I was asked to write 1500 words with the title “How to Campaign” for our union journal, based on a workshop I gave at our conference.  Ran out of time in the workshop of course, so the below’s based on the bit that I never got to.

Mention the word ‘campaign’ and the image that comes to mind is often one of visible activity and tactics that unions and other groups seeking change often employ.  Rallies, marches, strikes, blockades, sit-ins and pickets, flash mobs, videos, petitions, stunts and street theatre are what end up on the news and are usually the time when the largest number of people directly interact with the campaign.

France leads the way when it comes to eye-catching of tactics  – auto-workers kidnapping their bosses, farmers dismantling a McDonalds or, recently, releasing thousands of sheep onto the streets of Lyon.

These tactics are, however, just the conspicuous tip of the iceberg. What is not seen, and is usually unreported, are the months or years of hard work put into the other elements that make a campaign effective.

We need to campaign and to win, if simply because those with an agenda opposed to ours are doing it, and are gaining ground.  Since the 1970s our conservative opponents have campaigned unrelentingly to privatise public services, abolish free university education, destroy TAFE, enable the hyper-casualisation of our sector, and re-regulate industrial relations so that a greater share of the proceeds of increased productivity goes to profit and less to wages and salaries.

Our opponents don’t resort to rallies or sit-ins as their tactics; rather, they rely on their greater resources and their greater access to decision makers.

But, equating a campaign with its tactics dooms it to failure.  The term “campaign” is often defined as a planned sequence of organised actions to achieve a specific goal, which in turn implies a series of elements – determining what the goal is, working out how to reach it  (identifying who is the target or decision-maker, and who in turn influences them), and assessing each party’s strengths and weaknesses.  Above all, there is organisation, without which there is nothing.

Campaign training run in NTEU NSW takes delegates through nine sequential stages of a campaign plan.  Of these nine, settling on tactics comes seventh.  Whether the tactics actually work depends on the more difficult, time consuming, less exciting, yet more important work of building organisation and developing a strategy.

The very existence of a plausible-sounding plan helps builds organisation. Faced with a challenge that affects a constituency, the hope that a plan just might work provides the circumstances for people to take action.   It’s the job of leaders to articulate the plan in a way that builds organisation by providing ways for others to be involved.  Recognising the importance of strategy, leadership and organisation is not new, but recent campaigns like Fight for $15 in the US have captured attention for their impact.

Two recent books have drawn upon groundbreaking campaigns:  Hahrie Han’s How Organisations Develop Activists, and Becky Bond and Zac Exley’s Rules for Revolutionaries, which examines what they learned working for the Bernie Sanders primary campaign.

Building your structures

Following the recent horrific mass murder in Las Vegas, UCLA Professor of Political Science Hahrie Han wrote an article for the New York Times:Want Gun Control? Learn from the NRA”.   Based on her research of organisations Han argues that the National Rifle Association has “built something that gun-control advocates lack: an organised base of grass-roots power”.

Through the NRA’s local chapters, Han says, the NRA organises by bringing together people with something in common (for example, a need for cheap accident insurance for gun owners) to attract huge numbers to their network.  Once drawn together by common identity, political education follows.   They don’t start with the people who already strongly agree with them – as, says Han, their opponents in the gun control lobby do.

Han is a progressive academic who was recently in Australia as a keynote speaker at the ACTU’s NexGen conference in Sydney. She later spent time working with the largest branch of the largest union in the country, the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, on how they could build their capacity by reinvigorating their branch structures.

Han’s How Organisations Develop Activists is a study of two national organisations in the US. It compares the chapters (branches) that have high engagement with members and those that don’t.   She concluded that the level of engagement was strongly influenced by the type of leadership.

Low engagement chapters were characterised by a lone wolf leadership style, where leaders built power by expertise and information — through advocacy, oversight, contributing to committees, public comments and other forms of consultation.

Other chapters featured mobilisers who built power by being able to call on large numbers of people to contribute, engage in change and take action.

The third style of leadership were organisers who built power by identifying, recruiting and training future leaders in a distributed network; developing a community and protecting its strength.

The most effective groups both organised and mobilised their constituencies.

The model of distributed leadership that Han suggests is most able to produce change is completely suited to confronting the challenges facing higher education workers and the NTEU.

Deploying this power effectively

Han’s model of distributed leadership aligns well with what Becky Bond and Zack Exley call ‘big organising’ in Rules for Revolutionaries, where they document the lessons they drew from the extraordinary Sanders campaign.

What they came to call “big organising” was their answer to a huge problem campaign organisers had.  With the initial hype of the Sanders campaign came thousands of volunteers wanting to help – basically saying: “Don’t you see that if you idiots put us to work effectively, there are enough of us to win this election?” (p28).  With hardly any staff, this question explained why they could “barely sleep in those first couple of months”.

Of their 22 rules, six of the most apt for the NTEU start with rule one: You won’t get a revolution if you don’t ask for one.  The problems confronting tertiary education are big, and they require big solutions – having an incremental claim as your campaign goal won’t be enough to inspire your constituency to act, and yet their active involvement is crucial.

Rule five, get on the phone, captures not just the importance of one-to-one contact, but the time consuming development of trustful relationships.  For the authors, there was little better use of their time than that spent than talking face-to-face or on the phone to supporters because through these conversations they grew and developed local leaders.

Rule six is the work is distributed, the plan is centralised.  Working with local volunteers doesn’t lessen the need for strategic planning at the centre; it heightens it.  With scope for local adaptation, in big organising “leaders operate with a high level of autonomy and creativity while all working toward the same, centrally determined, shared goal” (p2).

