Monday, October 11, 2021

Italy: Joint union call for anti-fascist demonstration in Rome

“No more fascisms” Landini, Sbarra and Bombardieri,
16 October demonstration in Rome
October 10 protest by CGIL members in response to the fascist attack, source: CGIL 


Statement by Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), Italian Confederation of Workers' Trade Unions (CISL), and Italian Labour Union (UIL)
Posted on 09/10/2021

"The CGIL, CISL and UIL will organize a major national anti-fascist demonstration for work and democracy on Saturday 16 October in Rome". This was stated by the general secretaries of the three trade union confederations, Maurizio Landini, Luigi Sbarra and PierPaolo Bombardieri.

“The squadron assault on the national headquarters of the CGIL” said the three union leaders – “is an attack on all Italian union confederations, on the world of work and on our democracy. We ask that the neo-fascist and neo-Nazi organizations be put in a position to do no harm by legally dissolving them”.

“It is time” concluded Landini, Sbarra and Bombardieri, “to affirm and implement the principles and values of our Constitution. We, therefore, invite all citizens and the healthy and democratic forces of the country to mobilize and take to the streets next Saturday ”.

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Wednesday, October 6, 2021

How do we build support for COVID vaccinations?

Lisbeth Latham

As the drive to raise vaccination rates increases and concerns regarding the ability of many industries which have either been shut down or pushed remotely to be able to safely return to the workplaces, there has been increased discussion of whether and how vaccination should be made compulsory. While the events in late September on Melbourne construction sites and outside the offices of the Construction and General Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime, and Energy Union, has been the most visible articulation of this debate it has not and will not end there. As both governments and individual employers have moved to make vaccines mandatory. In my view, much of this discussion misses the point. At best it distracts from the broader discussions that need to be had about how, in the context of COVID, we can ensure that workplaces are safe for workers and the broader public. At worst the discussion gives succour and ammunition to the bad faith and anti-working class actor in the anti-lockdown/anti-vaccination camp.

What are Vaccine mandates?
Vaccine mandates are legal requirements for people to be vaccinated to do specific activities. They should be based on medical evidence to support the requirement for vaccination to make a space safe. However, any legal requirement to be vaccinated needs to contemplate the need and make exemptions for individuals who are medically unable to be vaccinated - this accommodation does not need to mean the individual will perform the same duties, indeed there may well be a need to adjust their duties to protect them from the risk of exposure. Such medical mandates are not new, they already exist in a number of work contexts where exposure to or potential risk of transmission of specific communicable diseases are considered high.

In response to both hypothetical and concrete discussions regarding the introduction of workplace mandates, there has been a growing argument that such mandates are “heavy-handed” and remove choice from working people. The majority of these statements have come from organisations and individuals who ostensibly support and promote vaccination - although some, such as the LNP aligned “Red Unions”, which are clearly bad faith actors, and are openly hostile to vaccination and seeking to build themselves on the most likely false promise of defeating mandatory vaccination. I have concerns about direct objections to mandates, particularly on the basis of “choice”.

First, by focusing on an objection to mandates, individuals and organisations get distracted from their ostensive objective, which is supposedly maximising the number of people who are vaccinated. In doing so they tend to inadvertently lend their arguments to those opposed to vaccinations, for whatever reason they may oppose it. It is vital that those who recognise the need for mass vaccinations to promote workplace and public safety, not get distracted from supporting and facilitating people being vaccinated.

Secondly, the use of language regarding “choice” is a misnomer. Mandates don’t remove choice, they do however change the potential consequences of that choice. It means that in those parts of life, where medical advice is that vaccines are necessary, the individual in choosing not to be vaccinated is choosing not to be able to be in that space. This is no different to if individuals refuse to wear personal, protection, equipment, that choice means they cannot perform certain work. While there are differences between a vaccine and PPE, there are two things to note. The first is that many of those who defend their right to refuse vaccination, also demand the right to refuse to wear masks or follow other health advice with regard to minimising COVID transmission. The second is that refusal to follow safety requirements does not simply have potential personal impacts, it can put others at risk, this is particularly the case with COVID where there is the strong risk of not only further transmission but also the strain that transmissions have on the health care system and the ability for that system to provide other care to the community.

Thirdly, in focussing on vaccine mandates, we risk allowing employers and governments to avoid the equally important discussion about what other OHS measures need to be put in place to ensure that employers meet their obligations to provide safe workplaces. To counter this, workers and their unions need to be demanding consultation by employers not just about vaccinations, but other elimination and mitigation steps that are necessary in the workplace - these measures should not be just about direct risks of the virus, but also processes for ensuring that if there are requirements for members of the public to be vaccinated in order to interact with the workplace that the mechanisms for ensuring this is safe for workers.

