Workers Struggle

Unions, the workplace, strikes, the point of production, and so on.

Housing that was compulsorily acquired as part of the failed East-West Link project is STILL empty six months after it was handed over to a homelessness charity.

Today the Homeless Persons’ Union has occupied several vacant houses on Bendigo Street in Collingwood. Approximately thirty activists are camped out at Bendigo Street demanding to know why housing owned by the Andrews state government sits empty whilst thousands of people sleep rough on the streets of Melbourne.

Media release from the Homeless Persons Union:

EAST WEST LINK HOMES LANGUISH AMIDST HOMELESSNESS CRISIS

Early this morning a coalition comprising members of the Homeless Persons Union Victoria and Melbourne’s homeless community began demonstrating at a number of empty properties on Bendigo St, Collingwood. The properties are among those that were compulsorily acquired by the former Napthine government for the now defunct East West link.

The demonstration seeks clarification on issues surrounding the ownership, management and occupancy of these empty, publicly-owned properties. The lack of transparency has led to confusion within the homeless community.

Six months ago there were media reports that 20 properties were transferred to the Collingwood Football Club’s ‘Magpie Nest’ program, a partnership with The Salvation Army, to house the homeless. A spokesman from Magpie Nest claims that all properties transferred to their management have been filled.

In light of this, the demonstrators call on those responsible to immediately provide clarification on who owns and manages the remaining empty properties. It is unjustifiable that these dwellings remain unoccupied with a Victorian winter approaching.

There are 35,000+ Victorians on the public housing waiting list, growing at 100 per month. This is while the Andrews government neglects, demolishes and privatises public housing.

Each and every Victorian has a human right to safe, secure and affordable housing.People lose their lives due to medical conditions acquired through being exposed to the elements whilst living rough.

We ask the Andrews government and the Victorian public- is this good enough?

As of midday the action is ongoing, demonstrators are discussing the possibility of an ongoing occupation of the vacant homes.

Update!

Today’s action has ended with something of a win for demonstrators. Police responded to the demonstration Bendigo street this afternoon and demanded that homelessness activists vacate the occupied homes. After a prolonged standoff, police relented and departed.

Activists have announced that a mass meeting will be held tomorrow at 6:30pm and are encouraging all supporters to attend.

There is coverage of today’s action on The Age website:

Occupiers are staging a sit in, as part of an organised protest against the waste of much needed inner-city housing.

About 50 homeless people and members of the Homeless Persons Union Victoria are protesting at several of the empty homes that are now publicly owned. They have moved into the street, bringing couches, gas cooking burners and placards with them.

The Herald Scum also have a brief article up that’s so bad it’s not even worth linking too.

I’m posting periodic updates on twitter using the hashtag #EWLinkHouses.

Update 1 April 2016:

The #EWLinkHouses occupation on Bendigo Street Collingwood is ongoing! Demonstrators have occupied 2 Bendigo Street, and setup a protest media hub.

The Homeless Person’s Union have released a new set of demands:

BENDIGO STREET OCCUPATION TO CONTINUE UNTIL DEMANDS ARE MET – PUBLIC HOUSING NOW

A group of housing activists and homeless people have occupied properties in Bendigo Street, Collingwood.
These 6 government-owned houses were pledged to be used to address homelessness by the Andrews government, but many have been sitting empty for over a year.
The occupiers of the properties have made the following demands and refuse to leave until they are met.
• Immediate release of all information relating to the current ownership of all
properties acquired for the East-West Link, with full transparency about all
acquired land and no more dishonesty.
•The 6 unused houses on Bendigo St to be made into genuine public housing
and allocated to some of the 35,000 people on the public housing waiting list.
Occupation will continue until the first keys are handed over.
• All unoccupied properties acquired for the East-West Link that are still in the
government’s possession to be added to the public housing register.
• Minister Martin Foley to come to Bendigo St and be interviewed by people
with experience of homelessness.
• The Andrews government to say how they intend to provide housing for 25,000
homeless people while there are 80,000 unoccupied dwellings in Melbourne.
Given the importance placed on addressing housing issues by the report
of the recent Royal Commission on Family Violence, the occupiers believe taking
action on public housing should be an immediate priority of all levels of government.

