As opposition to the budget continues to unfold we have asked different comrades around Australia if they could provide their thoughts and reflections on different moments of the struggle. Here we have just that on the the campaign in Wollongong generally and at the University of Wollongong specifically from my dearly loved comrade Alexander Brown .
On Thursday 12 June, a small group of staff and students at the University of Wollongong met to plan a series of actions on campus against the Abbott government’s attacks on the education sector. Attendance at the meeting reflected a new pattern of campus activism which has emerged at Wollongong in the past few years. Rather than being directly initiated by the university’s official Student Association, the participants in the meeting were active members of the UOW Feminist Society, the Feminist Research Network and the newly formed UOW Casuals Network. The group also reflected the blurring of the boundaries between “study” and “work” at the University of Wollongong, a pattern that can be found around the country.
Members of the UOW Feminist Society began their own “Free School” in Wollongong last year when the university administration axed the major in gender studies. In response FemSoc members collaborated with sympathetic feminist academics to provide a free weekly lecture and discussion series on feminism and gender politics. At Free School the role of “student” and “staff” is blurred as self-organised students create their own forms of education. Following on from the success of Free School, feminist academic staff, inspired by their erstwhile “students”, formed a Feminist Research Network at the university which now provides a forum for feminist intellectual work as well as helping to strengthen relationships between feminist staff and students. The blurring of boundaries between “work” and “study” are visible in the Casuals Network, too, whose members juggle between them part-time tutoring, learning development and research roles in addition to PhD research. This is the new face of the university – students who are staff and staff who are students in a “place of work” which is also a “place of study”.
The UOW Casuals Network, which initiated Thursday’s meeting on campus, was itself initiated by a new branch organiser for the NTEU. The idea of such a Network has already met with a positive reception from casual staff around my office in the recently created “super-faculty” of Law, Humanities and the Arts. Having met about 3 times so far this year the Network is still finding its feet. The issues of casual work which we are dealing with are complex, and have developed over a long time. With the support of our newly appointed branch organiser we are challenging the unfair way in which the University avoids paying for much of the work casuals do – from inadequate allocations for marking to a recent policy decision to stop paying us for the important meetings with subject co-ordinators that we need to have in order to plan a cohesive teaching strategy across courses which often involve multiple lecturers and tutors. In doing so we have been inspired by the struggles of casual university staff at the University of Sydney, around Australia and indeed the world.
The increasingly blurry distinctions between labour, student, environmental and consumer issues and movements suggests the need for a new type of unionism – a social movement unionism – which doesn’t respect the divisions which the labour movement’s fixation on wage-earner security has created within the proletariat. Coinciding with the anti-cuts meeting on campus was a union and community meeting held at the offices of the Australian Workers Union in Wollongong as part of the labour movement’s broader “Bust the Budget” campaign. The Wollongong meeting was held in association with a mass delegates meeting of 500 people which was called by Unions NSW in Sydney and a march of 20,000+ in Melbourne which was organised through the Victorian Trades Hall Council. The Bust the Budget meeting in Wollongong, though poorly organised and not well advertised beforehand, explicitly called for both union and community participation. Arthur Rorris, secretary of the South Coast Labour Council, had argued the previous night at “The Inequality Debate”, a forum on inequality at the University of Wollongong, that only by labour and community movements coming together could we defeat neoliberal capitalism. It is this collaborative struggle between labour and community movements that is at the core of social movement unionism.
Throwing myself into organising against the budget and choosing to work with the established union movement in order to do so are challenging decisions for me and my decision has already been subject to question from various quarters. Before the meeting on Thursday one of my PhD student and casual academic colleagues suggested that the kind of resistance I was advocating was futile. It would be better, he suggested, to let the rotting corpse of social democracy die once and for all rather than try to prop it up using the inadequate tools we have available. Later that evening another friend and comrade from the 2002-03 movement against the Iraq war questioned whether a campaign against the budget could be effective. After all, she said, hundreds of thousands marched against the war and it went ahead anyway. Here on “The Word From Struggle Street” blog, too, Dave has cast doubt on the efficacy of rallies and established methods of doing protest. Finally, while I wrote this article and announced my recent nomination for the union branch committee, my caring father voiced another concern that has been echoing in my own head – that there might be personal cost for engaging in protest activity in a repressive environment such as the one in which we are now living.
