Archive for the ‘Unions – Australia’ Category

by Susanne Kemp

Firefighters across New Zealand and around the world are marking International Firefighters’ Day today, May 4.

As the IFFD home page notes, “Firefighters dedicate their lives to the protection of life and property. Sometimes that dedication is in the form of countless hours volunteered over many years, in others it is many selfless years working in the industry. In all cases it risks the ultimate sacrifice of a firefighter’s life.”

In Third World countries, firefighting is an especially hazardous job due to widespread very poor health and safety conditions in factories, sweatshops and other workplaces and the under-spending on public services such as firefighting.

Bangla Desh firefighters and emergency workers

For instance, in the Tazreen Fashion factory fire in Dhaka, Bangla Desh, in 2012, at least 117 died while 200 were injured.  At the Kader Toy Factory fire in Thailand in 1993, despite the desperate efforts of firefighters, somewhere between 190-210 workers, mainly young women from rural areas, were killed and over 500 were injured.  The workers were locked inside the factory and firefighting crews were delayed by traffic jams in the area. (This fire is the subject of Don McGlashan’s powerful ‘Toy Factory Fire’ song on his first solo album.)

While we should think about the dangers faced by firefighters in NZ, we should never lose sight of the (more…)


s-l1000The following review of the book REBEL WOMEN in Australian working class history, eds Sandra Bloodworth and Tom O’Lincoln, appeared in issue #14 (Xmas 2000-March 2001) of the Christchurch-based magazine revolution, one of the predecessors of this blog.

by Linda Kearns

Women’s oppression, its relation to capitalism, and how to fight it have been matters of controversy both on the far left and between the far left and feminists.

Feminists have long criticised the far left for trying to subsume women’s oppression into class.  But a cursory glance at feminist studies and recent feminist theory tends to indicate that the vast majority of women – working class women – receive short shrift from the ‘sisterhood’.

In fact, there has also been a certain amount of nicking going on, as feminist historians have joined the fad for disaggregating the working class.  So where working class women are dealt with, it is gender rather than class which have been of interest.  Moreover, gender has been seen as counterposed to, even oppressed by, men of the working class.

Even socialist women, women who consciously chose to identify as, and fight as, socialist women – and not as feminists – have been appropriated – or expropriated by feminists: Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollontai are two Marxists who spring to mind as victims of this fad.

Sandra Bloodworth notes, for instance, the way the (more…)

"What do we want? A fair deal. When do we want it? Now!" more than 1000 firefighters chanted as they marched through the streets of Melbourne on December 8 last year;

“What do we want? A fair deal. When do we want it? Now!” more than 1000 firefighters chanted as they marched through the streets of Melbourne on December 8 last year

by Susanne Kemp

Given that firefighters risk their lives for not exactly a lot of pay, you’d think that any half-decent government anywhere might be vitally concerned to ensure they have the best conditions possible as workers and their pay reflects both their skills and the danger of their jobs.  Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Across the ditch in Victoria, for instance, instead of facilitating the firefighters in doing their job, the state government last year launched a massive assault on pay, conditions and the firefighters’ union itself.  This assault was fronted by ‘socialist-feminist’ Emergency Services minister Jane Garrett.  Garrett used feminist rhetoric – she’s also a member of the phony ‘Socialist Left’ faction in the Victorian ALP (Labor Party) – to attack the firefighters union.  When she got booed by fireifghters, for instance, she accused them of “bullying”.  More seriously, she was utterly backing the CFA (Country Fire Authority) and doing her damnedest to bring the union down.  On June 9, however, the firefighters scored a small victory as she was forced to resign.

On the pay front, the firefighters haven’t had an increase since  (more…)


Impetus for struggles for equal pay came from within the working class

There’s a quite widespread prejudice among the liberal left that male workers, especially blue-collar male workers, are socially reactionary.  That they are sexist, anti-gay, anti-immigrant and generally backward.  The liberal left, however, never examines its own class viewpoint – the liberal wing of the middle class – and its own prejudices against workers, especially blue-collar workers.  In the past few decades, as class has been rather shunted aside as the key force for social transformation, there has also been a certain type of feminist rewriting of history.  

A good example of this r811881_72605121 (1)was the film Made in Dagenham, where the producers decided it would be more acceptable – and more profitable – to view the 1968 struggle of women workers at Dagenham for equal pay through a feminist lens than through class.  They even created a fake character to introduce cross-class female solidarity that never existed in that struggle.  