Finally, many of the anti-vaccination forces are deeply cynical and willing to coopt and misrepresent arguments in order to buttress and built their position. The most obvious example of this is the cooption of the language of the reproductive rights movement as slogans of the movement. As such, it is important that we take every measure possible to ensure that any argument that we make cannot be used to argue against our objective, the vaccination of the maximum number of people possible in order to maximise public safety and health.

Instead of raising concerns regarding the potential of compulsion with regard to accessing vaccines what the movement needs to be focusing on is how we help to build public support for getting vaccinated. This is not new. Unions have a long history of build public support for health and safety campaigns - to normalise and make natural the steps necessary to keep people safe. This should be our focus. How do we, as a movement, expand the support for and the understanding of the need to be vaccinated and to continue to follow all public health measures to help reduce the transmission of COVID. In doing so we will not only make mandates irrelevant, but we will strengthen our ability to enforce safe workplaces that put health and safety before profits, and also constrain and limit the space that reactionary forces have to use the anxiety around COVID to build a movement against the interests of working people.

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Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Capitalist oligarchy resist new tax regulations in Argentina

Federal Administration of Public Revenue building. Buenos Aires source Wikimedia Commons

Lisbeth Latham

The publishing of the Panama Papers in 2016 and in the last week the Pandora Papers have highlighted the systematic tax avoidance by multinational companies and rich individuals. In response, there has been a growing attention on the need for nations to close loopholes in their tax codes. This is due to the decline in tax revenue meaning that only is there less money available for social services, but being used as a justification for even more drastic reductions in government spending particularly those associated with social programs. While some of this focus has been at the level of multilateral cooperation, at the same time individual governments have considerable power to close loopholes in their own tax codes loopholes which enable global tax avoidance. Since 2020, the Alberto Fernández government in Argentina has introduced a range of new tax codes which have met with vigorous opposition from capital and their representatives within Argentina’s right.

The problem of global tax avoidance
According to the State of Tax Justice 2020 report, the global loss of tax revenue globally due to tax avoidance by multinationals and rich individuals is $427 billion (USD). Of this lost revenue, $245 billion is a consequence of multinational companies shifting profits to subsidiaries in low tax havens to underreport their profits in the countries they are actually carrying out their business in. A further $182 billion in potential global tax revenue is lost as a consequence of wealthy individuals hiding undeclared assets and incomes offshore.

Much of the avoidance by multinational is aimed taking advantage of bilateral agreements to avoid “double taxation”, where governments have entered into agreements to avoid a single income stream being taxed twice - however with minimization arrangements the rich deliberately and artificially shift the income so that it appears it to have generated in the lower tax jurisdiction rather than where the actual work and income generation occurred.

While the reduction in tax revenue is unsurprisingly greatest in high-income nations $382.7 billion (2.5% of collected tax revenue), the actual impact on revenue on low-income nations is far higher $45 billion (5.8% of collected tax revenue). This disproportionate impact makes it essential that action in addressing tax minimization and avoidance is taken globally. In Latin America, according to the Tax Transparency in Latin America Report, lost revenue due to tax non-compliance was estimated at 6.1% of GDP in 2018.

Latin America also has a disproportionate level of wealth held offshore with an estimate of EUR 900 billion or 27% held offshore, compared to Asia (4%), Europe (11%) and the United States (4%).

Initial efforts at closing loopholes have occurred primarily in the global north, most particularly the EU and North America, however, there have also been important steps taken in countries of the global south, most notably South Africa and Argentina.

Argentina’s tax code changes
Argentina has had a transfer pricing system, which sets the methods and rules for pricing transactions between and within enterprises with the same ownership or control, within its tax code since 1998. Tax regulation was further updated in 2017 by the Mauricio Macri government, this was updated following the recommendations by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and the G20 action plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting in response to the Panama Papers, however, these changes did not fully comply with the recommendations and the code was not seen as being sufficient to address the problem of tax minimization and reduction by either multinationals or rich individuals.

In 2020, the Argentine government, via the Federal Administration of Public Revenue (AFIP) brought in a range of new tax regulations aimed at both closing tax loopholes and creating greater transparency regarding the incomes of companies and individuals, particularly where international parties are involved. The most significant changes being contained within General Resolutions 4697, 4838, and 4879.

General Resolution 4697 creates a requirement for companies and individuals, other than trusts or foundations, to disclose ownership structures and income (including passive income) to AFIP. In addition, the resolution requires those companies and individuals encompassed by the code to disclose and report their tax arrangements.

General Resolution 4838 requires the disclosure of domestic and international tax plans of both individuals and corporations. This obligation is placed on both the “taxpayer” and “tax advisors”. The resolution includes the requirement to disclose information on assets and tax systems of an entity operating in a tax haven or other jurisdiction that would otherwise limit disclosure.

