the contrast is black-and-white. The majority of the low-paid industrial workforce is Maori or Pacific Islander, while most of the supervisory staff, and of course the bosses, are white.

Today, some workers on 457 visas are brought to Australia to perform jobs for low wages, often in appalling conditions. As they are not migrants, only guest workers, they have no legal rights and so can be superexploited, and threatened with deportation if they complain or seek union organisation. Some unions, notably the MUA in WA and the AMWU in Victoria are attempting to smash these wage-cutting stunts by employers, by offering individual workers their protection and finding them work covered by awards or enterprise agreements. Other unions, however, have been sucked into the capitalist framework of seeing such vulnerable workers as competition and simply wanting to stop their entry or send them back to poverty.

Indigenous workers could legally be paid less than non-indigenous workers until the late 1960s. After the passing of legislation requiring equal pay, many Aboriginal stock-workers on cattle stations in the north of Australia lost their jobs. Today, unemployment among indigenous Australians remains over 20%, rising to over 40% if work-for-the-dole schemes are not included.5 Indigenous people are also massively over-represented in all state and territory prisons.

Both the government and the Labor opposition have also systematically used Australian chauvinism to try to weld at least a portion of the white Australian working class to its white Australian bosses, at the expense of unity with migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds. The not-so-subtle shift of both parties away from multiculturalism — which was itself a way to try to forge national unity, based on common identification with Australian capitalism — to “integration” (not very different from the white-Australia policy of “assimilation”), is a further attempt to cut across class identification by emphasising national difference and encouraging white workers to see those migrants who do not “integrate’’ as the enemy, as a threat to social harmony.

Ideological justifications follow the material differences. Racism, Australian national chauvinism, sexism and homophobia often manage to divide the working class against itself during ordinary times.

How do socialists struggle
for working class unity?

Faced with these divisions in the working class, socialists attempt to emphasise the commonality of workers as against what sets them apart. Socialists emphasise the class unity of workers against their national or racial differences.

And these are lessons that workers do learn through struggle. Significant battles in the car industry, or in the steel industry in the 1970s, in the Redfern Mail exchange in the 80s, and in Brisbane at Steal Line Doors in the ’90s,6 are just a few examples of successful struggles led by migrant workers, where solidarity was successfully built, cutting across national or racial lines. Historically there has also been significant trade union support for Aboriginal land rights struggles — the Gurindgi in the Northern Territory among the most famous.

Socialists prioritise these struggles, which draw working people together and cut across national, racial or gender divisions to unite working people in struggle. By turning the most conscious against the least conscious, nationalism, racism, sexism and homophobia in the working class can be broken down, and unity formed.

That is not to say that socialists do not confront discrimination in the working class movement. We also champion the rights of the most oppressed — democratic rights to equality — throughout the working-class movement. The only way that unity can be forged is by breaking down the petty divisions in the working class, and winning all workers to their fundamental unity as workers against the boss. Any attempt to ignore backward attitudes, or attempts to suppress, or outlaw them, simply lets them fester and grow stronger, all the while undermining working-class unity.

What is the situation of the
class struggle in Australia today?

In Australia today, the class struggle is in greater relief than at any time in decades. The Coalition government is mounting a concerted attack on the rights of organised labour, through such Orwellian-named legislation as Work Choices and the Building Construction Industry Improvement (BCCI) Act. It is attacking civil rights through so-called anti-terrorism legislation and continues to attack solidarity between workers using the Trade Practices Act.

The organised labour movement has responded to the attacks — at least the most direct attacks on the right to organise, made law in Work Choices and the BCCI Act. The ACTU campaign to date has centred on a series of national mobilisations against Work Choices, along with radio and television advertising and the strong suggestion that electing a Labor government would solve the problem.

The ACTU was reluctant to organise these mobilisations initially, but was pushed to do so by more militant sections of the union movement. The politics of the four national mobilisations held since June 30, 2005 has been consistently pro-Labor, prioritising a strategy of mobilising working people to campaign for the election of the Labor Party, which has promised to scrap the worst of the laws if elected. The ACTU has attempted to limit the scope of the “fight” to a few large mobilisations and the struggle at the ballot box. Nevertheless, the mobilisations, both before and after the passage of the legislation, have been important confidence builders for the organised labour movement in their struggle to resist the implementation of the laws.

The November 30 rallies last year against Work Choices mobilised up to 270,000 workers according to ACTU figures. Numbers at the rallies on November 30 were below those of the June 28 rally and particularly November 15 last year.

The mood on many of the rallies was quite mixed. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that rally-goers in Sydney thought the protest was smaller, and there was a certain cynicism about the ALP electoral focus, particularly ACTU secretary Greg Combet’s stunt at the MCG, which consisted of the not-so-subtle shift from the slogan “Your Rights at Work — Worth Fighting For” to “Your Rights at Work — Worth Voting For”.