There has also been a tendency to see struggles for equal pay through a feminist lens, even though second-wave feminism had very little to do with battling for the rights of working class women in the workplace – in New Zealand, for instance, the dominant feminist magazine (Broadsheet) was far more well-disposed towards fur-coated middle class women agitating against militant unions and strikes than they were to working class women’s struggles and movements like the Housewives Boycott Movement.  But here, as in most countries, the impetus for campaigns for equal pay come from within the working class movement, not the feminist movement.  These campaigns were certainly affected by the new political breeze of the 1960s and early 1970s, of which the women’s liberation movement was an important part, however the campaigning drive still came predominantly from within the working class not from within the women’s movement.  The article below deals with the case of the Australian metal industry nearly half-a-century ago.  Its author is a longtime Australian Marxist activist.

by Diane Fieldes (1999)


This article is a case study of the actions undertaken by the major union in the Australian metal industry (the Amalgamated Engineering Union — AEU) to campaign for equal pay for women. It deals with the years 1969 to 1972, a period bounded by two important decisions by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission granting forms of equal pay to women workers.

A substantial literature now exists dealing with the content and the effects of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission’s 1969 and 1972 equal pay decisions. Before looking at the specifics of each decision it is worth spelling out their common features. Most importantly, both were hedged about with qualifications. Both decisions retained the concept of the “family wage”. Wage-setting continued to be underpinned by the notion of the male breadwinner and dependant female. In order to lessen the impact on employers, the increases that were granted were to come into effect in instalments over a number of years. Both claims were initiatives of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), both were opposed by the employers and the Liberal-Country Party government, and both failed to address the fact that there was no minimum wage set for women. The effect of this last factor meant the lowest-paid male in 1973 got $60.80, while employers could still pay women as little as $34.50.

The effect of the 1969 decision was to grant “equal pay for equal work”, i.e. that where women did “equal work” alongside men they should receive equal pay, but that otherwise equality did not


imagesIn New Zealand, the left (in the broadest sense of the term) is dominated by ‘kiwi nationalism’.  The latest example of this is the campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.  Even though the NZ capitalist class is one of the original group of six and is pushing the TPPA because it is in its class interest, campaigners frequently speak and act as if it is something being forced on this country by foreign capitalists.  Against it, they invoke a range of nationalist slogans and political positions.

Economic nationalism, via protectionist measures and tariffs, is a key part of left politics in this country in the face of job losses too.  Most of the union movement is wedded to it.  Even chunks of the far-left promote it.  In this country we essentially have a nationalist left rather than an internationalist and anti-capitalist left.

The following article by two leading Australian Marxists provides a good antidote, especially since ‘Aussie nationalism’ and ‘kiwi nationalism’ are very similar.

by Ben Hillier and Diane Fieldes

It is rare to meet anyone whose world view is not framed by nationalism in one way or another. This is hardly surprising. The world is constructed on national lines: nation states, national languages, national education systems and national laws.

We have national parliaments and therefore national political parties, national industries and therefore national unions – the Maritime Union of Australia, the Australian Workers’ Union, the National Union of Workers.

And from a very early age, we are taught about our shared national culture and encouraged to embrace “national identity”. We reflexively support “our” country, “our” military, “our” national sporting teams. And when an Australian does well on the world stage, there often is a sense of national excitement. Take the buzz around NRL player Jarryd Hayne playing for the San Francisco 49ers, or when Nicole Kidman (“Our Nic”) first made it big in Hollywood.

Exactly what it is to “be Australian”, however, is exceedingly hard to pin down.

The “fair go” and “mateship” are the backbones, we’re told, of what it means to be Australian. Also important is the Aussie larrikin spirit – if you read theNorthern Territory News, you understand that this is expressed in getting drunk and setting off a firecracker in your pants or taunting some native wildlife until it finally bites you in the groin.

Yet we encounter two serious problems as soon as we interrogate any of the things that allegedly are quintessentially “Australian”. First is that (more…)

Working class women protesting for equal pay, Australia, 1969

Working class women protesting for equal pay, Australia, 1969

These days talk of class in NZ is often greeted with groans.  While this is not hard to understand when it comes from the right, it is often found on the left as well as many leftists have shifted attention to other factors as causal in terms of oppression and discrimination.  It has also become more common to talk of things like the struggle for equal pay as feminist-inspired and any gains as being the result of feminism.  In the article below, Australian Marxist Katie Wood reminds us that the struggle for equal pay came much more from within the union movement than the feminist movement.  While she is dealing with a specifically Australian context, her analysis is backed up by what happened in First World countries from New Zealand to Britain, on the other side of the world. 

