Nick Southall's detailed history and analysis of the Wollongong Out of Workers' Union in Australia from 1983-1989, an organisation of unemployed workers he took part in which fought for better benefits and also assisted the struggles of employed workers.
Don’t be told what you want
Don’t be told what you need
There’s no future
There’s no future
There’s no future for you.
(‘God Save the Queen’, Sex Pistols, 1977)
My intention is to understand how the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW), the union and its members, sought individually and collectively to refuse and challenge commodified labour, while simultaneously fighting for the right to work. I was a founding member and one of the convenors of WOW during most of its existence. As well as using WOW’s own publications and documents, this work draws on a number of other sources including newspaper and magazine articles, television and radio programs and films about WOW and about the broader social contexts in which WOW existed. In order to give former WOW members a voice, make use of their collective knowledge and intellect and in the hope of extending conversations about the areas studied, I have used semi-structured interviews with nine people who were active in the Union.
The 1970s saw the end of the ‘long boom’ and a capitalist crisis involving prolonged economic downturn, an intensification of worldwide competition among different sections of capital, a fall in global demand and output and a sharp climb in inflation. These helped precipitate a major economic recession, broke the wage-price spiral, weakened the bargaining position of trade unions and undermined workers’ struggles as large numbers of workers were sacked. Working class struggles in the 1960s and early 1970s pressured capital and capitalist states, to grant concessions to stave off social conflict and maintain order. These struggles increasingly affected production, as strikes, other forms of work refusal, rebellions and liberation movements grew and spread. It was finance capital that first broke out of the confines imposed by the post-war nation state compromise by taking flight from areas of working class strength, utilising an increasingly global ‘reserve army’ of labour. This was followed by rapidly increasing global production and an international division of labour which transformed national and international labour markets and labour power relations across the globe. In a “political assault on full employment”, governments in New Zealand, Britain, the United States and Australia used unemployment to reaffirm capital’s right to manage as rapid technological change destroyed and deskilled many jobs. Recession and mass unemployment eroded the industrial power of workers and the bargaining power of the unions as employers and governments went on the offensive and employed economic crisis to restructure the workplace, work practices and industrial relations in their favour.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Australia was reeling from the international recession. Here the economic downturn was marked by a decline in the manufacturing industry, spiralling inflation and, initially, with growing youth unemployment. As unemployment grew and adult workers began to lose jobs in their thousands, the Coalition Fraser Government introduced a ‘wage pause’ and began to cut social spending. However, Australia’s union movement and growing working class resistance to austerity eventually helped to undermine Fraser’s plans and bring down his government. In 1983 the Hawke Labor Government was elected after cementing an ‘Accord’ between the ALP and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). In return for government consultation and involvement in ‘tripartite’ bodies with government and employers, the ACTU agreed to discipline their rank and file over pay, conditions and industrial action. The Accord partners argued that workers had to make sacrifices to make the nation competitive in the new global market and sought through co-operation what the previous Coalition government had failed to force by confrontation: wage cuts, an end to militancy on the job, the subordination of workers to national economic competitiveness. The Accord process (I-VII) resulted in a massive shift of GDP from wages to profits, longer working hours, increased casualisation and a sharp fall in unionisation rates. Unions that attempted to break out of the Accord were outlawed, such as the Builders Laborers’ Federation, had military personnel break their strikes, such as the pilots’ union, and faced new laws to curtail union power.
Wollongong workers played an important part in bringing down the Fraser Government and in the election of the Hawke Government in 1983. The region has a long history of social activism, the most powerful and influential collective expression of which has been the labour movement. By the late 1970s, after years of determined and often bitter struggle, the workforce in the Illawarra steel and coal industries was largely unionised and had gained relatively advanced wages and conditions. The Illawarra unions were united in the most militant regional labour council in Australia and the region’s working class was a major obstacle to ‘market forces’.
During the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, the Illawarra felt the impact of major economic restructuring, technological change, deregulation and privatisation. Over the next decade, the region’s working class was decomposed through changes in work and workplaces, mass sackings, unemployment, poverty and social crisis. At the start of the 1980s, unemployment in the Wollongong area was around ten per cent of the workforce. Twenty five thousand people worked for BHP Steel and thousands more worked in the mines, many of which were owned by BHP. The mass sackings of the 1980s would see the closure of three quarters of the mines and the steelworks’ workforce reduced to about five thousand. When WOW was established in 1983, there were more than 19,000 people registered as unemployed and the local Commonwealth Employment Service listed only 108 job vacancies. Yet, this was only part of the picture. These figures did not include ‘the hidden unemployed’, estimated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1984 as around 1,000,000 people nationally. According to WOW’s newspaper The Gong taking these people into account would take the number of unemployed people in Wollongong during this period to over 40,000 out of a total population of around 200,000.
Wollongong’s unemployment crisis brought out a collective response as the people of the city’s turned outwards in anger and protest. In October 1982 the Kemira miners organised a sit-in strike to protest their retrenchment. While they occupied the pit a series of mass demonstrations filled the city’s streets and over 10,000 workers packed the Wollongong Showground to vote overwhelmingly for lightning strikes in the steelworks and the mines. This mass meeting also decided to march on Federal Parliament to protest against the Fraser Government’s lack of action to halt sackings. A special train was arranged by the NSW ALP Government to take thousands of workers to Canberra. When they arrived at Parliament, ALP leaders Hayden and Hawke were waiting to address them from a stage that had been set up across the road and a flimsy barricade and a few police stood defending Parliament House. The workers swept past the stage, broke through the barricade, stormed up the steps of Parliament and smashed their way through the doors chanting ‘we want jobs’. If not for the quick thinking of a few union officials working with the police massed inside the doors, the workers would have advanced even further into the House itself.
Next came the Right to Work March from Wollongong to Sydney in November 1982. While initiated by another Wollongong Showground mass meeting of workers and organised by the combined unions, most of the forty or so who marched were young unemployed people. When they reached Sydney, the marchers were greeted by twenty thousand workers who had gone on strike in Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle. As the fight against sackings spread across the country, the Fraser Government was doomed and the Hawke Labor Government was elected on a platform of ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’. A significant working class gain from these three months of intense struggle was the formation of the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union.
After the election of the Hawke Government, the nature of the Accord process was made evident in Wollongong with the implementation of the Steel Industry Plan. Here the ALP Government and the ACTU accepted BHP’s long-term strategy and supported the provision of hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to the company to invest in job-displacing technology. The Steel Industry Plan was rejected by local unions when they were eventually told what it entailed. They argued that BHP was using the ‘crisis’ to achieve long-standing objectives of rationalisation and restructuring. But, as the steelworks’ general manager, John Clark, pointed out “there is nothing like the contemplation of the hangman in the morning to get people to co-operate”. While some learnt to cooperate with the plans of BHP’s executives, many of Wollongong’s unemployed soon became their own executioners, driven to suicide by the despair of joblessness.