I share all of these valid concerns. I have decided, however, that it is time for me to test some of these ideas in practice. After all, only through struggle can we test the limits of the system and only by daring to struggle can we dare to win. But win what? On the night of Wednesday 11 June the abovementioned “Inequality Debate” was held at the University of Wollongong. It featured 2 academics from the univesrity alongside Frank Stilwell from Sydney University and Arthur Rorris from the South Coast Labour Council. All four speakers eloquently explained how inequality is growing in our society, how the poorest people in the world are getting poorer and just how wealthy the rich are. A packed lecture theatre of perhaps 150 people, more than half of whom appeared to be students, indicated the amount of interest in this topic. Yet the typical academic format involving long speeches from “experts” meant that those who attended had no real opportunity to participate in the discussion. This top-down approach to education, which I experience on a daily basis as a casual tutor within the university system reflects the top-down approach to organising which I have generally encountered in the established union movement.
What was clear from the speeches, as a friend later observed, was their lack of strategic vision for how we can move beyond the current system. In the few minutes allowed for discussion at the end of the debate, one student asked the simple question “What can I do?” This question, perhaps the most important raised that night, is a challenging one to which, I felt, the speakers were unable to offer an adequate reply. Yet it is hard to be too critical of them for not providing an answer when I myself don’t have a clear vision for how to change the world. I think many of us who desperately want to build an alternative to the bleak neoliberal vision that is laid out in the Abbott government’s budget are struggling to articulate new visions. What my devotion to PhD research has shown me, however, is that such a vision cannot be conjured out of the pages of abstract theory. Nor will it emerge fully-formed from thin air while we stand transfixed by the awesome power of capital. We can’t just wait for all the horrors of neoliberalism and neo-social-democracy to disappear because while we wait we are likely to succumb to those horrors and to the despair and despondency that is endemic amongst the academic left.
Since being active in the alter-globalisation cycle of struggles in the late 1990s and early 2000s, struggling against the Howard government’s attacks on education, fighting to save Sandon Point in Wollongong from despoliation by property developers, participating in the refugee liberation movement and marching against the Iraq war I, like many of my comrades from that time, reduced the level of my involvement in activism and engaged in period of deep reflection on the strategies and tactics of our movement of movements. In 2010 I embarked on a PhD to look at social movements in Tokyo, a place I have come to regard as a beloved second-home. Doing so has provided ample opportunity to engage in new and exciting forms of struggle and to reflect on my own experiences. Yet I can’t escape from the feeling that my move into academia has also been, in some ways, a retreat along the well-beaten path from activism to academicism.
Writing about the powerful anti-nuclear movement in Japan inspires me, but it also forces me to think about what I am doing in my own life and to confront the fact that much of my life I am caught up in oppressive structures of domination. As I commence teaching at the university I confront the fact that my students are disengaged. I, too, feel a sense of responsibility for perpetuating this disengagement as I step into the role of teacher. This is an authoritarian role in an undemocratic institutional culture in which “specialists” like myself are positioned as the primary owners of valid knowledge while the knowledge which students themselves possess is devalued. Why can’t we engage in a collaborative process of education which further each others liberation? How can I be free? How can I join with those around me to build strong, resilient communities that can resist the neoliberal onslaught and offer an alternative vision of the future?
From 1999 until 2004 I was involved along with Dave, who asked me to write this piece, and many other comrades in Wollongong in a collective called Revolutionary Action. We were a small but audacious group of people trying to create “a society based on the freedom of all human beings from every form of exploitation, oppression, alienation and violence”. Our strategy for doing so was to engage in “resolute struggle against the ills of capitalist society and the privileges of the ruling class” by “participating in and building movements that fight against the misery of capitalism on everyday issues”. As I try to think about what to do I keep returning to these key ideas. Communist strategy, it seems to me, starts with where you are. You don’t pretend to have all the answers but you try and find people who are asking similar kinds of questions and you stand next to them, dialogue with them and above all engage in struggle with them. Somehow, out of the process of struggle itself, new ideas, new strategies, new organisational forms and new visions will emerge.