What they call “barnstorming” in rule eight were the mass volunteer meetings at which volunteers were briefed and set on their course of action.  It’s what the authors of the Rules came up with as the most efficient way to get volunteers on board a plan to deploy in a local area.  They held “barnstorm” meetings throughout the country where volunteers were tasked with their actions of voter contact.

A typical, well attended branch general meeting in the NTEU might be attended by 10-20 per cent of the members – in reality, the active core, and a great base to deploy in a campaign.  The best of the general meetings I’ve attended over this bargaining campaign easily fit the “barnstorm” mould.

Rule ten may frighten IT professionals: give away your passwords.  Now, what Bond and Exley are talking about includes literal passwords, but the rule is more about giving up some control.  The risk of what might happen by relinquishing control is dwarfed by the risk of lost opportunities and potential activists not being engaged.

Closely related to this rule is rule eleven: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the big.   Volunteers won’t do things exactly as envisaged, and this is fine.  It’s more important that the action happens on a large scale, even if imperfect, than not.

Bernie Sanders did not win the Democratic Primary.  But over 100,000 volunteers made more than 75 million calls to voters. Over 100,000 volunteer-led events were held, and 2,800,000 people donated money.  This put Sanders closer to being chosen to run for President than he was ever predicted to get.

Building organisation and thinking strategically (not tactically)

Can these elements and principles be incorporated into campaigns for free education and secure jobs in our workplaces?  Absolutely – and in the most effective of our campaigns, they already are.  By giving conscious consideration to what works, we can avoid spending time on things that do not help us win, and thus open up resources that can be better focused on what does.

Book details:

Bond, Becky. & Exley, Zack (2016), Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, VT.

Han, Hahrie (2014), How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century, Oxford University Press, New York.

This was first published in the Advocate, journal of the National Tertiary Education Union, Vol. 24 No. 3, November 2017.


Blisset, Ed (2014), Inside the Unions: A Comparative Analysis of Policy-Making in Australian and British Printing and Telecommunications Trade Unions, Bern: Peter Lang431731_cover

Ed Blisset’s comparative study of unions in two industries in Great Britain and Australia, through a tumultuous period in their respective histories, is an excellent contribution to labour history, organisational studies and the union renewal literature.   It gives a comprehensive account to those wishing to gain an understanding of early union responses to the ascent of neoliberalism and the power of the corporate right from the 1970s to the 1990s.  This book, however, should be read by current and aspiring union leaders, as they will recognise the parallels with the strategic choices that changing circumstances present to them in their own industries.

Its approach also makes it unique.  As the title suggests, Inside the Unions promises readers an insight into the internal workings of the case study unions and a perspective which the author is well placed to provide.  Blisset notes the “level of access was highly unusual” (p25).  He achieves this – he says through use of personal contacts, working on relationships, and ultimately persistence – with the result that all key people whom he sought to interview agreed. It also led to frankness and honesty during the interviews.   The interviews with 220 former elected officials and lay-activists (some of whom were interviewed multiple times) are remarkably candid given they relate to fairly recent events.   Unlike most newspaper reportage of internal union politics and decision-making, Inside the Unions has a refreshing absence of naivety or ignorance.

Blisset uses this rich material to prosecute his argument that “informal micro-political influences inside trade unions – such as personal friendships, enmities and loyalties – affect union policy making to a greater extent than is acknowledged in union policy making literature” (p9).   Owing to circumstances, the research paused and was returned to some years later. As a result the project inadvertently took on a longitudinal aspect with Blisset being able to track and compare decision-making in organisations over some 15 years, and even further back via the recollections of interview subjects.

Blisset takes us through the maze of craft and occupational unions prior to the amalgamations of the past four decades.  Readers will be grateful for the five pages of abbreviations to which they will no doubt constantly refer (this is but one example of the meticulous manner in which Blisset documents his research and progresses his arguments).

In the title and introductory discussion Blisset refers to how union “policy” is formed. By this he mainly means strategy and direction.    Each of the case study chapters is similarly structured and looks at decision-making during key disputes, the union’s influence on the labour process, amalgamations, and recruitment.   The location of the case studies within tumultuous times – for example, the British printing industry upon the election of the Thatcher Conservative government – raises a number of “what if” moments, such as in the course of disputes in which tactics are escalated or wound back.

There are many highlights contained in the voluminous case study material including a fascinating account of the Messenger dispute (pp 143-167), the precursor to the later and more widely known News International dispute, and the analysis of both in the context of newly militant employer tactics, hostile courts and a determined conservative government.

The case studies chosen are of particular interest because well recognised factors leading to the decline in union density feature strongly in each of the British and Australian examples.   The story of efforts in the early 1990s to address decline (for example by the appointment of “recruitment officers” [p218]) would be familiar to those involved in unions’ grappling with membership decline before the renewed focus on organising became mainstream.

Interviewees’ reflections on past events are enriched by colourful quotes.   Calling into question the ability of a subordinate official by describing him as being “of less use to me than a one-legged man in an arse kicking contest” (p216) paints a compelling and readable picture.   On this, UK-based readers will appreciate the glossary’s defining such terms as “shit canned”, “Galah” and “cut snake, mad as a”.

Blisset is convincing in his argument that many writers on union strategy (through which he takes readers at length in the third chapter) are overly simplistic in their neglect of “micro-political” factors.   In particular he argues that “the hypothesis that union members are constantly being restrained from acting in a more militant fashion, by conservative full-time officials, is seriously flawed” (p277).  In this and in many other observations, in this reviewer’s experience , by emphasising the importance of “personal relationships, loyalties and enmities”, Blisset actually does provide a satisfactory and rea
listic explanation of the courses taken by unions to meet their challenges; it rings true.