The ABC radio PM program, ran a vox pop from one protestor at Melbourne who said: “If it’s a Labor Party, by definition your interests should be the interests of the labour movement. And I just don’t think Kim Beazley has demonstrated that in any way. I mean, he’s so far right that we might as well have two Liberal leaders in this country. We need some people to stand up for the working class.” I don’t imagine that Kevin Rudd and the “fork in the road” was quite what he was looking for.

Why was November 30 smaller?

The ACTU put the smaller size of the rallies down to intimidation by the Howard government and threats from bosses. And with the new laws in place, it does make it more difficult for the union movement to easily mobilise its membership. Fines of $6000 can be levied against individual workers, rising to $33,000 for unions for any industrial action outside of an enterprise bargaining period. Without being willing to defy those laws (and few were), unions are left with limited room — asking workers to take leave, or sickies or sending a delegation.

And even where unions did call strikes, this was often in coded messages, sending a confused message to workers.

A federal public servant, Greg McCarron, was forced to appeal to a full bench of the Federal Court for the right to use his leave entitlements to attend the rally. In Wollongong, Blue Scope Steel workers were forced to attend one-on-one meetings with managers and warned off attending the rally.

There were exceptions however. The building industry in Melbourne was shut down for the day — although numbers of building workers at the protest would indicate that not all workers actively participated in the protest, but took a day off instead.

When Amcor Flexibles in Melbourne threatened the work force with $6000 fines, they shut the plant down for 24 hours to attend the rally. The same workers already face $6000 fines for industrial action in 2006.

In Adelaide Rod Quantock who was chairing the rally, pilloried the ACTU’s new slogan, and talked up the success of the French workers earlier in the year. In WA there was a broad and inclusive “rev-up” rally organised under the auspices of the blue-collar unions, which dwarfed the “official” rally that it marched to.

Generally, unions did not give clear leadership to their members on what to do, leaving it up to individual workplaces or even individual workers to decide if, and how to get to the rallies.

The ACTU campaign which prioritises the vote over other action will also tend to demobilise workers, particularly those not enamoured with the ALP. Why go to a rather passive rally just to hear Labor party speakers?

There were also fewer marches following the telecast than in 2005.

Politics of the speeches

At the November 30 rally in Melbourne, ACTU secretary Greg Combet attempted a seamless transition from the “fight” for our rights at work to the “vote” for our rights at work. “A new campaign starts today,” he said. “Your rights at work are not just worth fighting for — they are worth voting for.” While not explicitly calling for a vote for Labor at the federal election as the only means of defeating Work Choices, Combet did say that, “The Labor Party’s position on the IR laws is extremely important because Labor is the alternative national government … A very clear choice is emerging between Labor and the government on industrial relations.”

In his speech, Combet used the failure of the state governments’ High Court challenge against Work Choices to argue that the only practical strategy left for the union movement was electoral. “Let’s be very clear about the real implication of the High Court decision,” he said. “It has confirmed that the only way to get rid of John Howard’s industrial relations laws is to vote against the government. John Howard is not prepared to repeal the laws, so we must elect a government that will.”

Combet’s call was backed up by state union leaders right around the county. And of course, there was also the stunt at the MCG with the word “fight” being rolled-up to uncover the word “vote” — the ACTU’s not-so-hidden agenda. While the electoral question has always been a central part of the ACTU’s campaign message, it completely dwarfed everything else on November 30.

Unions NSW secretary John Robertson put out a press release backing comments that he made at the Sydney rally that the only way around boss intimidation was to hold rallies on Sundays in future and make them more family affairs. The next planned event from Unions NSW will be a rally — probably more like a picnic again — likely at Homebush Park on Sunday, April 22, the weekend before the ALP national conference, to maintain explicit pressure on the ALP. This seemed to be a strategy backed by Combet, who when asked about the loss of productivity from the rally on November 30, merely answered that they had to take account of the availability of the MCG.

What assessment should socialists make of the campaign?

1. It was important that the rally was a mass action held on a workday and nationally. The two largest national rallies held last year were trade union rallies on a weekday, despite intimidation and threats — albeit that the global warming rally in Sydney probably eclipsed the turnout to both rallies here.

These mobilisations have been matched with ongoing resistance — with some success — at the industrial level in those particular unionised shops where bosses are attacking.

Workers’ resistance is reinforced by community action, of the kind of Union Solidarity in Victoria, which organises supportive community members to picket workplaces in dispute, limiting workers and unions’ exposure to penalties under Work Choices. Workers Solidarity in Sydney and the Peel Community Group in WA have played similar roles. This “on the ground” resistance takes strength from the broader mass campaign, and would be unlikely to be able to sustain itself without it.