As news’ headlines around the nation proclaimed Wollongong’s agonising jobs’ crisis, local business interests launched a promotional campaign that named the area ‘The Leisure Coast’ and announced that the Illawarra was ‘alive and doing well’. In response the young unemployed members of graffiti group YAPO (Young and Pissed Off) sprayed on the main symbol of the Leisure Coast, the North Beach International Hotel, “It’s unemployment not leisure”. YAPO was one manifestation of a growing punk scene in Wollongong at that time. As youth unemployment in Wollongong grew the influence of punk spread and diversified, inspiring young people to form their own bands, create their own fanzines and outfits and put on their own gigs. Soon punk’s focus on ‘do it yourself’ cultural rebellion, individual autonomy and rejection of capitalist consumption mixed with more traditional political struggles. In Wollongong the individual and collective manifestations of punk were intertwined from the start, and were often overtly political, progressive and anti-capitalist.
While some unemployed people had ‘no future’, others stepped into history by forming their own organisations and engaging in class struggle. As unemployment grew during the late 1970s, the unemployed established unions in Hobart, Launceston, Perth, Newcastle, Sydney and Melbourne. Left organisations had initiated most, if not all, of these unions and members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) were prominent in most of them. The Melbourne Unemployed Workers Union (UWU) was numerically and organisationally the strongest unemployed union and was eventually granted land and a building by the Northcote City Council. Yet it was not long before the Melbourne UWU’s anti-capitalist aims clashed with the electoral plans of its ALP supporters. Leading up to the 1983 Federal Election, the Left-ALP-dominated Northcote Council tried to evict the UWU from their offices. When the union resisted and refused to leave, the police threw them out in a military style dawn raid and immediately bulldozed the offices and with them the unions’ files, office equipment and other resources. This demonstration of the nature of the ALP was not lost on other unemployed unions and a poster featuring the demolished UWU offices with the heading ‘the ALP’s answer to unemployment’ had pride of place on the WOW office wall. Once the Hawke Government was elected, ALP influence in unemployed unions declined while the CPA and more militant left, anarcho-syndicalist and anarchist organisations continued to play a role.
Both the ALP and CPA played an important part in the fight-back against unemployment in Wollongong. The Illawarra had elected left-wing ALP Members to both State and Federal Parliament and the most powerful and influential local unions were led by ALP members committed to their party’s ‘socialist objective’ and/or by CPA members committed to a not dissimilar reformist party program. The CPA and the left of the ALP often worked closely together in the trade unions and in the peace, women’s and other social movements. The CPA in Wollongong was an eclectic family influenced by its Leninist and Stalinist past but also by Euro-communism, libertarian socialism, syndicalism, anarcho-syndicalism and various ‘new left’ currents. ‘The Party’ was well respected amongst broad sections of workers giving it significant influence beyond the size of its membership. CPA members and sympathisers were in leading positions in the coal, steel, waterside, and other unions. CPA member Merv Nixon was the long-standing secretary of the South Coast Labour Council, the peak regional trade union body, and hence also a member of the ACTU executive. The left ALP/CPA alliance played a pivotal role in the local fight-back against mass sackings and unemployment, helping to bring down the Fraser Government. During the Hawke years, this alliance continued and was cemented through the Accord process until eventually the CPA liquidated itself.
The voices in your head are calling
Stop wasting your time there’s nothing coming
Only a fool would think someone could save you
The men in the factory are old and cunning
You don’t owe nothing, so boy get running
It’s the best years of your life they’re trying to steal.
(‘Working for the Clampdown’, The Clash, 1979)
During the 1960s and 70s as part of diverse anti-capitalist activity and of a more general refusal by some youth to accept the discipline of the factory, struggles developed that came to be theorised as ‘the refusal of work’. The refusal of work can be characterised by a wide variety of practices including voluntary unemployment, refusing or avoiding certain types of jobs, absenteeism, strikes and other industrial action, sabotage, and demands for wage equalisation and wage increases regardless of productivity. While organised strikes around issues of health and safety, workers’ control, limits to productivity and shorter hours, are well recognised forms of work refusal, smaller scale and individual instances are often neglected and are harder to recognise and measure.
By the end of the 1960’s, due to the gains of working class struggle, such as the dole and relatively high wages, many people wanted and expected more than dead-end, boring, destructive and unhealthy jobs. Frustrated by the lack of meaning in their work and by their impersonal and subordinate role in the organisation of work, alienated workers increasingly turned to ‘non-work’ life for fulfilment, values and a sense of identity. This insubordination by the working class was countered by a recomposition of capital involving the expansion of unemployment and the beginnings of a decomposition of the old bastions of working class power. Because workers were increasingly refusing work and gaining more freedom, capitalists invested in labour-saving technology in order to expel the well organised industrial workers and create a new organisation of labour. In Wollongong, this was demonstrated during the mass sackings of the 1980’s when important sites of organised workers’ power were restructured and militant unionists were targeted for the sack.
The ample evidence of the connection between unemployment and poverty, homelessness, poor health, etc. and the fact that most people want to work, even if they remain poor, leads many to deny or ignore the existence of work refusal by the unemployed. As attempts by governments, employers and the media to ‘blame the victims’ of unemployment continue, many seek to defend the ‘deserving poor’ by concentrating on those who say they want waged work, and by downplaying and ignoring unemployed people’s practices of work refusal. But unemployed people do refuse to look for, or accept, jobs. Of course, those who refuse work as wage-labour usually do so to perform other forms of labour. The unemployed and the poor are not just victims; rather they are active, creative and can be powerful. Continuing anti-‘dole bludger’ campaigns are not only a way of justifying cutbacks in social spending and an ideological attack on the unemployed, they are also a part of capital and state responses to continuing practices of work refusal by the unemployed.
In the 1980s rather than workers refusing to work for capitalists, it appeared that capitalists were refusing work to workers. During this decade, a central issue for much of the working class became the right to work. In spite of its importance, the right to work itself is relatively undetailed. One reason for this lack is the very meaning of ‘work’. Since the definition of work is contested and can include variable and unequal activities and actions, it is hard to define what the right to it means. To demand the right to ‘work’ in its most inclusive sense would be pointless since everyone already works. Differing views on how to achieve paid work as a right reflects the perceived causes of unemployment. Those demanding or defending the right to work conceive of a wide variety of means to do this including through state policies and guarantees, by assisting capital or through revolutionary transformations that seek to go beyond capitalism.
The 1980’s saw a number of Right to Work marches in Australia organised by left political organisations, trade unions, employed and unemployed workers, including the 1982 march from Wollongong to Sydney. Right to work struggles also included a wide variety of activities and tactics to fight sackings and to campaign against unemployment by creating jobs. WOW and other labour movement activists saw Right to Work marches and campaigns as part of a working class fight-back against capital. Yet, the demand for ‘the right to work’ can be viewed as reactionary and outdated; reactionary because it can be seen to embody the capitalist work ethic and outdated because much labour is now socially unnecessary. The call for full employment often reveals the attachment of social democratic and trade union leaders to the basic structures of capitalism and demands for the right to work can glorify capitalist work. The right to work is not a satisfactory demand in isolation from critiques of such things as the nature of work, the duration of jobs, their pay and their role in the global division of labour. Marx analyses the tendency of capital as towards the reduction of the necessary labour of society. Yet this tendency does not result in a reduction of commodified labour, as capital increases surplus labour and imposes labour as a form of control of the working class, as a reaffirmation of capital’s power. The potential exists for a materially abundant, pleasurable relaxed work era as new technology has developed that could largely replace the realm of necessity by the realm of freedom. However, because capital continues to impose the linking of income to work that valorises capital, a diametrically opposite outcome is produced: intensified damaging precarious work and the immiseration of unemployment.