The importance of labour history is best borne out for unionists in the notion that those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. The effectiveness of a union’s leadership is measured by how quickly it can respond to a shifting environment.  Yet, as Blisset’s work reveals, “unions, which have highly complex, multi-layered, democratic structures, have great difficulty in changing policy direction when their industrial or organisational circumstances radically alter” (p337).  Blisset, having chosen a period rich with both mistakes and small triumphs, has produced a work with great value in its explanation of how they came about.

Paul Doughty

This was originally published in Labour History, No. 109, November 2015.

On the release of ABS figures last week showing continuing decline in union membership, one journalist’s reaction was typical of those who covered the story when he tweeted “so what is the ACTU strategy, if there is one, to deal with the collapse in union membership?”.  It was as if it was something unionists just noticed – as opposed to something which has been the all-consuming focus of a generation of union delegates and organisers for the last twenty years.

Banner at Trades Hall, Sydney

Banner at Trades Hall, Sydney

The more important question is: what will happen to people’s way of life without unions?  We don’t work to rebuild union membership for its own sake.  It’s not just that union members earn more, or that they’ve won a long list of conditions for all workers.  It is also well established, for example, that higher union density leads to lower inequality (by studies like this one, this one, this one and this one).  Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s the Spirit Level (2009) links inequality (and by my extension, unionisation) to a whole range of measures of well-being, finding that less unequal societies have better physical and mental health, less drug abuse, better education, fewer people imprisoned, less obesity, better trust and community life, less violence, and better child well-being.  More recently another paper showed a link between unionisation and intergenerational social mobility – children in areas of higher union density grow up to earn more, compared to the same income households in areas of lower unionisation.    (If you regard it as a good thing, another study even showed that rates of marriage are higher where there are more union members.)   This is all because of what we know to be true – organised workers are the greatest force for social good and unions are the most important movement for positive change.

So, about the best thing that can be done to make everyone’s lives better is to have a bigger and stronger union movement.  It’s why unionisation is important – and it’s also why it’s everyone’s responsibility: governments, academics, the media, civil society – and business – in addition to the union movement itself.

Having said that, and in the knowledge that we can’t rely on anyone else– we’re brought back to the question the union movement constantly asks itself in the face of its challenges – what should unions do?

But just before we go there, to take issue again with just asking “what’s the ACTU doing about it?” To do so is to imply that membership decline, occurring across OECD countries, is simply the outcome of whatever strategy the union movement has pursued.   This is, of course, far from true – the primary causes have been well described by labour market experts like Professor David Peetz and others.   Structural changes in the economy (like the decline in employment in unionised sectors and growth in non-union sectors, and casualisation) alone account for around a third of the decline.  Then, as part with what Peetz calls the “institutional break” in union membership in the 1990s coming after the culmination of the rise of corporate right’s influence on policy, we developed a regulatory framework hostile to union organising, which remains today. At some point here we conceded that the rights of free-riders to accept the benefits of union membership without contributing to the cost are more important than the rights of dues-paying union members to expect all their colleagues to meet the obligations they share.  This last thing won’t be fixed anytime soon.

While those two things account for the majority of union decline, there are factors identified by Peetz and others which are within unions’ control – such as the deterioration of workplace organisation and the servicing culture allowed to develop over a period of reliance on tribunals to deliver wage increments and handle workplace disputes.  This left unions ill-equipped at the workplace and with insufficient delegate structures in place to adequately deal with the rapid workplace and legislative change from the 1970s onwards, coupled with the corporate right’s successful long term deunionisation strategy, both as employers and in having governments adopt their programme.

This is why, to answer the question, the following five organising responses in which unions are already engaged to a greater or lesser extent, should give us hope.  They are all different, should not be confused with each other.   But we have to do all of them – and properly, with resources allocated accordingly.

  1. An unwavering focus on workplace organising

Last year was the twentieth anniversary of the commencement of the Organising Works programme in Australia – but of course, organising is something unions have always done.  Throughout the twentieth century, although to varying extents, union delegates and organisers did their mapping, had active trained and skilled delegates, conducted concerted drives to organise non-union workplaces, identified and renewed rank and file leadership, built power at the workplace to deal with issues on the ground and had in place self-sustaining structures for recruitment of new members.

At times of crisis, however, there’s a refocusing on organising, as happened in the 1990s when the Australian union movement was an exciting place to be, when the argument was so persuasively put that unions had to re-learn how to build power in the workplace after the structures that propped up union membership had fallen away.

But has organising across the movement lost some intensity in the last decade?  Since the triumph of the Your Rights at Work campaign there’s been a tendency to conflate organising – wrongly – with campaigning.  They often happen together but campaigning is not always organising, and vice versa.  Some say a drawback of the Your Rights at Work campaign was that recruitment suffered when resources were diverted from workplace organising. But even after the worst bits of WorkChoices were abolished, did that focus ever return to what it was?  Often it did, certainly among the unions which have been most succesful in maintaining or growing their membership.

Unions have to walk and chew gum at the same time, and pursue a range of programmes, but all other initiatives need to support, complement and be integrated with this core organising work – not be an extra “brick in the backpack” for organisers.

But as has been widely observed, the scale of the membership crisis is such that army of workplace organisers just won’t be able to organise the union movement out of it. To both maintain influence, and membership, the same principles that underpin workplace organising need to be applied in other domains.