This resistance, including the numbers mobilising for the rallies, is occurring despite the misleadership of the ACTU, which is still at least partially forced to mobilise workers — albeit in rather distorted and increasingly ALP-electoralist Sky Channel-type rallies.

Of course, in non-unionised and casualised areas, bosses are making easy gains with the new laws, reflected in the overall drop in actual real wages as penalty rates, overtime and leave loading are lost in quite a number of areas across the board.

2. In spite of the Labor Party domination of most of the platforms at November 30, and at most of the previous rallies, the socialist message was well received. Socialist Alliance leaflets, placards and slogans were well picked-up by rallies, and the newspaper Green Left Weekly was well received.

3. We need to call for a further rally, with a national stoppage/strike on a working day for early in 2007, to rebuild momentum and confidence in the campaign. We should specifically campaign against the ACTU-ALP’s attempt to re-route the campaign into a passive “vote Labor” exercise. An important part of this will be the continuation of mass action, met with an industrial campaign, and pressure to call workers out, rather than rely on delegations, flexitime and the like. We also need to demand the calling of mass delegates’ meetings across the country to steer the campaign, and take it out of the hands of trade union officials.

4. We should campaign for broad and independent platforms for subsequent rallies – platforms that are not Labor election campaign pitches. Specifically we should campaign to involve the Greens and socialists on the platform, but also have the whole tenor of the speeches more aimed toward struggle — including political — against the laws.

The SA and WA platforms on November 30 went some way towards this.

5. In NSW, we should build the April 22 Sunday picnic, while arguing that this is not enough. We should not counterpose the building of April 22 to a further mass industrial action, but nor should we accept the argument that April 22 replaces such an action.

6. There is a growing cynicism about the ACTU’s “vote ALP” campaign. This uneasiness is not universal but it is strong amongst an important component of the movement that we should continue to orient to. This sentiment only gives greater purchase to the Socialist Alliance to present a fighting alternative to militants. The room for the SA message is therefore still there and, relative to the size of the rallies, probably growing.

7. For the federal election, we should be clear that a Labor government, if at least partly elected on the basis of a union campaign of action and rallies, and forced by the union movement to repeal at least the most obnoxious of Howard’s anti-worker laws, would be preferable to the return of the Liberals, although we need to continue to make the point that Labor’s promises do not go far enough and that only a mobilised movement can hope to keep them to account.

The protests do exert mass pressure on the ALP and raise expectations of a Labor government. The ALP would certainly prefer to be elected without such expectations being built.

8. A Liberal victory in the 2007 federal election is likely to open the floodgates to attacks on workers. The bosses cannot be happy with the partial gains that they have made from Work Choices etc. to date, and are certain to mount a more concerted campaign against organised sections of the working class with the new laws, once a further election victory is attained. The obvious comparison is with the Thatcher government in Britain, which launched its major attacks against the National Union of Miners in 1984, only after winning a second term after its anti-union legislation became law.

As socialists in an imperialist, privileged and stable country like Australia, our role is to fight for the maximum unity of working people in struggle for their own interests. This doesn’t mean that we obediently fall in behind the official labour movement, much less the ALP.

The prospect of a Liberal win is being billed as an absolute disaster for the trade union movement by Labor Party supporters. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald on January 17, former Labor leader Kim Beazley claimed that a Liberal victory would mean the entrenching of Howard’s anti-worker laws and the destruction of the union movement in under a decade. “If the Labor Party is not able to get in there and change these industrial laws, the whole character of working Australia will change substantially, and to the Labor Party’s detriment,” Beazley said. These comments chime in with similar threats from union and political figures, desperate to channel the campaign against Work Choices into a campaign to re-elect the ALP at all costs.

While the prospect of a Howard election victory is a challenging one for the trade union movement, there must be a “plan B”. Unions cannot afford to rely on an election victory to solve their industrial problems. Thirteen years of Labor government from 1983 to 1996, the disaster of the Prices and Incomes Accord, union deregistrations, enterprise bargaining and falling real wages show that whichever party is elected federally, the only practical course for the union movement is to continue the political and industrial struggle for workers’ rights. Anything less would leave workers at the mercy of politicians’ good will.

We must campaign for a real struggle and a genuine fight in defence of gains long won and in search of further victories.

The working class is the only force in this society with the potential to change the world. The role of socialists and the role of struggle is to win that class to an understanding of its role — to win it from merely being a class-in-itself, a class that exists, to being a class-for-itself, a class whose social power can bring down the old order and begin the task of building socialism.


1 Kuhn ed., Class and Struggle in Australia (Pearson Longman: Frenchs Forest, 2005), p. 58.

2 Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto and Its Relevance for Today (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1998), pp. 45-46.

3 Marx, The Class Struggles in France (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 2003), p. 254.

4 Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto and Its Relevance for Today, pp. 54-55.

5 Khun ed., Class and Struggle in Australia, p. 147.

6 Ibid., p. 168.


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