Interviewee Warren Smith at a 1986 demonstration against a visit by Bob Hawke to Wollongong.
Don’t wanna be a working stiff and lose my identity
Cause when it comes to working nine to five,
there ain’t no place for me.
(‘It’s Not My Place in the Nine to Five World’, The Ramones, 1982)
The Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW) existed from 1983 to 1989 and was re-formed for a short period in the early 1990′s. Throughout this time WOW was run by unemployed people, many of whom were young. WOW had a membership in the hundreds, produced its own monthly newspaper and was continually involved in campaigns and protest actions around a wide variety of issues. It also established a large array of resources and services for the unemployed which it mainly ran out of a house opposite Wollongong’s Department of Social Security that it had seized and occupied.
During the upsurge of struggle in the Illawarra around the mass sackings of 1982, many unemployed and soon-to-become unemployed workers supported the Kemira stay-in strike, took part in street protests, the storming of Federal Parliament and the Right to Work march from Wollongong to Sydney. Some of these unemployed people were also active in a local graffiti-based affinity group, called Young and Pissed Off (YAPO), in the government funded Community Youth Support Scheme (CYSS) or in the Wollongong Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM).
WOW’s first meetings were held at the Wollongong CYSS (soon disbanded by the government) where many young people got involved in the Union. By the beginning of the 1980’s radical welfare workers began to change the CYSS from a vehicle of social control into one of social action. Yet in CYSS there was a clear division between the employed workers and its unemployed ‘participants’. Before WOW, there had been four attempts in Wollongong since the early 1970s to establish unemployed organisations. The most recent, the UPM, had been formed in 1982 by a small group of employed and unemployed people. Full membership of the UPM was not restricted to unemployed people and few young people were active in the organisation. Members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and employed rather than unemployed workers played the dominant role in the UPM. The other main politically organised grouping in the UPM comprised members of the Communist Party (CPA). In late 1982, the CPA members and their friends decided to leave the UPM and set up an organisation controlled solely by the unemployed. The reasons for this included sectarianism as well as the desire to create a genuine unemployed people’s union. Most of the unemployed people in the UPM not aligned to the SWP left with the communists and the UPM folded up a short time later.
It was very important for those who had been involved in CYSS and the UPM, that WOW was run and controlled by the unemployed. As Lucy explains, what attracted her and other young unemployed people to WOW was that “it was unemployed people doing it. We were all on an equal footing. It wasn’t employed people telling you this and that. Everyone was in the same situation everyone was in the same boat”. WOW considered that it was “dedicated to preserving and promoting the independent voice of the unemployed” and that unemployed people’s ‘self-representation’ was one of the Union’s main strengths and the means by which it retained the political support of its members. As George saw it, WOW gave people “a sense of being part of something that was working class but not organised by a hierarchy”. According to him, WOW “fought through participatory democracy” which was “really essential” because “that gave people, an opportunity of ownership of the activities”.
WOW was officially formed in April 1983. Its constitution guaranteed unemployed people’s control over their organisation by ensuring that only unemployed people could become full members with voting rights. This included not only those on unemployment benefits but sole parents, old age, invalid and veteran pensioners, those on special benefits, sickness benefits and students. The general meeting of members was WOW’s decision-making body and convenors’ meetings and sub-committee meetings were held to organise the implementation of the decisions of the general meetings and to carry out secretarial and financial functions. As stated in its constitution WOW’s main aims were: to unite and organise the unemployed, to defend and extend their rights, to campaign for jobs and a living income and to foster closer ties with the trade union movement.
Soon after WOW was formed Union members explained, “It’s like a war here now, there’s a feeling you have to defend yourself, not just drop out into alternative lifestyles and raging” and that there was “so little concern from politicians we have to confront them with our lives”. Those who formed WOW also felt that due to the impact of mass sackings and the high level of unemployment in Wollongong, there had been a change in popular attitudes towards the unemployed. The once prevalent idea of the ‘dole bludger’ was increasingly challenged as tens of thousands of people and their friends and families learnt first-hand about the lack of jobs and the reality of surviving in poverty. Most of those I interviewed mentioned a ‘community based groundswell’, ‘anger’, ‘a feeling that something had to be done’ and ‘support for struggle’ that helped WOW ‘get off the ground’.
A key difference between WOW and previous local unemployed organisations was that it contained a core of young unemployed people who had known each other for years and had been involved in previous political activity. Some had taken part in the peace, anti-nuclear movements, or YAPO, or had been associated with the CPA. Pete explained that “there was some experience there, cohesion that provided the core of getting the thing off the ground”. A number of those interviewed mentioned the influence that their friends had on them choosing to become active in WOW. Sharon and Warren both left their jobs to become active in the Union. For Warren this was “because of the social group I was in, more than any political or ideological reasons or motivations. I saw that people I knew were doing something about the deteriorating situation in Wollongong and I decided I wanted to do something as well. I wanted to do what was just”. Others did become involved for more overt political reasons. Through his membership of the Communist Party Pete became involved with a number of key people who were activists prior to and during the formation of WOW. George, another Party member, came to Wollongong to be involved in WOW because he “wanted to participate in an active unemployed peoples’ union . . . a broader working class construct that reached more people”.
Soon after being formed, WOW put together a Log of Claims as a political program for action, around which Wollongong’s unemployed could organise. The Log of Claims was a living document evolving as the union developed. It recognised that there were no jobs for most unemployed people and that it was not unemployed or employed workers but capitalism which was to blame for the unemployment crisis. The Log called for: the right to work to be a constitutional guarantee; permanent work under award wages and conditions; a continual shortening of the working week without loss of pay; and worker and community control over the use and implementation of new technology. Other claims included that the term ‘unemployment benefit’ be changed to ‘Minimum Living Wage Payment’ and that it be raised to the level of the minimum wage, and the conversion of military jobs to civilian jobs. The Log also included a wide variety of other claims covering tax, social security rights, essential services and more.
Having a comprehensive Log of Claims meant that WOW was constantly campaigning on a wide variety of issues and often allying with other community organisations, trade unions and political parties around shared concerns. Seeing the need for coordinated action by the unemployed on a national level, WOW also helped to establish, and became the Secretariat for, the National Union of Unemployed People (NUUP), linking unemployed unions from Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, Newcastle, Hobart and Launceston. Together these unions drew up an agreed list of national campaign aims and coordinated action around an agreed political platform. Through the NUUP, links were also made with unemployed unions in Britain, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa.
WOW’s first campaign was not against sackings or for jobs it was to raise the dole. As part of the ‘Steal, Sleepout or Starve’ campaign WOW members camped outside the local Department of Social Security offices during winter to highlight the situation of the young unemployed and to collect signatures on a petition demanding dole increases. After members of the Union were taken to hospital suffering from exposure, it was decided to occupy an empty old house across the road. With community support including that of the South Coast Labour Council, who put pressure on the police and on the owner, a local businessman, this house became WOW’s offices for the next six years.