  1. Union members organising together in the communities they live and work

Australian unions have a tradition of working together in local geographical areas which stretches back to the origins of trades and labour councils and their roots in the eight-hour-day movement and the eight-hour committees which formed from the 1840s and continued until the early 1900s.  It was only out of necessity that this tradition was revisited so successfully in the Your Rights at Work campaign, which, at its best, represented the application of best practices of workplace organising  to local, geographical areas.  In 2005-2007, organisers, delegates and members from different unions who’d worked in the same towns and communities for years or decades for the first time found themselves together in a room. They worked together to defeat WorkChoices by educating the public about the laws through thousands of conversations.  In New South Wales these Your Rights at Work groups morphed into Local Union Community Councils to continue their work bringing together unionists in local areas to campaign for better deal for working people, and Victorian Trades Hall organise union members to work together locally under the banner of We Are Union, like they are across the country to Build a Better Future. These groups are not just for knocking off anti-worker local members of Parliament (although at this they’ve proven to be highly adept) – they are a new lever of influence for working people and have huge potential as an genuine, organised working class voice in a public discourse which is dominated by the influence of the corporate sector and a conservative media acting against their interests.   Their potential as local hubs of union education, activism and recruitment is yet to be realised.

  1. Building power in coalition with others

Just 30 years ago unions had industrial laws that encouraged their activities, industrial power less hampered by the sort of restrictions on the right to strike seen now, and other things that both exercised and signalled influence like a seat on the Reserve Bank board.  Corporate Australia has successfully managed to dismantle all of these sources of influence for working people and are going after any that remain.    It’s why its imperative unions vigorously pursue their work towards building power together on areas of common interest with civil society organisations as union movements overseas have done.   Citizens UK’s work on the Living Wage, and in Australia the Shop Assistants’ Union’s (SDA’s) work in partnership with organisations in the Sydney Alliance preventing a further erosion of their members’ leisure time are examples of potential of coalitions to win on work-related issues.   Increasingly though, the quality of life of union members depends on factors outside their workplace like housing affordability and availability of transport, around which unions readily find common ground with faith and community organisations, who together can exercise a powerful voice.  This coalition building work draws on the community organising approach of Saul Alinsky – exactly the same basis with its emphasis on relationships and leadership development as the core training for union organisers in the Organising Works Programme.   The Sydney Alliance has meant the NSW union movement is probably better connected to faith and community groups with a shared interest now than at any other time, which in turn can assist workplace organising with the support of community groups.  As the Turnbull Government pursues its $63 million Royal Commission objective of mudslinging at unions, there has probably never been a time these relationships are more important.

  1. Industry and supply chain organising and campaigning.

Globalisation has concentrated more power in fewer multinational firms, vertical integrated in their industries, increasing their control over the labour process and the difficulty with which their workers can effectively exercise voice.  As this has happened, unions in the private sector like United Voice and the TWU have been mapping out supply chains, identifying pressure points and identifying where their organising and campaigning efforts are best directed to address the issues of workers who are employed often at the bottom of complex subcontracting arrangements.

It is here where unions are getting more organised across international borders, something necessitated by the rise of multinational firms and their global organisations are more important than ever.   Which in turn raises an issue – more and more where unions need to be powerful is locally, in neighbourhoods and workplaces, and globally to coordinate across countries against global employers, yet, unions campaigning structures can often reflect their state and national structures.  Nevertheless private sector unions are increasingly working to understand the supply chains of the companies that hold the power in their members’ employment to more effectively organise in workplaces.

  1. Opening up new ways for workers to be part of the union movement and have a collective voice at work

These first four draw upon existing traditions of organising from within and beyond the union movement  – but here is the space where genuinely new thinking is needed.

There’s lots of research that says that the number of people willing to join unions as well as public support for unions is significantly larger than the number of workers who actually join. Along with a changing workforce and rapidly changing nature of work, this question of how to convert this potential into actual membership to arrest decline in density and establish a presence in previously non-union areas has given rise to unions in recent years making forays into different forms of membership and ways to join.

We should rightly be suspicious of any new and shiny solution that doesn’t just involve lots of hard work on the part of delegates and skilled organisers, but to adequately confront the scale of the change that is occurring right now, some suggest we need to find a new model of union membership and way for workers to connect with unions in the first place amongst the vast and growing swathes of private sector workplaces with no union presence.

The most well-known of alternative forms of union membership are from the United States, and in a book detailing thirteen such examples, Ruth Milkman concludes that “an alternative union model will be necessary that both attracts and retains workers for the long run”.  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka went further, noting that “all over America, workers are organizing in all kinds of ways, and they call their unity by all kinds of names—workers’ unions, associations, centres, networks – we may not be able to imagine all the new models of worker representation that will emerge in response to our crisis.  Over 100 years ago, the only unions were of skilled craft workers.  No one thought industrial workers could organise”. Similarly Milkman likens the current era to the gilded age of the late 1800s and early 1900s in the US, which produced prosperity for some in society but inequality and hardship for many more and which provided the impetus for what was then a new form of union.

It’s questionable whether the US examples are directly applicable, or necessary, in Australia.  Whether we need a wholly new form of union (as suggested by the SEIU) or just new ways of joining is up for debate, but in developing a suitable model, Victorian union official Godfrey Moase’s contribution with the concept of a continuum of union membership is as good as any place to start.

The first thing would be to address the systems issue to plug the leaks in membership as people move to job to job, in and out of different unions’ areas of coverage, for which the systems across our movement are poorly equipped to handle.  As a start, it’s something on which NSW unions have agreed to work together.