There is more media coverage in The Age:

Homeless women ‘told they had 10 minutes to leave’ East West Link home

On Thursday Roads Minister Luke Donnellan said the nine vacant properties in Bendigo Street were empty because they were awaiting a tenant or needed more work to prepare them for occupation.

He said if the squatters at Bendigo Street were homeless they should join the public housing list – which stands at more than 30,000 people across Victoria and 1204 in Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond.

In a sit-in protest on Bendigo Street on Thursday, about a dozen people hung banners and set up couches and cooking facilities on the footpath.

The Green’s Ellen Sandell was among a number of supporters to pop down on Day 3 and offer support to the occupation:

Demonstrators intend to continue the occupation over the weekend. If you’re in the Melbourne area be sure to head down to Bendigo Street and show your support this weekend!

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Two months after the most significant far-right mobilization in recent Australian history, the Victorian Trades Hall Council executive has adopted the following motion (emphasis added):

“That the VTHC celebrates the contribution to our community from Victorians of many cultures and faiths. There is no place in Victoria for discrimination or racism and we deplore those who would demonise any group by reason of their faith, race or culture. Affiliates pledge to work alongside groups and organisations representing our many faiths and communities to counter those that oppose multiculturalism and in particular those individuals and groups that are currently fostering anti-Muslim sentiment“.

– Victorian Trades Hall Council Executive minutes for 12 June 2015

Far-right agitator Shermon Burgess has responded to this development by calling upon his supporters to protest to their unions, and by threatening a mass walk out of racists from the trade union movement:

So I urge everyone from Reclaim and UPF, all the tradies and stuff who support us, all the hard workers who are union members – contact your union and let them know not to rally against us. Because we are for our unions, we are not against our unions.

But if we are going to have the unions start attacking us, then, you are going to have a whole lot of Aussies who support Reclaim Australia and UPF tearing up their union membership, and it’s going to cost the unions money.

Burgess and the far-right Reclaim Australia milieu have struggled to work out the best position to take in relation to the union movement.

The United Patriots Front are committed anti-leftists; their Facebook page proclaims that they are “a nation wide movement, opposing the spread of Left Wing treason and … Islamism”. This stance would appear to place them at odds with the values of the modern trade union movement.

Yet at the same time as they rail against “left wing traitors”, Burgess and other elements on the far-right harbor dreams of building a political base amongst ‘blue collar’ segments of the white working class.

The far-right do not know whether they want to attack, or enter, the existing trade union movement, and so they often end up attempting to do both at once.

At the same time as Shermon Burgess published his call for ‘patriots’ to contact their unions and agitate for racism, his fellow UPF agitator Neil Erikson was announcing he would never again have anything to do with the union movement:

When I was younger I used to have a lot of respect for the union. I liked to be protected at work, from the evil bosses that are gonna sack ya for f-cking nothing.

I joined the union many years ago, but guess what – NUW? [crumples his membership card] Not anymore.

It’s a sad day in Australia when I gotta worry about my own union workmates. Youse are there to protect me at work from bosses and fucked up shit, not outside when I want to protest something I believe in.

So that’s it, no more union for me. Ok, the Marxists, Communists have taken over your unions. They’ve got you in so much fucking trouble and you keep doing it.

Me personally, I’m not paying another dollar to any union. Ok. I’ve had it.

I’m not going to be fucking be manhandled and bullied to keep my mouth shut whilst my brothers and sisters die all across Australia all across the world. Christians being murdered for fucking nothing. You gu- [Video ends suddenly]

Erikson’s rant was clearly off message and was quickly removed from the UPF Facebook page, although not quickly enough.

The far-right dream of building a base amongst segments of the labour movement. They share the same offensive assumptions about blue-collar workers held by so many middle class social-democratic snobs; that white male blue-collar workers are naturally racist and are thus susceptible to the appeals of fascism.

The politics of the far right are anti-union, in that they attempt to mobilize one segment of the Australian working class against those workers who happen to be Muslim. The racism, bigotry and Islamophobia of the far-right are an attack on the basis of the union movement, they are an attack on the very idea of working class solidarity.

For these reasons, the far-right must be publicly, forcefully and unequivocally rejected by the entire labour movement.

(more…)

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The dole is a poverty payment. People who rely on the Newstart allowance from Centrelink are living in poverty.

The Poverty Line

A poverty line is a tool for calculating whether a person is or is not living in poverty. Broadly, the two most common ways are to calculate a percentage of average income (a relative measure), or the amount of money required to buy a basket of goods (an absolute measure)1.