Working class men demonstrating for equal pay for women in Australia, 1969

Working class men demonstrating for equal pay for women in Australia, 1969

by Katie Wood

The year 2014 marked the forty-fifth anniversary of the first decision in the federal arbitration court supporting equal pay for women, yet today the gender pay gap stands at a staggering high of 18.8 percent, or nearly $300 for full-time weekly earnings.[1] Even more troubling is the fact that the gap has been growing rapidly since a “low” point of 14.9 percent in 2004. This percentage is huge in real terms. It means that full-time female workers are on average over $13,000 a year worse off than men and over the length of a working life; when combined with time out for raising children, it amounts to around $1.4 million.[2] Women also accumulate only 59 percent of the superannuation savings of men on retirement.[3]

In recent years there has been something of a backlash against concern about the gender pay gap. Numerous articles have been written arguing that there is in fact no such thing – that any statistical differences can be explained solely by individual women’s choices to work in lower-paid industries or to leave the workforce for a time to raise children.[4] This argument ignores the connection between such individual decisions and the sexist structures of society. It is total rubbish.

A 2009 study of the variables associated with the gender pay gap found that the predominant reason for the gap was the indirect factor of “simply being a woman”, by which the authors meant the experience of direct or indirect sexist discrimination. This factor far outweighed others such as industry segregation, labour force history and qualifications; a finding that the authors maintain is consistent with other Australian studies in the field.[5]

Sexism in the workforce plays out in many different ways, sometimes complex and sometimes seemingly contradictory. For instance, it is well documented that women who ask for pay rises or promotions are seen in a more negative light than men who do the same, and that the socialisation of women to be more self-effacing and passive means that they are less likely to ask for pay rises or promotions in the first place. Sexism shapes the assumptions that bosses make about their workers and it pervades the daily interactions in the workplace. It is a key factor in the endurance of the pay gap and cannot be ignored just because those daily interactions may be harder to quantify or seem to be individual and personal rather than systemic.

Industry segregation along gender lines is of course an important factor in the continuing pay gap. Women are poorly represented in the highest-paid industries, such as mining, but over-represented in the lowest-paid, such as retail.[6] Again, all the complex elements of women’s oppression come into play here. Women are less likely to enrol in engineering, geology and related courses, more likely to take up “caring” professions such as childcare, nursing and teaching. And these industries, because they are historically feminised, are lower paid; a fact that was acknowledged by Fair Work Australia in the 2012 Australian Services Union equal pay claim decision.

Women are also more likely to take time off work to undertake unpaid care of children, the elderly and the sick. Again, if this is presented simply as a “choice” it ignores the fact that it is stereotypically a woman’s role to take on caring responsibilities. Also material factors may affect the decision, as women are likely to earn less than their partner in a heterosexual relationship and such a “choice” makes clear financial sense.

So women’s oppression operates in myriad ways to reinforce the gender pay gap. It is really just one of the more obvious signs of the ongoing problem of women’s oppression. The pay gap, just like women’s place in society more generally, is not subject to some gradual, linear improvement as society develops, presumably for the better. Changes in government policy and the strength of working class organisation, in short various aspects of the class struggle, impact on the gender pay gap. The assault on union rights and collective bargaining under WorkChoices (and its offspring FairWork) undoubtedly contributed to the recent increase in the pay gap, as the gap is wider for women on individual contracts than for those on collective agreements (20.2 percent compared to 15.8 percent).[7]

Equal pay is a class and a union issue, and always (more…)


Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard

The piece below is reprinted from the Australian journal Marxist Left Review #4, Winter 2012; it presents a damning indictment of the Rudd and Gillard Labor Party governments across the ditch and those who propped them up.

by Diane Fieldes

Less than five years after the landslide defeat of the hated Howard government in 2007, Labor is so unpopular that the return of the Liberals to office seems assured. By the 2010 election Labor was already close to losing office. Despite the much-vaunted success of the Australian economy since the start of the global economic crisis, both parties’ 2010 election policies made clear their commitment to the capitalist class’s desire for pre-emptive austerity measures (cuts to public spending, a budget surplus) while business profits were propped up. Both parties went to the 2010 election committed to a reactionary consensus: undermining workers’ rights while kowtowing to the ultra-wealthy, continuing the slaughter in Afghanistan, locking up refugees behind razor wire, and continuing the genocide of Aboriginal people.

The result of Labor’s 2010 election campaign was that the ultra-reactionary Tony Abbott came within a whisker of winning. The ALP could not form government without the support of the Greens’ single House of Representatives member, Adam Bandt, and three independents – the ex-Nationals Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and former Green Andrew Wilkie. Some on the left welcomed the formation of this minority government as a positive outcome. It supposedly presented an opportunity for progressive advance. The day after the election long-time left wing activist Tim Anderson declared:

“Unexpectedly… a great opportunity for social change has emerged… The August election was a strong statement against… shallow electoral politics… there is room for a range of new voices, including the Greens, including the maverick MPs, but also including all those of us who have been disillusioned with conventional politics.”[i]

Prominent Greens member (and former Democrat senator) Andrew Bartlett, argued that:

“this new parliament is likely to be (more…)