Book review: Blue Collar Frayed

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As a former metal worker, I have unfortunately seen many work mates thrown out of good blue-collar jobs. At one place I worked we organised a strike to try and stop the factory being closed. We had the boss under pressure but in the end the workers voted to accept much improved redundancy payouts.

Some of us wanted to keep the fight going but the majority thought that their payouts would tide them over and that they would find new jobs soon enough. While a few were lucky, most were forced to look outside of manufacturing and became security guards or cleaners. After working for years making things, they hated the service sector.

Most of the blokes over 50 didn’t even land a cleaning job. They were forced into an early retirement. Robbed of their dignity they never worked again. It was these blokes that I thought about when reading Jennifer Rayner’s new book, Blue Collar Frayed: Working Men in Tomorrow’s Economy.

Rayner comes from a working class family and definitely has lots of sympathy with the plight of blue-collar workers. In preparation for this book she spoke to lots of men who had been thrown onto the scrap heap because the factory, mine or power plant they worked at had been closed down.

For years we have been told that shifts in our economy, and advancements in technology, mean that good blue-collar jobs are becoming a thing of the past. Rayner looks at the just how bad things have become and makes the case that, in addition to the economic changes, government failures have often exacerbated the problem.

Australia’s manufacturing industry has shed over 33,000 jobs in the last five years, while agriculture has lost 15,000. The utilities sector has lost 20,000 jobs while mining has lost more than 18,000 with tens of thousands more to come. The situation is dire.

As a result, many of the – mostly men – affected have struggled to transition to new industries and thousands have just given up on finding work altogether. Rayner points out that fully 30% of working aged men are neither employed or looking for a job. This is a worse situation than during the 1990s recession.

Incidentally, these people are not counted in the unemployment figures because they are designated as ‘not participating’. If they were counted the real unemployment rate for men in Australia could be as high as 10.7%!

Rayner suggests that in addition to governments and employers doing more to help workers retrain, new policies are needed to support struggling industries.

She highlights a litany of problems with the current vocational training model and suggests some reforms to help boost skills. But a huge part of the problem is the presence of dodgy private providers. These profiteers should be closed down and the entire training sector brought under public control.

Rayner stops short of calling for TAFE to be made free and for decent welfare payments for students. This would be by far the best way to encourage training and retraining, and it could easily be paid for if big business was taxed at a higher level.

In relation to government policy settings, Rayner suggests a number of ways to support companies struggling to compete in the world market. These include loan guarantees and low interest loans for companies to develop electricity co-generation which could help reduce electricity costs. She also advocates redundancy pooling, where groups of employers share around job losses.

Redundancy pooling is just a sophisticated way to deliver job losses. At the end of the day workers are forced to pay for problems that they didn’t create. Most of the other proposals are just different ways of delivering corporate welfare, a strategy that has failed dismally in recent decades.

Unfortunately, Rayner’s suggestions only tinker at the margins and would not do enough to address the scale of the problem we face.

While she does suggest a more ‘interventionist’ role for government her proposals sit firmly within the framework of the market system. The profit-driven nature of capitalism means that bosses can sometimes be brought to water but they can’t always be made to drink.

Governments are limited in that you cannot properly control what you do not own. The ultimate solution to maintaining good blue-collar jobs in a future economy is to bring key sectors of it into public hands.

For example, rather than corporate handouts, the car companies should have been nationalised. The money wasted on subsidies could have even been spent compensating small shareholders. Once in public hands the plants could have been retooled to manufacture the things we need like new trains, trams and buses for an expanded public transport system.

Similarly, in places where dirty coal power plants are being closed down we could be setting up state owned engineering works to manufacture renewable energy technology. The factories could sit side by side with new TAFEs that are designed to train and retrain workers including new apprentices. This type of public investment would reinvigorate these struggling regions.

Capitalists, focused only on counting their short-term profits, will be unwilling to make such investments. A publicly owned and democratically run economy is the only way to make a plan for industry that is focused on protecting jobs and communities while developing new industries.

It’s even as if Rayner herself knows deep down that some of the solutions she has proposed are a pipe dream. She says: “And it will demand more maturity and less pettiness from all of our political actors, to recognise that something isn’t necessarily bad just because it’s been delivered by your opponents.” She goes on to say: “So that’s the big one (and I wouldn’t recommend holding your breath).”

She’s right on this. If we want good blue-collar jobs to exist in tomorrow’s economy we can’t rely on the major parties or their profit-driven system. Rather than tinkering around the edges we need socialist solutions. We desperately need to build a political alternative because blue-collar workers and their families deserve better than what capitalism has to offer.

By Anthony Main


Blue Collar Frayed: Working Men in Tomorrow’s Economy
By Jennifer Rayner
Published by Redback, April 2018
RRP: $22.99