'Change the Rules': reifying labour under capital

'Change the Rules': reifying labour under capital

A critique of Sally McManus, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and the 'Change the Rules' campaign from a communist perspective.

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“Since 1936 I have fought for wage increases. My father before me fought for wage increases. Now I have a TV, a fridge, a Volkswagen. Yet my whole life has been a drag. Don't negotiate with the bosses. Abolish them.” - Graffiti from the May 1968 revolt in France.

Sally McManus, soon after becoming the Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), set off a flurry of excitement when she defended a litany of illegal strike actions by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. She argued

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‘it might be illegal industrial action according to our current laws, and our current laws are wrong. I believe in the rule of law when the law is fair and the law is right. But when it's unjust I don't think there's a problem with breaking it.’

A cult of personality soon developed around McManus on the left as she appeared to be a beacon of hope for a revived militant labour movement in Australia. Liberal MP Christoper Pyne described her comments as ‘Anarcho-Marxist claptrap.’ Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called her ‘Sally McManarchist.’ Some even hoped she could eventually become the leader of the Labor Party, imagining a social democratic trifecta between America’s Bernie Sanders, and the United Kingdom’s Jeremy Corbyn.

Despite this, the new buzz around McManus’ supposed militancy was funnelled by the ACTU into a watered-down, reformist campaign called ‘Change the Rules,’ shortly after current Labor leader Bill Shorten denounced her comments on illegal strikes, suggesting she should ‘use the democratic process’ to change unjust laws rather break them. McManus’ recent rhetoric is now far lighter in comparison to the statements that initially generated excitement on the left around her Secretaryship, often relying on terms such as ‘fair wages’ and ‘workers’ rights.’ The effectiveness of the ACTU campaign though has recently come into question after the Fair Work Commission (FWC) shut down proposed industrial action by Sydney train drivers because the strike posed an ‘economic threat.’ Rather than defying the FWC’s decision and calling for illegal strike action, McManus registered her outrage through the media, and repeated the ‘Change the Rules’ mantra. As it stands, the key component of the Change the Rules campaign then seems to be centred around putting the Labor Party into government so it can implement the ACTU’s desired industrial relations reforms. This is a troubling prospect with historical precedence; the last major ACTU campaign was ‘Your Rights at Work’ from 2005-2007, which had electing Labor as its primary directive. After Labor succeeded in winning the federal election, they established the FWC, the very institution which cuts workers’ penalty rates, and crushes attempts at legal industrial action today.

The ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign has been mainly focused on assimilating labour into a more benign social contract with capital, in which the politico-juridicial structure of the state is reformed. Sally McManus has become the face of this campaign, arguing that legislating stronger protections for the ‘right to strike’ would increase wage growth, which would boost currently anaemic levels of aggregate demand. As she stated in Guardian Australia recently,

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‘we didn’t have a problem with low wage growth 10 years ago. Companies would get more productive and wages would go up. And now that is not happening. And all the economists are all scratching their heads and going ‘Why is this so, maybe workers should just ask for a pay rise’ but workers do just ask for pay rises and they don’t get them. And when they try and get them [via industrial action], they don’t have the tools, because they have been taken off them. We have not acknowledged that the policy settings aren’t right, and you have to change those to enable people in the day to day sense get a share of the wealth which is being created in this country.’

The ontology of McManus’ macroeconomic argument should be a worry for those in the left who consider themselves anti-capitalists. Strikes in her argument are not an anti-capitalist instrument of workers’ struggle, but instead become a ‘tool’ of fiscal distribution. Rather than dismantling capitalism, McManus is much more concerned with ensuring the macroeconomic stability of Australian political economy. Her desperation for ensuring increases in aggregate demand has already lead to some disturbing consequences, such as propping up Australia’s military-industrial complex. McManus lobbied hard to Naval Group Australia (NGA) in 2017 for the domestic construction of 12 military submarines because it would ‘create jobs,’ which NGA signed on to in an agreement with the unions concerned. The submarine programme will be the largest defence capital investment programme in Australia's history. It’s hardly surprisingly after recognising that the social democratic program has historically been reliant on building up military hardware to secure jobs and imperialise resources abroad.