As WOW grew and developed it began to provide a variety of free services for the unemployed. These services included a drop-in centre, welfare rights centre, soup kitchen, library, layout and graphics workshop, dark room, recording studio, accommodation and a food cooperative. WOW also organised concerts, film shows, public meetings, education classes and courses, produced its own monthly newspaper, The Gong, and distributed thousands of copies of each issue free to the unemployed and the local community through a mail out to members and supporters and letter-box drops in housing commission estates. WOW also distributed the paper to community organisations, trade unions, pubs and clubs and on the streets.
To run various campaigns and to organise protests and other activities WOW established sub-committees made up of interested members. Its welfare rights centre provided assistance with collective and self-advocacy in dealing with government departments and with employers, and provided advice and assistance about forms of self-help, as well as available services and benefits. The centre helped school people in welfare regulations and self-advocacy and utilised a form of direct-action casework staging militant group actions when grievances remained unsolved. At various times WOW members occupied the local Social Security and taxation offices and even the national headquarters of the ALP in Canberra.
The ‘right to work’ demand was adopted by WOW from its inception but it was qualified as a demand for “the right to fulltime, permanent work under award wages and conditions” and for “socially useful work”. For those interviewed, the right to work was ‘central’, ‘fundamental’, ‘WOW’s reason for being’ and ‘the number one goal of an unemployed group’. Lucy explained that this was because “work is such a major part of the society we live in” and “you’re defined by what you do. If you don’t work then you’re obviously nothing”. For most, the right to work expressed the shared concerns of the employed and unemployed. It was the issue that employed workers would support and mobilise around. Yet, as Pete saw it, “for many people in WOW demands generally were not tremendously important” and “I don’t think anyone was tremendously excited about it”. But, he also explained, “if you’re going to be linked in with the trade union movement then you’ve got to have that as the central demand”. Richard also considered that WOW’s members understood that “the campaigns we got most support from the trade union movement were around the right to work, job creation things like that. The trade union movement was less concerned about the conditions unemployed people were living under”.
Fighting for the right to work involved WOW in broad-based community campaigns which included resistance to sackings and encouraging job creation. But significant divisions developed between WOW and other organisations over the nature of job creation schemes and issues of wages, conditions and the purpose of work. While all political parties seeking office in Wollongong in 1984 supported the right to work, the ALP Federal Government’s main ‘commitment’ to this right was through the Community Employment Program (CEP), a job creation scheme that created not one permanent job. WOW argued that government job creation was a “con job” pointing out that short-term schemes were not creating permanent jobs and often undermined existing wages and working conditions. At the time, some community groups and trade unions were receiving CEP funding. For a period, WOW itself received this funding to employ two co-ordinators for its welfare rights centre and food co-operative.1 The funding regulations stipulated that two of these workers must be sacked half-way through the funding period and replaced by two more people. This would create four jobs instead of two as part of the government’s promise to create 500,000 jobs. The Union refused to do this and continued to campaign against CEP and for real job creation. When the funding period ended, WOW received no more government money.
According to George, WOW’s demand for the right to work “was vocalised as the right to work but it was more than that. Because I don’t think the people involved were there for the right to work at any type of job”. For Sharon:
while we called for the right to work and real jobs with real wages, so not just part-time or casual work, permanent jobs, while we wanted that for other people, I think that the core group of people in WOW really weren’t after that for themselves.
Similarly Leanne and Gillian explained that the right to work was not about what they wanted for themselves but what they wanted for other people. Some of those interviewed explained that the right to work was especially important for those who were less able to survive in poverty and had mortgages, hire purchase debts and dependants. Yet, Richard argued that; “Even amongst those who said they didn’t want work they still wanted to know if at some stage they did then there would be a job there for them”.
Even though work refusal wasn’t included as an aim in WOW’s Constitution or referred to as that in The Gong, according to those interviewed there was a wide variety of work refusal practices amongst WOW members, although they perceived these in different ways. The interviewees disagreed about the significance and type of work refusal and whether this was a positive choice for many unemployed people since there were very few jobs available at the time. Interviewees’ outlooks on work refusal to a certain extent reflected their previous work experiences. Pete, who was married with children and with a mortgage, had been sacked from his job as a steelworker and was looking for a job before he became involved in WOW, initially as a supporter and then as an employed welfare worker in WOW’s welfare rights centre. Pete was unsure about the extent and significance of work refusal or avoidance within WOW “as the work wasn’t there”. But, because he was older and employed for most of the time that WOW was in existence, he also thought that his “picture of what was going on may not be as accurate as other people’s”. Still, he was certain that “no-one in WOW was busting a gut to get a job, with one or two exceptions”. Lucy and Richard had unsuccessfully sought employment on leaving school. They also considered they had little opportunity to refuse work since there were no jobs available to them. In contrast George and Leanne were definite work refusers describing themselves as “happy” to be unemployed. While for Leanne this was initially so she “could take lots of drugs and stay up all night”, for George this was because:
after I moved to Wollongong I wanted to participate in WOW. WOW’s activity seemed important to me and I thought that one could contribute to that. It was a much better thing to do than work for the man.
The four other interviewees had left jobs voluntarily. Craig had worked in a supermarket and described his job as “mind-numbing, just hideous and soul-destroying”. He had stopped studying at university, which he considered “work”, because it had no apparently useful end outcome. Nonetheless, he “felt guilty” about having some future prospects when so many of his peers appeared to be losing theirs. Gillian had also been employed in a local supermarket as well as on ‘training schemes’ but had left because they offered “no future”. She felt like a “shit-kicker” and she had “problems with authority”. Similarly Warren felt he had a “shit job” as a mechanic that was “taking me nowhere and was pointless”. The view that working for WOW was more important than paid employment was shared by all of those interviewed who had left jobs or were ‘happy’ being unemployed. Craig, Sharon, Warren and Gillian described what they were doing in WOW as a socially worthwhile ‘job’. And after realising that ‘training schemes’ were his only possible employment option, Richard also decided that what he was doing at WOW “was more important than what they were offering”.
Amongst WOW’s membership some had more opportunity and ability to refuse or avoid work than others. Richard and Lucy, who had never had a paid job said that they wanted one, but gave up looking and resigned themselves to unemployment as the competition for jobs and their lack of skills and experience made it increasingly unlikely that they would be successful. Lucy saw work refusal as a form of rationalisation that helped people deal with the reality of having no job prospects. As she explained, “After a while I think you have to convince yourself that there is nothing wrong with you. That it’s not your fault you’re unemployed. So you have to say that you’re happy with the way things are”. Richard considered that the culture of “work avoidance” in WOW “was often a non-issue for most people because you just weren’t going to get work”. He said that he avoided job interviews “not because of any fear that I would get a job at the end of it but it was a pain in the arse. I had better things to do and what was the point”. George saw work refusal in WOW as a choice made on the quality of the job but he also recognised that “some people, I guess, had to take a job because of money circumstances”. Craig explained different practices of work refusal along class lines where “the refusing work culture was more endemic amongst the more middle class kids than it was amongst the working class kids”.