It’s not a new discussion either.  Academics Anil Verma and Thomas Kochan in 2004 described a union movement about to undergo metamorphosis, saying back then:

Part of the evolutionary process by which a metamorphosis occurs involves variation as species try different approaches to adapting to a changed environment. Some of these succeed and survive; others do not. We may be observing this process unfold as 20th century unions seek to adapt to 21st century conditions

Moase likens the union movement to a shark – having to keep moving in order to survive (a factlet of which I wasn’t aware and to save you checking I already did).   Adapting unions to suit the rapidly changing landscape is a huge task but for the most part we know what needs to be done; it’s a matter of doing it quickly, and properly.   The biggest advantage we have now compared to the union movement of 20 or 30 years ago is the unity among unions forged during the attacks on us over that time: the Patricks dispute, the Your Rights at Work campaign, and now on the Hutchison picket lines.  This unity – the absence of sniping and willingness of unions and personalities to work together – is absolutely essential for the high level of discussion and cooperation needed.

We largely know what unions should do.  Whether it’s on the scale required and with the commitment required is the question on which survival of unions – and decent way of life for people in the future – rests.

By any measure it hasn’t been a good week for Uber.

Uber drivers in several U.S. cities organised a strike from Friday to Sunday, calling for a 60 per cent increase in fares and auberstrike minimum fare.

Just as it commenced, it appears Uber’s app crashed, leaving many drivers who tried to clock on to work a shift unable to start (they won’t get any compensation, of course).

This came as an International Labour Organisation meeting in Geneva, made up of Government, employer and worker representatives from the transport industry around the world, on Friday resolved to work towards compliance and a “level-playing field” for Transport Network Companies such as Uber.

And more seriously, in a widely circulated blog a San Francisco writer told of the vile threats made against her by an Uber driver.  She describes a downright frightening incident that is not a rare occurrence.

The strike in U.S. cities was ostensibly led by Abe Husein, a Kansas City Uber driver who runs the Facebook page “Uber Freedom“, with a following of 22,000 – which is second only to Uber itself in popularity of “Uber” pages.  But really it’s a story of lots of local groups and leaders coalescing around one simple tactic, announced on Facebook without much on the ground build up.  The numbers who participated by not logging on that weekend were probably minimal in comparison to the 327,000 Uber drivers across the U.S. Yet, with some support, it could be some of the first steps of what could turn into a proper organising campaign, with, at its disposal, a tactic which could be rather effective against the Uber Goliath.

Uber’s loss-leading practice when moving into a city in the U.S. is firstly to recruit enough drivers by paying commissions to their recruiters.  Once these drivers have been working for a time and have some market share, Uber unilaterally cuts their pay – in different ways, such as by abolishing the cancellation fee for passengers.

Uber’s business model isn’t really all that much to do with their app.  Speaking at the ILO meeting last week, Biju Mathew, the Secretary of the U.S. National Taxi Workers’ Alliance, pointed out that “there’s nothing cutting edge about Uber’s technology – just its employment practices – and its part-time-isation of taxi work.   Uber seems proud that 70 per cent of its drivers drive 20 hours per week or less.”

And then there’s what happens to local taxi operators when Uber moves in. The taxi industry – hardly a bastion of workers’ rights, at least has some semblance of regulation over driver remuneration, safety, training and licensing, although this varies from city to city.

In addition to this – and crucially – there is some control about the number of drivers on the road.  Determining this is important, and amongst drivers, hotly controversial – too few “plates” or “medallions” issued mean a city doesn’t have enough taxis on the road for those that want them.  Too many, and drivers are unable to make enough money to make it worthwhile – leading to a shortage of drivers – particularly amongst the most experienced and capable who’ll go off and do something else.  Either scenario doesn’t work for drivers or people who need to catch cabs, so generally government authorities perform a delicate – and inevitably imperfect – calibration of the number of plates issued to get this right.

In most cities where it operates, Uber upsets this balance.  Anyone with a car can download an app on their smartphone and are sent out into the world. Uber’s home city of San Francisco has 20,000 drivers working for it.

So there’s no limit on the quantity of drivers on the road, and neither is there on their quality – save for ebay-style ratings from passengers.  In most cities, to be able to drive passenger vehicles be they buses or taxis, drivers need a Government issued permit – a “driver authority” provided to those supposedly with good character and having completed some training. Authorities then administer a complaints process, under which ultimately drivers could lose their driver authority and therefore lose their livelihoods.

While taxi drivers are vetted in this way, there is no such check or balance on who gets to drive for Uber. Better to read of sinister episodes from victims in their own words. Uber’s line is that they merely facilitate the connection between passenger and driver.  In that case last Friday, they facilitated the supply of the writer’s address and phone number to her would-be rapist and murderer.  Like in many areas, pay and conditions issues overlap with public safety issues – aside from whether you care about casualisation, if you wouldn’t hitchhike on a highway at night then don’t get an Uber.  In broader terms, there’s a choice for us to make about whether drivers dispatched to pick up passengers should be just anyone, or people who are vetted by some sort of independent process – or more effectively – people who depend on and receive a liveable income from their work and therefore take their job and their profession seriously.

In the New York home of Riju’s Taxi Driver Alliance, Uber drivers now have to buy a medallion just like regular Taxi Drivers.  This resulted from many of the 16,000 members of the Taxi Drivers Alliance taking action and winning. In that city, taxi drivers’ incomes are about 6 per cent less than they were before Uber became established – compared to the 20-40 per cent hit to incomes experienced by taxi drivers in San Francisco.  In the same way that Walmart deals with unions in Germany, companies will adapt to whatever the local landscape – or locally organised workers – force them to.

It doesn’t have to be like this.  The story of the loosely connected groups of Uber drivers talking to each other about their pay and conditions on Facebook or sites like uberpeople.net is just the beginning.   Transport Network Companies certainly are here to stay – but they must change.