A relative measure of poverty assumes that poverty is tied to income inequality, and that having much less than everyone else is poverty. With this understanding of poverty, the amount of material resources that a person ‘in poverty’ might have access to varies according to the level of wealth in a given society. This can seem counter intuitive to people operating with a ‘common sense’ understanding of poverty, an understanding that sees poverty as a state of absolute material deprivation. The alternative is an ‘absolute’ measure, the most common of these used in Australia is the so-called Henderson poverty line.

The [Henderson] poverty lines are based on a benchmark income of $62.70 for the December quarter 1973 established by the Henderson poverty inquiry. The benchmark income was the disposable income required to support the basic needs of a family of two adults and two dependant children.

Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic Research, 2014, Poverty Lines Australia, September 2014.

There are several weaknesses with an ‘absolute’ approach such as the Henderson poverty line. First, it assumes the level of material goods required to sustain a person or family unit is unchanging and constant. In reality, our material existence under capitalism is constantly being transformed. What would Professor Ronald Henderson have made of ‘one laptop per child’ or the internet as a human right in 1973?

This points to the second major problem, an absolute measure of poverty is grounded in the values and ideas of the person or institution that decides on the associated basket of goods. Is a person ‘in poverty’ if they cannot afford healthcare, education, contraception, and so on? I suspect most Australians would say yes, but I doubt it is a view shared by our government.

I’ve gone off on a tangent.

Whether we calculate an absolute poverty line like Henderson, or a relative poverty line such as ‘less than 50% of median income’, the dole falls well short.

The most recent calculation of the Henderson poverty line estimates that a single person requires at least $342.14 a week 2, or $17,791.28 a year, to get by. Assuming they don’t need to pay for housing. It’s crazy, but most calculations of a poverty line bracket out housing3.

The most common relative measure of the poverty line is ‘50% of median income’4. The Australian Council of Social Services’ (ACOSS) regular report on Poverty in Australia calculates a poverty line as 50% of median disposable income (that is income after tax, after bracketing out housing)5. Using this methodology ACOSS’ 2014 report calculates a poverty line of $400.30 a week for a single adult.

To get an idea of how conservative these measures of poverty are, it’s worth comparing the various poverty line figures to crude average earnings. In November 2014 the average adult weekly full time wage was $1,476.30 a week (before tax), or $76,767.60 a year6. Half this amount would be $738.15 a week.

So how does the dole stack up? The current full rate of the Newstart Allowance pays unemployed workers a miserly $257.30 a week, or $13,40.60 a year.

The dole is $84.84 a week below the Henderson poverty line, $143.00 a week below the ACOSS relative measure of poverty and $477.85 a week below 50% average wage. No matter which way you slice the numbers, the dole is well below the poverty line.

The extent to which the dole in Australia is below the poverty line has been progressively increasing in Australia. Superficial increases in the dole are tied to the Consumer Price Index:

“Unemployment payments fell from 46 per cent of median household income in 1996 – a little below a conventional relative poverty line – to 36 per cent in 2009-10, a long way below such a poverty line,”

Whereas Newstart and the age, disability and carers pensions were once roughly similar, different methods of indexation adopted in 1997 mean the gap is now more than $200 a fortnight

Newstart increases in line with the consumer price index while pension payments increase with average male wages. The Centrelink website says this means Newstart grows “in line with increases to the cost of living” but the cost of living for beneficiaries has been climbing faster than the CPI.

“Since 1998, the special analytical price index for beneficiaries has risen by about 5 per cent more than the CPI, meaning using this measure their real incomes have fallen,” Professor Whiteford says in the report.

The dole is configured to continue sliding deeper and deeper into poverty territory.

Unemployment

The dominant ideas around the dole and unemployment justify welfare poverty on the basis that those on poverty payments have only themselves to blame. The unemployed worker is being punished for failing to “get a job”, something we’re told they could readily achieve if only they tried hard enough.

It is of course, bullshit.

There are at least 11 people seeking every advertised job vacancy in Australia. 782,000 people are officially recognized as unemployed, but the real rate of unemployment is much higher. A further 875,000 people are underemployed, they work at least one hour a week but need more. At least 1.8 million people are applying for the estimated 150,000 job vacancies in Australia at present.

