In late March, Tim Kennedy, the national secretary of the United Workers Union (UWU), released a document that has stirred up some positive discussion in the trade union movement.
Titled ‘Workers’ plan to survive COVID-19 crisis’, the paper puts forward a number of important demands that the labour movement should enthusiastically take up.
Kennedy outlines the beginnings of a program to lessen the burden on workers during the COVID-19 crisis. The plan opposes jobs losses and calls for tax relief for working people.
Importantly, it also demands rent and mortgage freezes, and an income guarantee. An income guarantee is something that Socialist Action has long called for.
Kennedy’s proposal is that every member of the community should be either guaranteed a job, or receive an income guarantee pegged to the minimum wage.
The paper points towards the need for working class unity, opposing racism and calling for improved rights for migrant workers and refugees. This is important given that more than a million migrant workers are currently not eligible for any government support.
Kennedy puts the issue of public ownership back on the agenda, and says that any industry assistance should come with strict conditions including ‘worker co-determination’ and improved labour and environmental standards.
While the demands are relatively modest in the scheme of things, that the UWU is starting to talk about a working class response to the unfolding economic crisis is to be welcomed.
This is in contrast to the dominant politics in the trade union movement, and the approach of the leaders of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).
The ACTU tail-end the pro-capitalist politics of the Labor Party, and the bosses themselves. They see no alternative to the profit-driven system and, at best, only want to fix the worst excesses of capitalism.
This has led them to accept the false idea that if bosses do well a bit more wealth can come through to the workers. They have pushed the idea of struggle into the background in favour of collaboration and partnership with employers.
This was always a fraud and its been proven wrong in practice. Profits have soared in recent decades, and workers wages and conditions have gone backwards. The retreat from class struggle has seen profits flow up, not trickle down. Unions are much weaker as a result.
The logic of accepting capitalism as the only way of doing things means that the leaders of the ACTU see part of their role as helping to save the system. You can see this with their calls for subsidies and bail outs for big corporations.
The good thing about Kennedy’s document is that is begins to depart from this type of approach a bit. It opens up a discussion about who should own key parts of the economy and how work should be organised.
While it needs to go much further, the program can be built upon to develop a real alternative vision for society that puts workers needs and the environment at its centre.
The challenge now is to work out how the demands in this paper can be won. How can wider layers be convinced of the basic ideas, and what type of action is required? The document doesn’t go into this, and unfortunately some of the practice of the UWU is at odds with the ideas in the plan.
For example, the UWU recently agreed to regressive ‘flexibility’ changes being made to the hospitality and restaurant awards. This was a mistake.
The key to making the UWU plan real is to link it with struggle and the day-to-day practice of the union. Workers need to agree with the plan, but also agree that winning requires a collective fight.
Mobilising, and getting even small scale wins, can show that the aims of the plan are legitimate and achievable. While developing ideas is crucial, the real development of a class struggle practice in the unions is just as important.
The UWU’s approach is not perfect, and the plan has some weaknesses, but Kennedy’s contribution should be seen in a positive light. It can help advance the debate about how to return the unions to the traditions of struggle, solidarity and socialism and on that basis its a step in right direction.
Editorial comment from the May-June 2020 issue of The Socialist