Even though she herself was a work refuser Leanne considered that most of WOW’s membership did want to work and “of the more active membership about half wanted to work and half didn’t”. Interviewees agreed that, in general, WOW members “wanted jobs that were reasonably well paid . . . at least security, union support and even a bit of dignity”. For Pete those who were refusing work, perceived themselves as “outsiders of the mainstream that included the world of work because of their personal histories. But I don’t think people thought they had permission to push that one very hard both internally or externally”. Yet, Leanne considered that she was “quite open about the fact that I didn’t want to work in interviews [with the media] and would talk about dealing with unemployment rather than getting work”. Interviewees agreed that WOW helped ‘school’ members in surviving on the dole. Members developed expertise in ‘doubling dole cheques’, scamming, shoplifting, squatting, accessing support services and avoiding ‘shit jobs’, ‘cons’, ‘rip-offs’, training and ‘job’ schemes. According to Sharon, WOW helped people avoid or refuse work by suggesting to people “ways that they could get out of doing whatever it was, work or training scheme, whatever we thought was not right or that people shouldn’t have to do”. But, “if we had gone around saying that we thought people had the right to refuse work, then that was just flying in the face of what everyone else was saying at the time”.
That people had a choice of what they did with their time was a central issue for interviewees. While some of those interviewed still wanted paid employment they did not want ‘any job’ but one that was “valuable to the community and to myself” and “that was doing something meaningful”. WOW was seen by most interviewees to express work refusal implicitly by demanding real jobs with real wages, good working conditions and socially useful work and by the fact that Union was “anti-work for the dole, didn’t support scabbing, being forced to take jobs that you didn’t want, scabby jobs, low paid with bad conditions”. As Gillian explained, “WOW encouraged people to not be pushed into things that they didn’t want to do. WOW backed people up in their basic human right to choose. But, we weren’t telling people to refuse work”. As Craig saw it, what WOW was doing was trying to find “whether it is possible to create alternative structures and alternative ways of living” that were outside of the traditional world of work.
For Craig, practicing work refusal while campaigning for the right to work was an “in-built contradiction” for WOW. But, for Sharon and Warren there was no contradiction because they thought that WOW members were already working, and that
the right to work doesn’t mean that you have the right to work in ultra-exploitation and have really poor conditions and not work under an award. The right to work was very much about the right to work in decent award waged work.
Leanne considered that WOW argued for the right to work on behalf of the whole working class and that this was “really a general argument against capitalism”. She explained that,
even though you can support work refusal and the right to work, trying to explain how those coexist is very difficult and quite complicated. So obviously in the day-to-day political campaigns it’s hard to send such a complicated message across. So I think any attempt to advocate work refusal, would in the public’s eyes, have seriously conflicted with the right to work campaign. People wouldn’t have understood how those two issues could coexist in the same organisation.
WOW had a high and fairly positive public profile in Wollongong for many years. Yet, for many WOW was seen as a group of punks and while “obviously not everyone involved in WOW was into punk, most of the most active members were into that sort of counter-culture”. For Craig “the whole WOW thing was punk” based on the “D.I.Y. [do it yourself] ethic that typified” punk. From Sharon’s point of view, the punk influence in WOW was explained by the fact that:
We were from a particular generation, where we had grown up with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear destruction hanging over us at any second. We were the ‘no future generation’, certainly a lot of us felt we had no future. We took heaps of drugs and lived life on the edge and did radical political things because we had nothing to lose.
For some “the whole mindset [of punk] was like opening doors” giving people “permission to do everything” and “a certain romantic sense of being outlaws in the sense of class outlaws”.
According to Richard, punk “united the people in WOW”. As he saw it, punk culture was a way of “separating yourself from the rest of society” of “showing your difference”.
Punk sub-culture reinforced that separation and also it was a way of showing our rejection of society and the way it was and what it was doing. It was a very visual way, that regardless of what you were doing, if you were just walking down the street, people could see that in effect what you were doing is sticking your finger up at society. Saying you don’t want a part of it, you don’t agree with it.
Richard explained that: “There were debates and discussions within WOW about the adoption of punk and the effect it was having in our relationship with the working class”. But those in WOW who attempted to curb its punk image found themselves shunned and isolated. Although Richard says that the punk image meant that “to some extent we alienated ourselves from large sections of the working class”, George explained how “Sometimes we would get abused in the street from workers. But when we did pickets or went to workplaces, like the steelworks, the reception was bloody good”.
When WOW was established; “there was an enormous amount of support coming from working people, in terms of providing the physical resources” for WOW. But, the relationship between WOW and employed workers certainly had its ups and downs. In 1985, Mike Donaldson observed how WOW helped workers’ strikes and occupations by attending actions, offering and providing support, including the provision of supplies. Interviewees also pointed out that WOW’s relationship with employed workers was often built on solidarity actions and that “once it was demystified and taken seriously and the politicians were responding and things were happening the relationship was pretty good”. According to Sharon those employed workers
who had more of a political understanding and were involved in their unions, those people we would have had a fairly good relationship with. Certainly the ones who we’d helped fight for their jobs or helped them on certain campaigns, they were fine. But I think some people would have thought we were punk ratbags, dole bludgers, who did nothing and looked weird and didn’t want to work.
While Craig agreed that some WOW members not wanting traditional forms of work did create resentment from employed workers, he also thought that
there were a lot of working people who were also taking the attitude that, “hey good on ya, you’re not just sitting on your arse, going down the beach every day having a fucking ball while we all go to work. You are actually working too and you’re actually doing stuff that might be in our best interests as well as your own”.
You gotta drag yourself to work
Drug yourself to sleep
You’re dead from the neck up
By the middle of the week
Face front you got the future
Shining like a piece of gold
But I swear as we get closer
It looks more like a lump of coal
But it’s better than some factory
Now that’s no place to waste your youth
I worked there for a week once
But luckily I got the boot.
(‘All the Young Punks’, The Clash, 1978)
WOW’s praxis, the interrelation of union member’s theories and practices, their purposive action for social change, reflected and helped to shape the complex web of social relations in which they lived. But praxis under capitalism, and therefore within WOW, is contradictory, a product of both human agency and the constraining power of capital over people’s lives. The praxis of WOW was composed of both individual and collective work refusal and struggles for the right to work that helped to recompose the working class. WOW grew out of and developed as part of an upsurge of working class opposition to austerity and neo-liberal restructuring. Yet, WOW’s praxis was not just reactive but was a continuation and development of liberatory activity that sought to go beyond capitalism through self-organised projects of political class composition.
Work refusal by WOW members was a creative and contingent manifestation of both the individual and collective power of the working class. The motivation for, level and importance of work refusal is difficult to measure but it is clear that WOW and some of its members did refuse work in a variety of ways and for various reasons. Some practices of work refusal are a total rejection of work for capital, others seek to assert workers’ control over the work process, and others are neither of these or a combination of them. Many of the unemployed in the 1980s who refused to work at some jobs still wanted waged work. They also often considered that their activities, such as looking for work, being active in the community and performing various forms of unpaid work, was work. While the name ‘Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union’ suggests that WOW members were ‘out of work’, some WOW members considered that they were working even though they were unemployed.
Although for some WOW members work refusal may have been a case of making a virtue out of necessity, other WOW members left their jobs because they did not want to continue to be employed under the existing conditions. This was not a refusal of all work but was a refusal of the waged work available to them at the time and was part of a more widespread refusal of the discipline and purpose of much waged labour. An important reason people do not want a job is that they want some say about the type of work they do. This is not just a yearning to control the work that is available but reflects a desire to transform work, to make it worthwhile and useful for the individual and society. By rejecting their alienation and subordination to capital, people can develop alternative values that reject workerism, productivism, the work ethic and consumerism. Some WOW members’ refusal of commodified labour was a search for purpose, to give their lives meaning, to make their work socially useful and to try to take control of their lives.