The ideal model for McManus is that strikes would be responsibly called by trade unions, and executed after clearing a set of reformed checks-and-balances in the arbitration process under a future Labor government. Strikes would act as a macroeconomic tool partly decentralised out of the state’s hands to the authority of trade unions to increase aggregate demand. But even under this potential model, there isn’t really much point in a technocratic Labor government accepting a macroeconomic argument for the right to strike considering the socially disruptive consequences of industrial action. If the trade union movement’s argument is meant to ensure ‘fairer’ income distribution, the government could simply pursue a litany of fiscal policy instruments which hold the industrial peace, like progressive taxation, a universal basic income, or increased public expenditure on healthcare and education. This seems much more likely taking into account that the Labor Party has historically directed industrial struggles to arbitration bodies so as to suppress emerging class conflict (a recent example was in 2011 when the Labor government made an application to the FWC to terminate industrial action by Qantas Airways workers). In addition, the bargaining capacity of the ACTU to renegotiate the tripartite social contract between labour, capital, and the state, and reverse elements of the 1983 Accord, is severely hindered by union density sitting under 15% in Australian workplaces in 2016 (a dramatic decrease from 49% in 1983).

Even if we were to accept McManus’ model for industrial action as a distributional mechanism, the vantage point of her argument is founded on appeals to the capitalist state, and the reification of the worker in relation to commodity production. The labour movement’s utilisation of liberal concepts such as rights and fair distribution are idealist dogmas founded on making appeals to the capitalist state. The distribution of the means of subsistence is an automatic result of the conditions of capitalism as the mode of production. The ACTU does not desire to remove the conditions which comprise the nucleus of ‘unfair’ income distribution, which is the extraction of workers’ surplus labour time in capitalist value production. The ACTU only seeks to reform legal relations and marginally negate capital’s ability to maximise surplus value extraction in the sphere of social production. The labour movement wishes to restructure the capitalist state to establish a Rawlsian, ‘fair’ distribution of certain rights, economic opportunities, and the recuperative promotion of workers’ supposed interests. Demands from labour are deprived of their political, deconstructionist character. Questions of direct, immediate conflict in political struggle are replaced by questions of integrating into institutional structures. These structures are to be reformed to allow worker-citizens to incrementally benefit from the economic growth of the nation-state. The varying rationalisations of capital then depend on a naturalisation of exploitative social relations. Therefore moral standards of what is, or isn’t fair are historically relative concepts internal to specific modes of production, which the cultural superstructure corresponds to. What even is the ACTU’s conception of fairness? Is it a nostalgic return to the Fordist welfare state? A rainbow social democracy with militarised borders? Appeals to ‘workers’ rights’ by the ACTU also leave labour in a reified, subordinated position in relation to social production where labour power is objectified in the commodity-form. ‘Rights’ reconstitute and legitimise the power of the capitalist state to create a more inclusive social contract while decontextualising the potential of our collective power against capital and the state. Workers will still be exploited and alienated in a situation where the relations of production are rationalised and smoothed-over by the state, and ‘workers’ rights’ are formalistically ensured.

So is there no alternative to the technocratic approach of the ACTU? What can we do? We should first probably attempt to craft methods of mobilisation which correspond to our radical ideas and derive techniques from successful, contemporary struggles. A significant contemporary example which should provide inspiration for the Australian context is the 2005 suburban riots, and 2006 worker-student struggles in France against neoliberal restructuring and workplace casualisation. Despite French trade union density hovering around only 8%, the conservative Chirac government was defeated in attempting to implement its proposed labour law liberalisations; workers, university students, high-schoolers, and banlieue kids (youths from public housing estates) executed wildcat strikes, street fights with riot police, university and high school occupations, unsanctioned demonstrations, and vast blockades of roads, train stations and airport runways. Therefore struggle wasn’t just pursued by wage workers within the realm of commodity production, but by the multitude of exploited and oppressed singularities against the ‘social factory’ of capital. The power of the movement in France was often illegally affirmed from outside the institutional structures of the state, and its limits were imposed by the mediatory nature of the trade union officialdom. A pivotal reason the movement faded away, and couldn’t expand further into a political struggle against the foundations of capital was its incapacity to operate autonomously enough to stop hasty class compromises made between trade union bureaucrats and the French government. The May 1968 worker-student revolts in France met a similar fate.

The practical example of the 2005-2006 French protests demonstrates we need to forge organisational autonomy, and break out of the strictures of the programmatic labour movement which naturalises the role of labour under capitalism. Political struggle is not a mathematical equation, or a science where we have to patiently wait for a crisis, or the ‘natural movement of history.’ We must avoid the co-option of our struggles by professionalised trade unions, parties (parliamentary or ‘revolutionary’), and NGOs, and instead engage in autonomous, rhizomal resistance around common affinities. We must prevent the mediation of our social relations by institutional forces supposedly ‘representing’ our interests, and begin to affirm ourselves in direct conflict. It might sound intense, but we tacitly know that the ultimate confrontation with capital will be a violent one, and not one with a trade union bureaucrat anywhere near the helm.