To achieve this change, the slow or muddled responses from authorities worldwide  – provoking the resolution at the ILO last week (led by the TWU’s Tony Sheldon as ITF President) – show drivers and users can’t rely on Governments to appropriately respond.  We can’t rely on Uber customers who just want to use the cheapest service.  And least of all can you rely on a $US50 billion company to do anything that might chip into its profits out of any sense of obligation to their workers.   Change will only come from Uber drivers – and taxi drivers – organising in numbers so they can engage with their employers and industry in a meaningful way on the future of their work.

Pic: Uber drivers in Dallas Texas via @Rachel_Gal on Twitter.

There’s a lot to be angry about at the moment with the big business lobby getting traction on their agenda. In this context it was particularly galling to receive an email from GetUp throwing its support behind the discredited, partisan, and ultimately unconstitutional model of party funding that was introduced by the O’Farrell led NSW Government in early 2012 and subsequently thrown out by the High Court late last year.

This discredited model of individual-only donations would ensure that the Liberal, National and Labor parties would come even further under the influence of the wealthiest in the country.

Banning corporate and union donations would make the donations playing field across the major parties even more uneven – firstly by removing the funds pooled by union members (about $2 each per year, from the one third of unions that are affiliated to the ALP), while leaving in place a huge disparity between the parties in potential income from individual donations.

Just as importantly it would remove transparency – the biggest means there is to limit corruption and undue influence in government decision making and the aim of any set of donations and expenditure laws

What better way to conceal donations than the model the NSW Government attempted to introduce where rich- but unknown – individuals could donate $5000 per year to each of their preferred political parties.

GetUp should not campaign to allow big business to funnel their millions through the largesse of those on their highly paid gravy train.

There’s a reason why the NSW Liberal-Nationals’ 2012 package of reforms, along with its other odious aspects, was described by Melbourne Uni Law academic Assoc. Prof Joo Cheong Tham and author of Money and Politics at a forum in 2012 as the “most partisan set of laws introduced in this area in memory”.


The Lamp, May 2014, p23

At least straight-out corporate donations are clear in their source and purpose.   This chart (thanks to NSW Nurses and Midwives Association; The Lamp, May 2014, p23) shows how donations from Ramsay Healthcare are a big part of the reason Mike Baird and Tony Abbott like privatised hospitals and hate Medicare:

Similarly people generally understand that there’s a connection between the ALP and unions, that the Labor Party was formed by unions, and that it’s funded by both the individuals and the organisations that it has as members.

Now that the Liberal Party is at the lowest ebb of their credibility on the issue of donations, it’s disappointing that GetUp is supporting arrangements that would better suit the big end of town.

In Canada where political donations have been restricted to individuals since 2006, somewhere between a mere 0.6 and 0.8 per cent of individuals participate in this way[i].  Current Prime Minister Stephen Harper has since abolished “per-vote” public funding to political parties, leaving in place the huge tax deductions and rebates for the individual donors.  This means this 0.6-0.8 per cent of Canadians will effectively determine how 100% of the public funding of political parties is allocated.  It’s been argued this will change politics in Canada, precisely what the system’s Conservative architects aimed to do and is exactly the “step 2” that will be taken in Australia if we move to a system of public funding and individual donations.

The current caps on expenditure and on amounts of donations, combined with disclosure requirements, have gone some way to making sure Australia hasn’t gone too far down the path towards the multi-billion dollar election campaigns of the United States.  But disclosure requirements must go much further especially in the federal sphere – and this is where everyone concerned about honest politics should focus their energies and attention.

Bernard Keane wrote in Crikey yesterday that “the Liberals virulently loath transparency for political donations and peddle the line, for which no evidence has ever been produced, that small business donors to the Liberal Party are the target of intimidation”.  That much is true, but what they’re actually worried about are those donors, once identified through disclosure, being approached by other political parties to donate to them, too.

If businesses, or unions or any other organisations are partisan in their donations it is unreasonable and undesirable for them to expect their donations to remain secret.  Participation in politics is a public act; donations are one means amongst many; others might involve putting on a t-shirt and knocking on doors.  But just because you volunteer your money rather than time shouldn’t give you any right to conceal this.

After full transparency on donations (a lower disclosure threshold and removal of ability to channel donations through separate funds to make them secret), and caps on both spending (demand) and donations (supply), then, an active functioning democracy is the best thing for working out the rest.

Active, engaged communities do have a voice in our electoral system.   The truth is on your own you can’t do anything to influence government decisions.  There is only organised money and organised people.   Our side will never have more money but we’ve got lots more people.   And if we all do our job properly it will work out okay in the end.



[i] Elections Canada – Political Financing Reports and database: http://elections.ca/content.aspx?section=fin&lang=e, cited in Wikipedia (2011), “Federal Political Financing in Canada”, viewed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_political_financing_in_Canada on 15 December , 2011.

Shae McCrystal, The Right to Strike in Australia, Federation Press, Sydney, 2010. pp.346. $85.00 paper. ISBN: 978186287793

In the absence of evidence supporting the existence of an outbreak of industrial action, the federal Opposition are currently going to considerable lengths to raise the spectre of an alleged ‘militancy problem’ in the Australian workplace.  In doing so they seek to prepare the ground for attacks on the right to organise and take action if, as widely anticipated, they form a Coalition Government in 2013.   It is therefore timely to step back and assess the regulatory restrictions placed on Australian unions seeking to undertake industrial action, and locate these restraints in both a historic and an international context. In this context, Dr Shae McCrystal’s The Right to Strike in Australia is an excellent contribution to current debates and provides a thorough and robust analysis of the law pertaining to industrial action throughout Australia in relation to our international obligations.

The history of labour is one of struggle and industrial action, so although part of a series on Australian Labour Law, McCrystal’s work sits comfortably alongside studies of labour history. After noting that strike action is ‘nearly always controversial’, the author proceeds with a measured and calmly analytical exploration of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO’s) current consideration of the right to strike and the circumstances in which it exists, followed by an assessment of the compliance of Australian governments with it at various points in its industrial history.