Many social scientists have linked unemployment with low self esteem, demoralisation and depression. Yet some of the people interviewed reported on the contrary that they felt happy and empowered by being unemployed. Work refusal can be an affirmation of unemployed peoples’ agency because they can carve out time to create and participate in different and new forms of work. All of those interviewed for this piece of work considered that what they did in WOW was important. For some WOW members, working for WOW was their ‘job’ of choice because they considered that this was productive, socially useful and a way to achieve social change.
WOW as an organisation did not overtly address the refusal of commodified work as a key issue and did not publicly advocate work refusal. But the Union supported work refusal practices by assisting strikes and striking workers, helping people survive unemployment, campaigning against work that undermined wages and conditions and was not socially useful, and by developing alternative ways of living based on non-commodified labour. The Union aimed to defend and improve the living conditions of the unemployed and the issues that motivated some WOW members to refuse waged labour – power over their work and the purpose of that work – were central to WOW. It would obviously have been difficult for WOW openly to reject commodified work when facing mass unemployment used as a weapon by capital. WOW’s membership generally considered that campaigning for the right to work was the central issue for the Union and that public advocacy of work refusal could be seen to contradict this demand.
WOW members realised that many employed people resented the fact that some people were avoiding work and they did not want to play into the hands of enemies of the proletariat by appearing to confirm ‘dole bludger’ mythology. Publicly advocating and supporting work refusal also invited state reprisals and went against the workerist culture of much of the labour movement. Within WOW this led both to a tendency towards covert work refusal and a failure to understand, articulate and popularise, the importance of work refusal practices. Yet, some WOW members did publicly advocate work refusal and taken in their totality, WOW’s Log of Claims did, to a certain extent, advocate and justify the refusal of work by rejecting ‘job’ and ‘training’ schemes, poorly paid jobs, military jobs, and any work not considered socially useful.
WOW’s punk culture was the clearest manifestation of some of its member’s rejection of the traditional role of workers, employed or unemployed. Here many WOW members defined themselves against the conservative nature of much of the trade union movement and developed an oppositional culture and alternative value system that sought to move beyond the parameters of capitalism. Punk can be seen as a cultural expression of work refusal articulated explicitly in various punk song lyrics and reflected in punk fashion and punk’s D.I.Y. ethos. Punk was both a response to and a dramatisation of increasing crisis, unemployment and poverty. Punks dressed confrontationally, presenting themselves as anarchic proletarian ‘degenerates’ and outcasts, spectacles of aggression, frustration and anxiety, at war with bourgeois culture. The concern expressed within WOW that punk was an obstacle to developing working class unity and co-operation, was a recognition that punk and work refusal were a rejection of labour movement traditions based on ideas of the ‘dignity of labour’ and the workerist discipline of ‘state capitalism’. Punks generally rejected the conservative view of the working class’s role, to do waged work, and attempted to sabotage themselves as commodities. In this way, rather than being an obstacle to class coherence, punks expressed a rejection of capitalist exploitation, alienation and commodified labour that is at the heart of the class’s composition.
Dress and behaviour demonstrated that punks were not employed, identified as unemployed and as work refusers. Thirty years after the emergence of punk, many young people continue to signify their refusal of waged work by the way they dress and behave. The key to the social/cultural outlook of punk is its affirmation as an ‘alternative society’, with its own richness of communication, free productive creativity, its own life force. To conquer and to control its own ‘social spaces’ became the dominant form of struggle of these ‘social subjects’ and elements of punk subculture can be regarded as manifestations of self-valorisation, self-constituting experiments in new ways of being.
WOW’s various self-organised struggles and D.I.Y. projects gave people a sense that they were contributing to creating a better society outside the realm of wage-labour. Of course, spaces and times free from waged work are still restricted by the power of capital. The campaigns to defend and extend the social conditions that made WOW members lifestyles, resistance and active political culture possible largely depended on the successes of previous working class struggles. While WOW attempted to defend the gains of working class struggle, during the period of its existence all came under increasing attack. But, the use of work refusal by some WOW members to facilitate collective militant activity against capital and to create forms of self-valorisation demonstrates that work refusal practices are not necessarily ‘weapons of the weak’.
Waged work and the withdrawal of waged work can both be destructive and demoralising. While practices of work refusal by some WOW members created and sustained tensions with other sections of the working class, WOW strove for class coherence around struggles for the right to work and these struggles tended to integrate WOW into the broader labour movement. The ability to strike, to collectively withdraw labour has been central to the power of the working class since workers first organised. The removal of this power from a significant number of Wollongong workers during the 1980s had a dramatic effect on all workers in the region. While the class was weakened and divided, workers continued to resist their exploitation and commodification, but waged work was generally seen by workers as fundamental to their self and social worth, their social power and their survival. Alternatives to waged work were usually a more precarious means of survival and many workers, especially those in the coal and steel industries, recognised that their collective power was centred on their workplace.
For most of the industrial workers who lost their jobs, unemployment meant immiseration, a situation made even worse for those tied to the capitalist system through debt. Many retrenched workers were relatively powerless to refuse the waged work available, even if it was low paid and had poor conditions. For these workers their previous jobs had presented them with more opportunity to refuse work and fight against the imposition of commodified labour. For example metalworkers in the steel industry had fought for and won shorter working hours in 1980/81 from a position of relative strength. In 1982 the fight to extend the shorter working week campaign was at its peak when BHP announced to the steel unions that the industry was in crisis. The unions responded by arguing that the ‘crisis’ was in fact an excuse to introduce new technology, sack workers and boost profits. Within twelve months many of these same workers, now unemployed, would be demanding more commodified work rather than less.
WOW’s campaigns for the right to work recognised the importance of waged work to most people and to the class in general. The demand for the right to work was seen by the WOW members interviewed as an attempt to represent what most people wanted. Yet there were different views within WOW about how to achieve the right to work. WOW’s Log of Claims argued for the right to work on better terms for the working class and the lessening of waged work, without loss of pay or working conditions, for all workers. The Log of Claims acknowledged the potential of new technology and advocated a move away from production for the sake of production and profit towards sustainable development. Technological developments are created due to contending pressures that implant in them contradictory potentialities. While capital used technological innovation for increasing domination, WOW argued that the working class could use the positive material achievements of workers’ struggle to increase liberation from exploitative and alienated work.
WOW initially based much of its right to work campaigning on the principle that the state is obliged to guarantee the employment security of all its citizens. Yet, it became increasingly obvious to some WOW members that this vision of the role of the state was unrealistic and that what was required was independent action by the unemployed to try and satisfy their immediate and long-term needs without working for capital. This involved giving more prominence to campaigns demanding the right to be paid by the state for the work unemployed people do regardless of whether it is profitable for capital by seeking a ‘minimum wage’ for what are generally considered ‘non-work’ activities. Here the right to work was part of a strategy by unemployed workers to counter the waged/unwaged division of the working class and to be paid for what they chose to do, to get paid for what they considered socially useful, the right to live in dignity and control their own labour.