This unemployment and under-employment is no accident. It is created by capitalism, and serves it’s ends:

It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same. … a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus population becomes … a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital … it creates, for the changing needs of the self-expansion of capital, a mass of human material always ready for exploitation …

The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active labour-army; during the periods of over-production and paroxysm, it holds its pretensions in check.

Marx, 1867, ‘Progressive Production of a Relative surplus population or Industrial Reserve Army‘, Capital Vol 1.

Capitalism makes use of unemployment to drive down wages and discipline employed workers. You better not play up because there are eleven more where you came from… The dole is necessary in this situation to maintain unemployment, the crude fact is that the ‘reserve army of labour’ would quickly starve to death if there were no form of social support available.

By keeping levels of social support at miserably low levels, capital and the state maintain the coercive power of unemployment. By keeping the unemployed in poverty, unemployed workers can be forced back into whatever work is offered, whenever capital needs it, at whatever wages are on offer.

Even the most ambitious plans to end welfare poverty that are discussed publicly in Australia do not undermine this basic logic. The Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young is arguing for a $50 per week increase in the dole, a figure that would still leave the dole below the Henderson poverty line, and which would do nothing to solve the indexation trap. To give The Greens some credit, their position is at least significantly better than the government’s plans to drive pensioners into the same CPI trap as dole claimants.

Why I say ‘Double the Dole!’

The Australian Unemployed Workers Union has adopted a demand to increase all welfare payments to the Henderson poverty line, that is to $400 per week. It is one thing to make an argument that no one should live below the poverty line, but there are real reasons we should argue and fight for welfare payments well above poverty levels.

Earlier this month the union movement called a national day of action against the government’s attacks on “our living standards”. I and some friends went along around a banner that read “Double the Dole”, unfortunately many at that rally did not see defending the welfare system as defending “our living standards”. It is unfortunate, because doubling the dole (and indexing welfare payments to wages) would benefit every worker in Australia.

At it’s present poverty levels, the dole systematically undermines the pay and conditions of all workers. When a person can’t make ends meet on a poverty payment, they are left with little option but to take whatever is on offer, even if that is a dangerous cash-in-hand job for $3 an hour. A liveable dole, a dole payment that did not result in a precarious miserable existence, would act as a floor on wages and would limit the ability of bosses to engage in this kind of hyper-exploitation.

A liveable dole would rob bosses of one of their key forms of power. The power to hire and fire is terrifying to workers because unemployment can mean homelessness, hunger, relationship breakdown, and all manner of humiliation and misery. If we fight to remove the misery and humiliation associated with the dole the threat of being fired would be less potent and we would improve the position of every worker.

Demanding an end to poverty level welfare payments should not simply be a moral argument about children in poverty or “the unfortunate”, it should be a passionate argument for justice and solidarity. Unemployment is created by capitalism and benefits the bosses. We can and should demand that capitalism pay, and pay reasonably, for the labour it has caused to stand idle.

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Teachers in Victoria are struggling to defend their pay and conditions. EBA negotiations have come around, and the Victorian Liberal government have offered state school teachers a technical pay cut. The Baillieu government’s proposed “pay rise” of 2.5% falls below the rate of inflation.

The Australian Education Union is highlighting a 2010 election promise by the Baillieu government to make Victorian teachers the best paid in the country.

Western Australia teachers at the top of the scale are already paid 10% more than Victorian teachers, with further pay rises of 8.25% over two years to come.

The Baillieu government has also announced that it’s 2.5% pay ‘increase’ would have to be offset by ‘efficiency gains’, their policy is in effect a pay cut, increased work load for teachers, and decreased standards in public schools.

The left must support teachers and their unions against this attack on public education by the state government. But amongst anarchists there is sometimes a sense of equivocation.

When on the 7th of this month, over ten thousand Victorian teachers participated in their biggest ever stop work meeting, Melbourne anarchist Andy Flemming posted “Good luck to the teachers…” along with this youtube video:

Anarchists wholeheartedly critique the current system of education. Our education system is a system of indoctrination. compulsory education is a contradiction in terms. The school does reproduce the social relations of capitalism, teaching students their place in relation to the figure of authority. Schooling teaches us to:

confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. [The student’s] imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. – Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

Compulsory schooling creates prisons for young minds. Anarchists can and must advance a critique of education under capitalism. But we should not let this task distract us in our support for all workers in their struggle against the boss.