Having been adapted from a doctoral thesis, this book does not make for light reading, and by the end of the first chapter acronym-fatigue began to set in for this reviewer.  The meticulous attention to detail does, however, confer a watertight quality on the work; when, at any moment the reader may think ‘but what about…’, seemingly the author then addresses the question brought to mind.

The book firstly establishes in a comprehensive way the various ILO committees and mechanisms and what the ILO considers constitutes the right to strike.   It then weaves its way thematically through the development of the approach of the Australian legal system to the right to strike, from the conciliation and arbitration systems in each state and territory to the emergence of a recognised  right to strike through the concept of protected industrial action.  Discussion of sanctions and the use of the common law is followed by analysis of the right to strike as applied to different classes of workers such as construction workers and independent contractors.  This will be of particular interest to unions, workers and employers in those sectors.   Where relevant in each of these areas it examines each of the state jurisdictions. Along with description of the various statutes, themes are illustrated with examples from the relevant case law.

Much of the book’s focus is on the tension in Australian law between the right to strike and the system of conciliation and arbitration.   This friction reached some resolution – albeit falling well short of compliance with international obligations – with the formal recognition of a right to strike in 1993.   McCrystal describes the stark ‘reduction of the right to strike to its irreducible minimum’ (p 141) that has occurred since then both as a result of legislative changes by the Coalition and the maintenance of these provisions in the Fair Work Act.

That the undermining of the right to strike has coincided with the undermining of powers of industrial tribunals gives McCrystal’s work even more currency.   In New South Wales, for example, the current conservative state Government has legislated to require the Industrial Relations Commission to follow Government policy, thereby undermining the Commission’s independence.  With neither a right to strike nor access to an independent tribunal, workers in the NSW system at the time of writing now face the prospect of legislation currently before the NSW Parliament that would lead to an eleven-fold increase in fines for industrial action.

With employers and both national daily newspapers conducting a concerted campaign to make industrial action provisions under the Fair Work Act even more restrictive, the very existence of a right to strike is very much contested terrain.  While McCrystal’s position on this is evident, she mainly confines herself to describing what the international obligations are and methodically assessing Australian provisions against them.  She allows the facts to speak for themselves. While it is up to others to make the argument for a right to strike, the severe curtailment of this right – as so ably demonstrated in McCrystal’s exceptional piece of work – serves as a rejoinder to those who would see this human right further diminished.

This appeared in Labour History, 103, November 2012.

“So, what are you going to do after the election, Joe?” called out a heckler.

“Oh, you’re confident are you?” replied the then Minister for Workplace Relations Joe Hockey. “I think I’ll still be a minister in the Government” he said.

The Northern Rivers Unionist Network was holding its “people’s picnic” outside the “bosses banquet” as Hockey visited Lismore in August 2007, attending a business lunch as a guest of the ultimately unsuccessful Nationals candidate for the Northern Rivers NSW seat of Page, Chris Gulaptis.

Hockey wasn’t alone in his doubting that the traditionally conservative, largely rural seat would fall to Labor.   Included by some as being amongst the 16 government seats that needed to change hands, commentator and “quasi-local” Mungo McCallum “couldn’t see it: if [Labor] were depending on Page they were in deep trouble” (2007: 94).

The ACTU’s national advertising campaign against WorkChoices had touched a chord with the community, tapping into already held concerns about job and income security.   The task of making these messages more real for people in their communities was up to local Your Rights at Work (YRAW) groups, 46 of which had formed in NSW.   These included six in the seat of Page, each with a local volunteer as convenor or chair: in Lismore, Grafton, Ballina, Kyogle, the Lower Clarence and Casino.  During 2007 these groups staffed 37 stalls at local markets, agricultural shows and events, which, along with many more spontaneous street stalls, collected over 8000 signatures on the petition demanding Kevin Rudd abolish WorkChoices.   The YRAW committees letterboxed 67,000 leaflets and doorknocked 3,700 homes. These and numerous other stunts, workplace meetings and protests were organised over the course of 53 evening meetings of the groups held in bowling clubs and pubs in the 12 months prior to the election.   And on election day, 237 volunteers handed out YRAW how to votes at 70 of the 78 polling booths in Page.

The eventual swing against the Nationals in Page was 7.83 per cent – 2.39 per cent larger than the overall swing against the Howard government, and larger than the 5.5 per cent swing required to elect Labor candidate Janelle Saffin to represent Page. Just before the election, Andrew West wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that if “Saffin rides to victory next Saturday, it will be on the back of a campaign by the grassroots Your Rights at Work group” (2007).

An analysis of the results in the 25 seats targeted by the ACTU with full time campaign coordinators compared with the national swing attributed an additional swing of 1.3 – 2% as being the independent effect of the YRAW marginal seat campaigns (Spies-Butcher and Wilson, 2008).

Whatever the contribution of the local rights at work campaign, any impact it did have were a result of the way the groups autonomously organised activities that generated conversations among locals about WorkChoices.  Each raffle ticket sold “to help the campaign against Howard’s IR laws”, each person asked to sign the petition, every person who helped out having never before done anything “political” generated a conversation, and these conversations helped solidify people’s views that these extreme laws and the Government that introduced them had to go.

A clear, easily articulated message of why the laws went too far was important as were the stories and anecdotes that illustrated how people were being affected.

In small towns with high unemployment, speaking publicly about employment conditions can have a real and lasting impact on future employment prospects, and this genuine fear mitigated against regions like Page producing the sort of high profile case studies that found their way into our living rooms via the ACTU TV commercials.  For the same reasons however, the stories circulating the electorate about people being poorly treated at work were even more powerful.