Some WOW members considered that demands for the right to work, ‘real jobs with real wages’ and good conditions could not be accomplished under capitalism and were therefore a way to expose and argue against the system. Here the right to work was seen as pointing towards a post-capitalist future, a way of finding and developing common cause amongst the class, helping to recompose the class around an aim that could only be gained by overthrowing capitalism. These aims and demands were not addressed to capital or the state, rather they were meant to aid the working class communicate their common needs helping to frame and organise struggles and assist the class realise a political form.
In relation to the demand for the right to work the important issues is on whose terms people do what work. The right to work struggles of the 1980s were themselves contradictory. They helped to mobilise sections of the working class against sackings, unemployment and austerity. But where they failed to challenge capitals’ neo-liberal agenda they were used to undermine wages and conditions. This is partly because these demands were framed by previous commitments to ‘full employment’ by state and capitalist interests which had been won by working class struggle but that capital sought to contain and use to valorise itself. Right to work demands can challenge rather than reinforce capitalism when combined with a thoroughgoing critique of the nature of capitalist waged work. But during the 1980s demands for work were often utilised by capital and the state to implement forced labour and to erode wages and working conditions.
Work refusal is hard to sustain in the face of long-term poverty. During the 1980s capital attempted to displace work refusal to ‘outside’ the workplace through sackings to try and nullify its power. But since the workplace and class struggle are spread throughout society the use of mass unemployment as a strategy for reining in wages and conditions remained essentially unfulfilled because many people continued to refuse commodified labour or got used to being unemployed and did not compete for the jobs available. Work refusal by the unemployed during this period helped to weaken the use of the jobless by capital as a weapon against working class power. Instances of work refusal and the acceptance of being ‘unemployable’ amongst some WOW members is evidence of how some of the working class refused, or failed, to enter into competition with those already in waged work undermining the ‘reserve army’ as an instrument to weaken working class power and undercut wages and conditions. The effectiveness of the global ‘reserve army’ depends on the willingness of those in it to undertake the work employers offer. Refusing work and promoting work refusal reduces capital’s ability to pit the unemployed against the working class.
Continued work refusal by the unemployed helps to explain why the capitalist state introduced ‘work-for-the-dole’, continued to cut benefits, increased harassment and surveillance and imposed draconian measures and penalties for those not in waged work. During the 1980’s the capitalist state was restructured as neo-liberal state policies were increasingly used to discipline the working class. In Australia, as part of a strategy designed to increase the effectiveness of the unemployed ‘reserve army’ and to re-impose work on better terms for capital, unemployment benefits were progressively cut and ‘work-for-the-dole’ was introduced in 1986. In 1987, the Hawke Government converted the Social Security Department’s work test to an activities’ test, giving the state more control over what the unemployed did with their time and a new means to deal with the recalcitrance of the unemployed. The Labor government also introduced psychological assessment of unemployed people who had ‘low work motivation’, ‘negative orientations to labour market participation’ and ‘unrealistic work expectations’. Those identified as having such ‘problems’ could then be made to accept psychiatric referral in order to continue receiving benefits. Today, in Australia, work-for-the-dole continues to be expanded and benefits cut.
Considerations of both the ‘right to work’ and ‘work refusal’ tend to be based on the limited conceptions of work as waged labour. Some members of WOW embraced the working class’s ability to give their own value to their own labour, by promoting a move away from work which emphasised exchange value and instead recognised the creative and productive nature of a wide variety of activities. For WOW this viewpoint informed the Union’s demand for a ‘minimum living wage payment’. While the more recently unemployed tend to make the demand for ‘the right to work’ a high priority, those who have never had a job, consider themselves unemployable or refuse commodified work are often more concerned with the right to a guaranteed living income. The demand for a ‘minimum living wage’ for the unemployed helped WOW frame and organise struggles for greater freedom in choosing amounts and forms of work and to weaken capital’s command over labour through severing the link between income and employment. By recognising and arguing that unemployed people play important roles in their communities, making social contributions that are valuable and deserve rewarding, WOW sought to counter requirements that forced unemployed people to undertake work not of their choosing, for poor wages or the dole.
Right to work and work refusal struggles are complementary when opposing the state and capital’s use of crisis and the command over work as weapons to decompose the proletariat. Work refusal is about refusing certain types of work and right to work struggles are about having the right to certain types of work. Here there is no necessary contradiction since both involve a rejection of certain types of work. Within WOW both the right to work and work refusal expressed resistance to capitalist domination. Both involved the use of working class power to counter a lack of control people have over their labour and to exert power over what they do, how they do it and why they do it. The right to work, on the basis on which WOW fought for it, in fact involved elements of work refusal. Here rather than waged work being taken away from an immiserated minority, it would be reduced for all without the immiseration of any.
Working class self-valorisation expresses itself as a struggle for autonomy, increased wages and public spending, the reduction of work for capital and the creation of alternative ways of being and producing – a struggle for more pay and less alienated, exploitative and commodified work. The struggles for the right to work and practices of work refusal complement each other by reclaiming surplus value and by opposing the link between wages and productivity or production for profit. Both offer opportunities for workers to weaken the wage/commodified labour nexus and to assist class composition. What is important is whether these struggles succeed, how these struggles are organised and whether the aim is to cooperate with, accommodate or challenge capital.
Rarely do the unemployed appear as actors in the public discourse on unemployment. Usually they are marginalised, excluded, or represented by employed people. The problems confronting unemployed peoples’ mobilisation are the result of different organisational, collective and individual obstacles, but many of those interested in the plight of the unemployed recognise that if they do not organise on their own behalf, no other group will, or can, adequately represent their interests. The formation of WOW was the result of working class struggles and a desire by radicalised unemployed workers for more democracy, independent forms of organisation and a new ‘scene’ or ‘space’ of social attachment and support. WOW’s membership was politically and ideologically diverse and contradictory and their daily struggles and internal battles were reflected in various forms of political self-mobilisation and attempts at improving unemployed people’s living conditions. The formation of WOW provided unemployed people with space for discussion, affinity and experimentation, shared learning and solidarity which coalescesed around campaigns and projects and facilitated a proliferation of activities. Unemployed people’s self-organisation in WOW enabled them to become empowered, active participants in social processes rather than passive recipients and manipulated pawns. Both the loss and the rejection of waged work animated a desire among some WOW members for a new life that did not rely on having employment. The occupation of the house also helped transform WOW by providing a relatively permanent space for both traditional Union and for welfare activities and utopian and alternative projects, enhancing communal self-determination.
In determining who could become a full member, WOW did not emphasise the (absent) link to the world of paid employment but included children, retirees, stay-at-home parents and all types of pensioners. This de-emphasis of the jobless status of the unemployed made the connection with the employed more tenuous but assisted the formation of links with those who were excluded from the trade union movement. However, the unemployed in WOW were not lumpenproletarian, or an underclass, separate from the working class. Although organising separately as unemployed workers, WOW sought to overcome divisions between waged and unwaged workers by campaigning for the right to work and joining and supporting employed workers’ struggles wherever possible. The unemployed are not part of the working class because they undertake work, as people did in WOW, or because they suffer the imposition of work: the work of looking for work, the work of reproducing themselves and the rest of the class. The unemployed do work and are socially creative and productive, but they are part of the working class where they struggle against the imposition of commodified work, against capitalist command and for alternative ways of being.