Right now, I want to fight the Abbott government’s budget and the neoliberal agenda it represents. I am looking around and trying to see who is already standing on this terrain with me. When I do so I find that many people are already here. Many unions, despite their manifold problems, their lack of internal democracy and the many mistakes they have made, are organising against the Abbott budget. Recent struggles against a vicious neoliberal university management at the University of Sydney, in which many dear friends have played important roles, have inspired me to think that maybe taking action on campus which involves students and staff in collaborative struggles might still be possible. My local union branch organiser, by initiating the Casuals Network and talking about her desire to form a fighting, activist organisation on campus has inspired me to start trying to improve the conditions in my workplace which I have been complaining about for so long. My partner, who edits a socialist newspaper, is helping to share stories of the anti-budget struggle through that paper and its website. Her comrades along with members of many other socialist organisations have already taken action against the budget. Students have been particularly active on campuses around the country and have already held successful protests and occupations in protest at the effects the budget will have on the education sector. As I begin to dialogue with my friends in Wollongong about how we can contribute to this resurgence of student and education worker activism my comrades in the UOW Feminist Society inspire me by demonstrating that the way to deal with university cuts is to self-organise your own education and build community across the student/staff divide. As I look to find a way to express my anger at the current round of attacks and forge a mass struggle against them these are the allies that I have found along the way. Though I do not always agree with the politics of these organisations and individuals and I am sensitive to the potential pitfalls of activist politics I can’t escape the fact that if I want to join this fight that these are the people I have to rely on. To do so I am going to have to take a leap of faith and trust some of them. This is difficult, because like most people who have been involved in the left at one time or another I have often experienced a profound sense of disappointment and betrayal. But if I don’t think that anything different can come of this struggle then I accept the idea that the history of the future has already been written. I know that this is not true. We are NOT condemned to repeat the past.
Nevertheless, a free and frank engagement with that past would seem to be a healthy strategy to avoid repeating it. As I become closer to the union movement through the Casuals Network and nominating for the branch committee of the National Tertiary Education Union, I have been reading about its past. In particular, I have been trying to get to grips with the lessons of the Accord, the tripartite agreement that the unions entered into with the Hawke Labor Government and the major employer’s groups in the early 1980s to fix wages and prices and guarantee a social wage in exchange for labour discipline in the workplace. The Accord is widely recognised as having transformed the union movement into a police force for the working class by obligating unions to enforce wage restraint and suppress militancy in its ranks. In their 1991 book Politics and the Accord, Peter Ewer, Ian Hampson, Chris Lloyd, John Rainford, Stephen Rix and Meg Smith point to the fundamental problem of a “labourist” trade union strategy – the emphasis on wage earner security. The Accord, in their view, was an extreme manifestation of a more fundamental problem of union strategy which privileged the interests of wage earners rather than fighting for the interests of all members of society. This cut unions off from broader community struggles. What I take from Politics and the Accord is the need for a social movement unionism. Labour issues cannot be separated from other issues in our society and, as my brief analysis of the composition of our small anti-cuts meeting at UOW goes some way towards demonstrating, workers in today’s complex economy are not just workers. It seems to me that only by breaking out of the union movement’s fixation on wage-earner security and by tackling broader social issues that the weakened remnants of the organised proletariat which still exists within the unions can reach out to others and help build a strong, powerful movement to change society in the interests of all people.
What does “Bust the Budget” mean when we have a Labor and Green opposition who have already chosen to defend the pseudo-democratic parliamentary system and ruled out taking radical action to block supply? The ALP, through its infrastructure within the union movement, is already attempting to turn “Bust the Budget” into their next election campaign. Under these conditions, any attempt to forge a more radical anti-capitalist strategy within this campaign is going to be difficult. At the Bust the Budget mass delegates meeting in Sydney on Thursday 12 June, Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon refused to allow an amendment from the floor which called for strike action against the budget to be put to the meeting. This incident indicates that the central struggle within the movement against the budget will be over democracy. But just because a struggle exists within the movement does not seem to me to mean we shouldn’t join that struggle and try to join with those fighting for democracy within it. In doing so we will have the opportunity to experiment with democratic forms and learn more about how to overcome the attempts of social-democratic and neoliberal forces to suppress democracy.
In Wollongong a Bust the Budget organising meeting has been called for Thursday 19 June at 5:30pm at the South Coast Labour Council offices at 1 Lowden Square. I encourage everyone who has an interest in this issue to attend this meeting which is open to anyone to attend. The first order of business will be building towards the Bust the Budget protest in Sydney on Sunday 6 July.
On Wednesday 16 July students, staff and interested community members are welcome to attend a meeting about fighting the budget cuts at the University of Wollongong at Rush coffee under building 67. This meeting will work towards developing a campaign on campus to fight the budget, beginning with a forum on the effects of the budget on the education sector on Thursday 7 August and a National Day of Action on 20 August.
Let’s learn how to do democracy through the struggle. Bust the Budget!