In Queensland today, we celebrated Labour Day as a public holiday.
In the wake of the privatisation imbroglio perpetrated by the Bligh government, expectations were that solidarity between Labor and labour wouldn’t be at the forefront of the Brisbane May Day March. Anna Bligh, and I believe Treasurer Andrew Fraser, disappeared to North America, first purporting to show an interest in bionics, and then holding a ‘virtual Cabinet’ with the provincial government of British Columbia.
What these ventures have to do with anything is anyone’s guess. Commenters on the Brisbane Times‘ story correctly pointed out that Peter Beattie is already paid 250k a year to represent Queensland’s trade interests in North America, and that a ‘virtual’ meeting could surely be virtual for the Canadians, and in Brisbane for the Premier.
To his credit, Deputy Premier Paul Lucas fronted the march, but was met with the jeers which the State Labor crew richly deserve. Kevin Rudd kept his distance, preferring to march with the LHMU, a union well back in the parade, and concentrating on the Resources Super Tax in his address, an initiative I warmly welcome.
In a nutshell, the impasse of Labor politics, and the scissions the Labour movement has fallen prone to, is encapsulated in the events of this day.
It’s a longer story, but I’ve previously argued that (late) modern Labor’s political Janus face results from at least two factors: the corporatised economism of state politics, where slogans about jobs mask a wholesale surrender to business interests; and the weakening of the links between workers, unions and the professional political class.
John Quiggin has provided us with some reflections on Labour Day:
Among his thoughts, he argues:
The old-style politics of class (with the working class represented by male manual workers, gathered in large, naturally solidaristic workplaces) is no longer relevant to the great majority of Australian workers. That doesn’t mean that class has ceased to matter, but it does mean that workers experience class and power relationships more in terms of individual experience than as collective interactions between classes. So, in particular, unions need to be seen more as mutual aid associations that protect their individual members against exploitation and unfair treatment than as vehicles for the mobilisation of the working class. The kinds of legal changes sought to reverse the generally anti-union trend of past decades needs to reflect this orientation.
I think this underplays the degree to which the union movement, particularly as represented by the ACTU, has long practiced a broader class politics transcending trade and occupational union particularism. While I also think that class politics has to move beyond a masculinised workerism, and to take account of the changed social and cultural conditions of twenty first century Australia, I’m not sure things are so simple as John suggests, though he’s surely right that the casualisation of work and a host of other social and economic changes have individualised work relationships.
But I don’t think unions need to return to being essentially mutual benefit societies. They do have a role in building solidarity where there is none, though this role may have to include creating the conditions for more solidaristic workplace relations, through rethinking how unions can intervene in shaping the labour market itself.
I think there’s a great need to develop an approach which does respond to the fracturing of class, the refashioning of the workplace, and the naturalisation of expectations around insecure work. It’s something I’d like to do more work on, and will be writing further about, but it’s also something I think is well worth a preliminary discussion on a very fractured Brisbane Labour Day.
NB: My previous May Day post is here.