There is no contradiction between advancing a solid critique of the system of education, and offering our unequivocal support for education workers in their industrial struggles.

1. Teachers are workers.

Teachers sell their labour power, are paid a wage, and largely do not control what they do during their working day. The teacher’s working day is controlled a school administration, a curriculum, and an ever increasing raft of policies handed down by the Department of Education.

The labour of teachers, even in the public education system, is exploited. Teachers are not paid the full value their labour produces. Public education is not a business, but there is still a surplus. The returns on public education are reaped by capitalism in the form of more useful and pliant workers. The wages of teachers are minuscule in comparison to the added value to capitalism of each years formal education of a young worker.

2. Teachers are not the gaolers.

School is a prison, and prisons have their gaolers. Does this mean we should not support the industrial action of teachers? I would never argue, for example, that we should support the industrial action of the Police.

Teachers appear to have the role of gaoler as a result of the compulsory nature of education. The school exerts control over students, and control is a primary function of the schooling system. However teachers are, first and foremost, employed to teach. It is the entire education system, backed by the legal framework of the state and the armed force of the Police, that interact to make school a place of detention for students.

Teachers produce value in the form of the service they perform, however imperfectly the system of education allows them to do so. To the extent that teachers appear to be gaolers, the role is foist upon them, just as the role of security guard is foist upon workers in retail tasked with checking the bags of customers for theft.

By way of comparison, societies’ actual gaolers do not produce value, their whole function is the maintenance of social control. The Police are not part of the working class, but part of the apparatus of repression utilized by the sate. Were we discussing vidmate industrial action by Police, I would not argue for solidarity with their wage claims. The only solidarity anarchists should have with Police is support for individuals who wish to cease being Police.

First and foremost, teachers are workers. A critique of the controlling aspects of the schooling system should never involve rejecting solidarity with teachers, just as a critique of McDonalds would never lead anarchists to question solidarity with the industrial action of McDonalds workers.

3. Teachers will benefit from the liberation of education.

The school obstructs education. Unequal power relationships, compulsory attendance, and a curriculum handed down from on high all act to disrupt a healthy and productive learning relationship between teachers and students.

Teachers bemoan the fact that students are disengaged. The compulsory classroom and student disempowerment manufacture uninterested and disengaged students.

Young children before they begin their schooling are eager learners, constantly questioning and exploring the world around them. Within a few short years compulsory schooling beats curiosity out of students, and generates contempt for school and teachers among many (especially working class) students. The overwhelming majority of students dream of nothing but escape from captivity, looking forward only to the end of the school day, the start of the weekend, the holidays, and the end of their formal education.

When you contemplate the creativity of and the enthusiasm for learning among young children, it seems astounding that any institution could be so powerful as to utterly crush this spirit and transform the young child of yesterday into the burger flipper of tomorrow. Yet this is what the school achieves.

When students are liberated from these structures, teachers will be free to engage with students as equals, and facilitate learning and creativity without constraint.

4. The working class loses in the states attacks on public education

School acts as a powerful system of social control, yet public education also contributes to a marginally better position for the working class within capitalism.

The state and capitalism obviously want the benefits of a more educated and compliant work force, but not for a dollar more than is absolutely necessary. The public education system presently costs more than these ends require.

The ideology of universal compulsory education is one of social mobility, if all students have access to education, class barriers will evaporate, and students can advance on merit! In practice, there is a limited scope for a small degree of social mobility. Public education still effectively sorts students by class, as the hidden curriculum of school privileges society’s dominant ideas.

But funding public education for any amount of social mobility is a cost in excess of what capitalism requires from education. An education system far more beneficial to capitalists would operate on several tiers, with the children of the ruling class able to buy their way into superbly funded private education, a segment of the working class able to access a second tier of private education or ‘select’ public education with pathways into university, and the rest of the working class consigned to an underfunded public education system with pathways to the TAFE system or entirely unskilled employment.

Incidentally, over the last twenty years government in Australia has actively moved away from universal public education, to just such a multi-tiered system.

And so…

In general, it is important that anarchists advance a thorough going critique of the education system under capitalism.

In the present, we should oppose developments that will further inequality and attack the position of the working class. As such, we should defend the institution of public education, without surrendering a critique of the nature of the schools within it.