Without them realising, some of the best campaigners for Rights at Work in the region were the minority of exploitative employers whose poor treatment of staff was now being attributed, at least in part, to the unfair WorkChoices laws, and by association, the Howard government.  While many affected were understandably publicity shy, during 2007 there were numerous word of mouth, local stories that circulated the electorate.

Early in 2007 a senior lifeguard from Ballina, on being asked by a local newspaper what measures could be taken to improve safety after a spate of drownings on NorthCoast beaches, suggested that local councils might employ more full time lifeguards.  For this he was sacked after 18 years service, having won awards for services to surf lifesaving.

Attendants at a Grafton service station were being paid $8.45 an hour to work on their own for an 8 hour shift between midnight and dawn any day of the week, while elsewhere blueberry pickers were being paid in blueberries, and workers at a local grocery chain were being told to sign their AWA that cut their pay, or resign.

A young woman was unfairly sacked from Harvey Norman in Lismore, and had no means of appealing her unfair dismissal.   Despite it being a huge national retailer, her branch had fewer than 100 employees.  And a 17 year-old apprentice chef was sacked from one of the big registered clubs in Tweed Heads while she was lying in hospital in an induced coma – her parents were informed of this by the manager when they advised him that their daughter couldn’t come in for a few days.

In Ballina an employee of a removals company was forced to sign a one page contract which purported to remove all rights, even that to be insured for workers compensation, other than a $19 flat hourly rate.   The manager of an aged care organisation near Alstonville who had raised questions about its takeover by a larger mainstream provider received a letter in which the operative sentence concluded: “you are dismissed under the Federal Government’s WorkChoices legislation”.

A young woman was sacked from a big hotel in Ballina a week after it had opened for not being unable to come in to work for one day due to unexpected child care commitments, “just like in the ad”, her father said.

A father of six left the awnings manufacturer where he worked after the AWA he was forced to sign cut take home pay by $150 per week, while a Lismore plumbing business called each of its 35 workers in one by one to sign their AWAs. And soon after the introduction of WorkChoices every security company in the Lismore area got together and drafted a common AWA which reduced take home pay by a third, and onto which each company put all of their patrol guards.

Regardless of whether the employer had actually explicitly used the news laws to remove conditions or sack staff, the examples showed people that the new laws made their jobs and incomes less secure, consistent with a survey reported by the Sunday Telegraph in December 2006 in which 41 per cent of respondents reported having been affected by the laws, either directly themselves or through someone they know (Silmalis, 2006).   A visible campaign, steady activity and the conversations this generated kept these stories and the WorkChoices issue at the forefront of voters’ minds as they approached the November election.  As for how this was maintained by the local groups, there were factors in common which determined success.   And these are no different from what we know about growing union membership and activism in workplaces in everyday union work.

When the Grafton committee wanted to respond to the constant negative portrayal of unionists in Liberal and Nationals advertising and statements, they organised for 110 local unionists in YRAW gear to march together as a float in the Jacaranda Festival parade carrying signs which included “I’m a local nurse”; I’m a timber worker”; “I’m a teacher and a dad”; “Local and Union”. Activists organised an assembly point, painted signs for the participants, a barbeque celebration afterwards, and most importantly, personal contact between activists on the committee and their unions with colleagues, neighbours and friends to get the numbers there on the day.   The high spirits of local workers and families who marched in the float and warm reception (with a dose of bemusement) from the locals gathered when they witnessed over 100 smiling and waving unionists walking through the National Party stronghold of Grafton at its biggest community event of the year provided some hope a fortnight before the election.

Not everything worked.   For any particular event, if one person found that they were doing all the work it meant there wasn’t ownership by the group and the activity was almost certain to fail as a tactic.   Similarly, if there wasn’t a strategy to contact people one-on-one about an activity and we relied on an email, poster and/or flyer, then no-one would turn up.   To some extent, the way committees were established influenced their later effectiveness.   Among the groups in NSW, some committees which had formal structures and affiliates and whose meetings followed a rigid agenda of officer’s reports often produced less action and involvement.   Activity was strongest in towns where more informal groups had formed to which anyone wanting to help could turn up, and where the chairs of meetings facilitated discussion on what had happened since the last meeting, new ideas what needed to be done next and assigning these specific tasks.   These committees maintained their dynamism and activity.  In Page, many wonderful volunteer activists (too numerous to mention), having become involved in these committees, spent countless hours organising and carrying out the highly effective campaign work of their YRAW group.

The success of the grass roots YRAW campaign during 2007 in seats like Page was a unique achievement for the many thousands of local unions members, retirees and community members who took part, but one which hopefully will be ongoing as the groups continue to meet and organise campaign activities around ongoing issues.  Well into 2008 many activists who were involved are aware that the campaign for rights at work is far from over.   The continuing challenge for YRAW groups, unions and local communities is to build on this unique mobilisation of people, most of whom had never before been politically active, to influence the agenda into the future, both inside and outside the context of a election campaign.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2008 edition of the Advocate, the journal of the National Tertiary Education Union, and the Hummer, publication of the Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History.


McCallum, M. (2007), Poll Dancing, Black Inc, Melbourne

Silmalis, L. (2006), “IR Reforms Backlash”, Sunday Telegraph, 31 December.

Spies-Butcher, B. and Wilson, S. (2008), “Election 2007: Did the Union Campaign Succeed?”, Australian Review of Public Affairs, February [online], accessed at www.australianreview.net/digest/2008/02/spies-butcher_wilson.html on 19/2/08.

West, A. (2007), “People’s Front is in Full Swing”, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November.