John Lomax, a CFMEU official, has been charged with blackmail. The CFMEU reports that ‘Mr Lomax was told by police that he was accused of forcing an employer to enter into an EBA and that as a result the employer suffered financial loss due to paying workers higher wages’ (CFMEU 2015a). Lomax has not yet appeared before the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption however ‘ACT police said his arrest was “in relation to the Canberra hearings” of the royal commission’(2015). Whilst there is an attempt by some to associate Lomax with Halafihi Kivalu an ex-CFMEU official who is accused of acting corruptly for personal benefit and has subsequently been expelled from the CFMEU this seems to be nothing more than a simple smear (CFMEU 2015b). It is necessary to be one hundred per cent clear. The charges facing John Lomax accuse him of simply being an effective union organiser. Whatever the facts of the case it is almost impossible for any union to effectively contest capital and stay within the law. All this in the space of a few weeks where it has been revealed that Grill’d and EB Games are, apparently legally, either underpaying staff or have a culture of compelling staff to work for free and that the Speaker of the House of Representatives spent just under $90,000 for a two week junket in Europe.
The law is stacked against us. As such the arrest of John Lomax and the Royal Commission in total should be viewed as an attempt to use state-power dressed in the most absurd moral pretence to attack the capacity for all workers, union or non-union, to collective assert their own interests and live lives of dignity.
The Royal Commission has a number of purposes for the Federal Government. On one hand it is an attempt to attack the Government’s political rivals the ALP and work to ensure the Government wins the next election. But there is another purpose too: to target the practices of the few unions that still maintain some forms of worksite militancy, especially in construction, and attack their ability to do that. This is the state as the active disorganiser of labour (to use Humphrey McQueen’s term). The fact that unions and the ALP are tied together in many complex, complementary and contradictory ways tends to blur the two issues together.[i] Bill Shorten’s testimony shows just how damaging this relationship is to our interests. It is important to separate the two threads out as much as possible. Thus we can understand the Royal Commission as trying to disorganise construction workers in two different ways: the commission itself will be used to single out and intimate officials and delegates and lead to prosecutions; and the moral panic created in the media will be used to justify the reinstatement of Australian Building Construction Commission (though perhaps with a new name). The latter is something that the recent Discussion Paper of the Royal Commission clearly states – along with justifying either prohibiting or subjecting to stronger penalties the use of pickets in the construction industry (2015, 103-108).
This attack comes in a strange context. Australia has had a fairly unique experience over the last twenty years of the mining boom. As I have written here whilst the share of income going to capital in relation to labour increased in capital’s favour household incomes continued to rise as more people worked and worked for longer, wages increased in a largely unequal way, access to credit increased and imported commodities became incredibly cheaper. Thus a victory for capital was experienced by many but not all as an increase in material wealth. This however has ended. The mining boom is over and with it wage growth in Australia has dropped. In 2014 it grew by 2.5% which is the lowest since records have been kept and unemployment has been slowing moving up and now hovers around 6% (McKenna 2015, Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015a).
This deterioration in our prospects has not lead to increased workplace militancy. In fact both union membership and days lost to industrial action (by no means the only measure of our self activity) are also at near record lows. Here is a (dramatic!) graph showing the latter:
The exception to this is the construction industry. For whilst less than 10% of the workforce works in construction in the recent March quarter 43% of days lost due to industrial action were in the construction industry and the lion’s share of that in Victoria (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012, 2015b). These workers also stand directly in the way of the Government’s post-mining boom plans for capitalism. When elected the Coalition government had a Plan A for capitalism – stimulation via infrastructure investment. The costs of labour were directly cited as an impediment to this plan. Since much of the money for infrastructure was meant to be raised via the sale of state assets the Queensland election has thrown this partially into chaos – as did the various community campaigns against road construction and the like. In the wake of this the current approach to compensating for the mining boom fizzling out involves at least in part the Reserve Bank of Australia setting interest rates low in the hope of stimulating the residential housing market. Once again the power of construction workers stands in the face of this. We should never forget this is a literally life and death struggle were the attempts to reduce safety standards means dead workers. A defeat here would be a defeat for all of us.
This is the real reason for the Royal Commission. Corruption is just a cover. Capitalism has no problem with corruption. Australia is a systematically corrupt society. In recent years we have seen corruption scandals engulf both the ALP and the Coalition – yet there is no Royal Commission into Politicians. This is because corruption is simply how things get done. We should never forget that during the Royal Commission into the Painters and Dockers Kerry Packer ‘was indirectly implicated in tax evasion, drugs, murder, fraud and pornography’ (AAP 2006).
How do we respond to all of this? Of course in the background is a dense knot of difficult questions. Australia is starting to be affected by the global crisis of capitalism and we don’t really know the forms of organizing and acting that will allow us to assert our interests inside-against-and-beyond capitalism either inside or outside of the workplace. The vast majority of us are not unionized and many of us who are have had mixed experiences at best with the reality of modern unionism. Also when we ask ‘how do we respond’ it is not so useful if that ‘we’ means the working class on a whole, or the Left, or the unions. The vast majority of the working class in Australia does not understand itself in such language after all. In this context the only meaningful we is made up of real human beings with some kind of existing interrelationship. What can we do that will be possible, useful and effective to act in solidarity and to attack the enemy? What will be concrete? For me the starting point is a few emails to comrades to begin the conversation to see what we can do. Start where you can.
- Union Organiser and Former Nrl Player John Lomax Charged with Blackmail. Guardian [cited 25th July 2015]. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/jul/24/union-organiser-and-former-nrl-player-john-lomax-charged-with-blackmail.
AAP. 2006. Costigan Hits Back at Packer ‘Ignorance’. smh.com.au [cited 26th July 2015]. Available from http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/costigan-hits-back-at-packer-ignorance/2006/02/20/1140283984547.html.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2012. 1301.0 – Year Book Australia, 2012 [cited 26th July 2015]. Available from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by Subject/1301.0~2012~Main Features~Employed people~46.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2015a. 6202.0 – Labour Force, Australia, Jun 2015 [cited 26th July 2015]. Available from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/6202.0.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2015b. 6321.0.55.001 – Industrial Disputes, Australia, Mar 2015 [cited 25th July 2015]. Available from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/6321.0.55.001.
CFMEU. 2015a. Arrest Is Nothing but Politically Motivated Act: Media Release [cited 25th July 2014]. Available from http://www.cfmeu.asn.au/news/arrest-is-nothing-but-politically-motivated-act-media-release.
CFMEU. 2015b. Media Release 13/7/15 [cited 25th July 2015]. Available from http://www.cfmeu.asn.au/news/media-release-13715.
Jericho, Greg. 2015. Industrial Action Is at near Record Lows but Business Will Still Blame Unions. The Guardian [cited 26th July 2015]. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/business/grogonomics/2015/mar/16/industrial-action-is-at-near-record-lows-but-businesses-will-still-blame-unions.
McKenna, Greg. 2015. Wages Growth in Australia Is at 2.5%, the Lowest since Records Began. Business Insider [cited 26th July 2015]. Available from http://www.businessinsider.com.au/wages-growth-in-australia-is-at-2-5-the-lowest-since-records-began-2015-2.
Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. 2015. Discussion Paper: Options for Law Reform.
[i] Of course there is also the debate over the deeper relationship between class struggle and unions. The simple unions = workers thinking of the Left doesn’t add up. However if this leads you to ignore actual struggles then perhaps you don’t have ideas – your ideas have you.