We should argue that teachers will benefit from education liberated from the present system of schooling, and we should defend and support teachers as workers struggling under capitalism.

We should argue for student support for teachers’ industrial action and student support for public education, whilst advancing a critique of the semi-imprisonment of students in the present education system.

To confuse teachers with the oppressive aspects of the schooling system would only serve to divide one group of workers from the rest of the struggle against capitalism. The role of anarchists should be to do the opposite, to build bridges between the every day struggles of workers, and a critique of capitalism.

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In response to legal threats and intimidation, Victorian nurses have ended their campaign of limited industrial action in favour of “negotiation” and “rallies”. They have in effect surrendered their only effective weapons in the campaign for just pay and conditions in favour of a slow and strangling defeat.

The trap of “negotiation”

There is a pervasive myth about negotiation as a process. The myth is that in a negotiation two sides sit down “on the basis of equality and talk through and resolve the differences that produced the conflict between them” (1).

There is a fundamental difference between Nurses and the government that cannot simply be ‘resolved’. The government wants nurses to work for the least pay possible, and safety be damned. They still want some kind of hospital system, but they don’t want to pay for it.

Nurses need decent pay, and nurse-patient ratios that preserve a safe working environment, and patient safety.

The reality is that the content of any negotiated settlement will not reflect the supposed merits of each position, rather it will reflect what power each group can bring to bear (1).

By abandoning bed closures, go slows and selective work bans, nurses are abandoning what power they were able to bring to bear on the government.

Successful Industrial Action

The most successful industrial action is that which most comprehensively disrupts the core business of a given enterprise. In evaluating tactics, nurses have to ask, “what is the core business of a hospital?”

The state government wants there to be some kind of hospital system. Selective work bans, bed closures and go slows place a degree of pressure on the hospital system, but they do not fundamentally disrupt anything.

The disruption of a work ban pales in comparison to the day to day disruptions the hospital system is experiencing as a result of under funding and under staffing. The state government has tolerated, and in fact seems intent to exacerbate these disruptions through this negotiating process. Even if the state government had not been able to utilize the union busting power of Fair Work Australia, I suspect the state government would have been prepared to wear the continued pressure of work bans through the negotiating period.

Clearly the provision of adequate safe and professional hospital services is not in fact the core business of the hospital system.

I would suggest that the core business of the hospital system is actually obtaining funding. In the hospital, this is achieved through the processing of Medicare and private health insurance claims.

The state government wants the semblance of a hospital system (broadly the business sector needs a health care system that ensure workers aren’t unproductive for too long), but it would like other people and other levels of government to pay for it.

If nurses were able to interrupt the processing of payments, pressure would quickly accumulative on the state treasury.

Nurses’ Achilles Heels (2)

Nurses can’t disrupt the process of payments in hospitals. Administrative staff are in a different union. This points to a key weakness of labour organising in hospitals.

Nurses are in a different union to administrative staff, cleaning staff in are yet another union, and doctors and allied health staff are divided into a plethora of different professional associations.

Successful industrial action in the hospital sector requires that all these groups be united . When nurses are under attack, there should be bed closures, a ban on the processing of health insurance claims, and the cessation cleaning in non essential areas. When administrative staff or cleaners are under attack, the remedy should be exactly the same.

There is another fundamental weakness that nurses and other hospital staff have to recognise and deal with. Compassion. The state and hospital administration have long abused the compassion of hospital employees to further their attacks.

Nurses are told they must be dedicated, and think of the safety of the public first! Effective industrial action is condemned for putting lives at risk. But ineffective industrial action puts lives at risk in the long term. Stretched nurse-patient ratios have already put lives at risk, and the state governments proposed changes will simply kill more people.

As nurses are paid less, the profession will be deskilled, and the long term effect will be to create a massively inferior second tier public health system.

The long term goal of the state is to transfer the cost of our health system onto the working class. By running down the public system, more people turn to the private system, and eventually we are left with the barbarity of an American style user pays system.

Failure to take effective industrial action will be far more deadly than a few bed closures.

Responding to attacks

Nurses and the ANF are increasingly cowed by threats of civil and criminal legal action. In the 2011 campaign so far, the ANF has responded to threats with backdowns. The bed closures campaign has been replaced with an ineffective public rally campaign.