WOW reflected a complexification of class composition working to develop working class coherence through a diversity of practices. Rather than work refusal in WOW being a ‘middle class’ practice, it was not those that considered themselves as having a ‘middle class’ background who left their jobs and/or chose not to seek waged work. Work refusal in WOW was a mode of proletarian composition as it was not about ‘opting out’ of class relations but was a means of becoming proletarian, of collectively fighting against capital. Whilst many WOW members sought to compose ways of living without waged work, work refusal was not freedom from struggles over work, wages and conditions. WOW and its members did not develop an anti-work ideology which denied the social role of work. Work was viewed as something the class had in common, and the struggles over work were clearly seen as the basis for shared social action. WOW members were engaging in class struggle by self-organising and assisting class composition based on a common relationship with the rest of the working class in their antagonism to capital.
Since mass sackings and unemployment were an assault on working class power, aimed at decomposing the class, the defence of jobs and struggling for the right to work, on better terms for the working class, helped to recompose the class. Together in WOW, the organised unemployed were an active social force, developing alternative social infrastructures based on their own capacity to organise, control and develop self-activity and transforming their conditions of life through conscious political practice. By its organisation and publicity, WOW maintained the public presence of the unemployed, and refused to allow them to be hidden and unheard. It focused attention on the problems associated with unemployment and served to protect the working class as a whole against further hardship and attack. It established solidarity and support between employed and unemployed workers and was able to defuse employer attempts to pit different sections of the labour movement against each other, preventing the unemployed from being used as scab labour and instead mobilising as a powerful tool of the working class.
WOW’s solidarity in the struggles of waged workers assisted the coherence of the class in the fight against retrenchments and unemployment locally, nationally and internationally and helped to develop bonds of reciprocity and mutual dependence in struggles over the scope and intensity of commodified labour. The praxis of WOW resisted not only the commands of capital and the state but also the institutional imperatives of the trade union movement. This development of working class autonomy from capital assisted WOW and its membership to reject and resist recuperation by the state through programs such as CEP and processes like the Accord. WOW collectively struggled with other workers by linking with trade unions, the CPA and other ‘left and progressive’ organisations but when these organisations retreated from overt class struggle, divisions grew and WOW became more marginalised. As sections of the labour movement assisted the development of a multi-tiered workforce, further dividing workers, WOW struggled against class disaggregation by refusing to be treated as marginal to the working class and continued to be an obstacle to the politics of consensus, cooperation and compromise with capital.
In a period of growing economic and social crisis many came to question and challenge the power of capital. The heartlessness of mass sackings clearly demonstrated that workers were expendable and considered worthless, their lives just fodder for big corporations whose only interest was profits. The working class fight-back against sackings, unemployment and poverty helped to further politicise many employed and unemployed people and demonstrated the power of unionism and the common interests and enemies of the working class. WOW assisted the unemployed in understanding who they were, what was in their interest and what socio/political options were available and/or desirable for them. Within WOW there were different types of class-consciousness which were fluid, complex and contradictory and reflected the variety and complexity of class struggle itself. WOW helped to raise the class consciousness of some, as the Union developed an understanding amongst its members and supporters that their exploitation and oppression was tied to the exploitation and oppression of others.
Interviewees expressed a number of different views regarding the individual and collective class position of WOW’s membership. While these views were important and influential they did not determine class position. WOW members were working class not because they identified as working class, but because they engaged in struggles against capital. Class is based on the reality of struggle against capitalism and people do not need to use or understand the concept of the working class to be working class or to take action against capital and in the interests of the class. As WOW members self-organised, they were more able to work together for mutual benefit rather than remaining isolated or competing against each other in the labour market and through their common struggle against capital their political and class consciousness developed.
While at first sight, struggles for the right to work and practices of work refusal may appear contradictory, the praxis of WOW demonstrates that they can be and were sometimes complementary. There are many ways to struggle against capital and diverse projects of self-valorisation can find ways to avoid being constrained and harnessed within capital and become mutually supportive. Right to work struggles can undermine the use of crisis against the working class by seeking to compose around demands for labour that have use values for the working class and practices of work refusal present opportunities for more meaningful creative activity and the time and energy to construct a better world. The power of work refusal is the ability to free up time from the capitalist imposition of work and the power of self-valorisation is the ability to use this for anti-capitalist activities and to elaborate the communist future in the present. By resisting capital through work refusal and fighting for the right to work WOW helped to recompose the working class by fighting for the common interests of workers, waged and unwaged. Those interests included both a rejection of work for capital and struggles for a transformation of work.
This study of WOW, its members and their praxis has revealed both the power and limitations of working class struggle in Wollongong during the 1980s. Today unemployment in Wollongong is still higher than the national average. The average income of Wollongong workers is now significantly less than the NSW average and the lack of local jobs sees twenty five percent of the workforce commute to Sydney each day for work. Many of Wollongong’s unemployed remain economically and socially marginalised, consigned to the worst public housing estates and subjected to police and Centrelink harassment. Here they serve as a warning to those in waged work thus helping to maintain a climate of fear that retards workers’ struggle.
Many of those in waged work are working longer hours and for a larger part of their lives as part of an increasingly flexible, mobile and casual workforce. The imposition of widespread overwork and vulnerability is creating growing psychological, physical and social problems. Yet many Australian workers now believe that it is easy to get a job and they leave their jobs regularly. This indicates that precarisation is contested as attempts to increase exploitation and subordination confront workers’ needs and desires and the search for other, better, lives. Workers’ desires for a better life are expressed in their recognition that waged work is undermining social relationships and in their concerns about the ‘quality of life’ and struggles over ‘family and work time’. As commodified labour hours continue to increase, the popularity of work refusal is indicated by the number of popular books advocating various ways of going about it. The uneven distribution of paid work means that while large numbers of workers are ‘underemployed’ and the increase in casual work is creating a generation of working poor, a significant proportion of waged workers want less waged work, even if this involves a loss of income.
Throughout the history of capitalism workers have refused the commodification of their labour and this refusal of work has not disappeared; it has merely changed form, along with the changing forms of the capitalist imposition of work. Since useful forms of working class organisation change with the change in class composition, it is helpful to think about the issue of working class organisation in its most basic sense: the elaboration of cooperation among people in struggle against capital.
Assisting the self-organisation of precarious workers, the unemployed, underemployed, casual workers and the class as a whole is as urgent and necessary today as it was in the 1980s. In some parts of the world, unemployed peoples’ movements continue to be active and powerful and proletarian struggle continues to challenge capital and create communism. As class struggle continues and capitalist crises of war, terror, poverty and environmental destruction threaten humanity it is important that we do not view the world with despondency, a result of our defeats, but instead recognise how the anti-capitalist struggles of the past have succeeded in helping to develop the basis for a future communist society. Labour under capitalism is contradictory, reproducing and developing the violence of the system but also reproducing and developing the struggles against it.
From http://assemblyfordignity.wordpress.com with minor corrections by libcom.org
- 1. Applying for and administering CEP money created major debates and divisions within WOW as some members considered that this contradicted WOW’s demands.