The idea of rallying on your lunch break is a farce, nurses could protest on their lunch breaks for a hundred years and cause no disruption to the core business of the hospital system, returning to work after an hour only to witness the continued erosion of patient safety and their working conditions.

The only effective response to attack is escalation. It is the state and administrators who must be forced into back downs. When administrators take names, walk out. When legal action is taken against the central union, localise.

Localise

The union bureaucracy is a weakness. The state can threaten to jail or fine the unions leaders, seize or freeze its funds and ultimately de-register it.

There is a distinct difference of interest between the unions leaders and the unions members. The members seek only to win. The leaders, having made a career out of union leadership, value the continuation of the union structure over victory.

The union leadership can be pressured to sell out by threats that rank and file members would otherwise brush off.

The answer is to establish local strike committees. If the state threatens to freeze union funds, control funds locally. If the state threatens to jail or fine key leaders, set-up local organising structures that can be sustained even if the central organisation is under pressure.

It is in local organisation that nurses can build the links that will empower all workers in hospitals. Local strike committees should embrace all workers in a hospital, and should fight, with all measures at the disposal of all staff, any time any group of staff come under attack.

Conclusion

Victoria’s nurses can win, but the current tactics of the ANF are fundamentally weak, bordering on an outright surrender.

In order to win, nurses have to be prepared to embrace effective tactics. This would mean defying threats by the state and hospital administrators, and being prepared to take action that disrupts the core business of hospitals.

If nurses are able to act in conjunction with other hospital staff, they will be many times more effective.

The ANF will sell nurses out before it agrees to tactics that threaten it’s institutional interests, nurses need to recognise this, and an effective response to neutralise this threat would be the establishment of local strike committees.

Community solidarity is also important, but token rallies and the wearing of red t-shirts are no substitute for industrial action. If anything, nurses should seek to mobilise the community in supporting ‘illegal’ industrial action. “Fair Work Australia” be damned, lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Ultimately the real question for Victoria’s nurses is, how much do you really want to win? Once you know the answer to that question, let the appropriate tactics follow.

Footnotes

1. Gene Sharpe, From Dictatorship to Democracy, fourth edition, 2010.

2. Thanks to Kay Bennett for her invaluable input in this section. There is much more I could have included about the core ethics of nursing and it’s relationship to industrial action, I’ll try and get Kay to write something about that some time.

Further Reading

Liz Ross, Dedication Doesn’t Pay the Rent: The 1986 Victorian nurses’ strike.

ANF Vic Campaign Website, Respect Our Work.

Bonus!

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Three dead workers, more injured, all on one site in Adelaide.

In July, worker Brett Fritsch was killed when a steel beam fell from a soft sling on the Adelaide desal plant construction site.

Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union state secretary Martin O’Malley said too many companies used “soft slings” connected to cranes which, wrapped around steel beams, broke too easily, putting workers at risk.

“We’ve been arguing that the slings are not only inappropriate, but downright dangerous, for the past 25 years,” he said.

Mr O’Malley believed workers were instructed to use the slings “because they stop the steel from getting scratched”

It has now come to light that this was not the first death related to the desal site:

Allen O’Neil, 31, died on February 15 after accidentally inhaling diesel on December 12 last year at a site associated with the plant.

A desal plant insider said the man was siphoning diesel into his tanker, allegedly because he was not provided with the proper siphoning equipment by construction consortium McConnell Dowell Abigroup.

And another worker, a truck driver, was killed on the Lonsdale Highway whilst transporting materials to the site.

Workers are dieing. And a strong union should stand up to prevent these deaths. But in Australia, workers in the most dangerous trade in the country don’t have the same rights as you or me.

Construction workers are subject to the punitive powers of the ABCC. The Australian Building and Construction Commission was established by the Howard government, and retained by the Rudd and Gillard governments, in order to crack down on the power of the construction unions.

When workers strike over safety, projects fall behind schedule. When workers strike over wages and conditions, bosses, developers and banks lose money.

The workers in the building industry went on strike so often because their industry is so dangerous, when a building site is killing people, it needs to be closed down until safety is addressed.

But apparently, our government values profits over lives.

And the results speak for themselves:

A 95% increase in construction deaths? Simple as ABCC

This is unacceptable. The ABCC must be abolished, union rights are a matter of life and death.

Related: Ark Tribe is fighting charges for refusing to cooperate with the ABCC. We need to rally behind every single worker singled out by this obscene process.

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