General Resolution 4879 requires the disclosure of ultimate beneficial ownership interests within trusts (which normally obscure precise ownership relationships).

Response of the ultra-rich
The changes to Argentina tax regulations have met with opposition and criticism from both accountants and sections of capital. Accountants, such as César Litvin, have raised concerns that the new regulations undermine their professional privacy as they are required to disclose their clients' tax systems which may or not be being used to minimize tax obligations within Argentina, describing the requirement to disclose client’s savings systems as a “violence” against professional confidentiality. The system does allow tax agents to claim professional confidentiality in reporting, however, the tax agents have complained that doing so will create the impression that the client has something to hide regarding their tax plans. While sections of capital have also that the minimum threshold for reporting is at the discretion of the AFIP and that disclosure of the information is required not just to AFIP but to other parties.

This has given rise to a number of legal challenges to the constitutionality of the resolutions, by accountants and tax lawyers, primarily on the basis that they argue that such changes to tax rules and reporting requirements should have required legislative changes rather than by a directive from the AFIP. However, these challenges which initially had some success in administrative courts have been rejected in a series of hearings since January.

Need for solidarity with Argentina and action by other states
While it is important that jurisdictions such as Argentina and South Africa take action to limit tax avoidance, and their efforts should be supported and applauded, it is also important to recognize that actions taken by individual state actors, particularly those with relatively smaller economies will not only be insufficient to challenge the problem of global avoidance, but it is also likely to result in significant divestment in these jurisdictions outside of investment in extractive industries. This is because capital, if given the opportunity, will seek to punish jurisdictions that tax them by investing and focusing investment on jurisdictions that are more “business-friendly”, with the exception of those industries where there are fewer options regarding the location of investment, as part of the global race to the bottom in terms of taxation as in other industries. For this reason, it is essential that other jurisdictions, particularly those in the global north not only seek to place serious limits on tax avoidance in their own jurisdictions but support efforts by the global south to extract taxes from multinational companies. An important phase in expanding this response will be the next round of the Punta del Este Declaration on Transparency, a Latin American multilateral initiative aimed at increased international tax cooperation, which Argentina is chairing in 2021, its next reporting meeting is in November.

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Monday, September 20, 2021

The sobering reality of opening up


Lisbeth Latham

In recent weeks, political and media commentary about the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia has focused on the question of when, in the context of growing vaccination rates, the country should consider ‘opening up’ (in this context a permanent and total break from lockdowns).

This discussion conveniently ignores the reality that the situation in Australia -particularly in NSW and Victoria - is increasingly out of control and, consequently, neglects the more urgent questions of what should be done now. Despite the situation in NSW, the state government is pushing ahead with its plans to lift restrictions for the vaccinated leaving many of the poorest and most culturally and linguistically diverse local government areas in lockdown[1].

Are Lockdowns sustainable?
This is not a simple question. Nonetheless, it is the case that there is a limit to how long the current lockdowns can be sustained. This is due to the insufficient support being provided to those in the most economically precarious circumstances. This lack of support, which has only worsened as the pandemic has progressed, only serves to punish workers whose work has enabled communities to lockdown in the first place. If this was addressed, the capacity to maintain lockdowns would be expanded, yet at a certain point key sectors of the economy - those necessary for sustaining lives - would also be disrupted. Luckily, no one has ever suggested permanent lockdowns. Instead, governments have advocated for lockdowns of sufficient length to suppress the virus to levels that enable us to protect lives and health.

Mental Health
A major argument against lockdowns has been that they contribute to community mental health concerns. There is no doubt that lockdowns are tough; loneliness and isolation are significant predictors of mental health problems and lockdowns are often very lonely experiences. In addition to these commonly shared impacts, many people are experiencing additional stressors. These include the constant threat of infection; concerns around income loss and the cost of living; relationship stress arising from home confinement; and supporting and caring for children with little to no understanding of the restrictions’ purpose or necessity

However, much of the media discourse around mental health feels disingenuous, many commentators seem to believe that lockdown is the only cause of the current strain on the mental health system and that it’s lifting the only solution. Such commentators conveniently ignore the range of support mechanisms that could be further deployed to support community mental health. Furthermore, their constant depictions of lockdowns as wrong and corrosive are demoralising and may negatively impact people’s ability to cope and persevere. Lifting the lockdowns in the context of widespread community transmission is a recipe for mass infections and large scale death - both of which would devastate communities, particularly when the people dying are your loved ones. Too often media discourse around the psychological impact of lockdowns is nothing more than a cynical exercise aimed at building pressure for opening up, with little or no consideration for people’s actual mental health.

Debate in epidemiology
From the beginning of the pandemic, there have been notable discrepancies in the advice being given by epidemiologists regarding the preventative measures that should be applied to minimise the spread of COVID-19. To an extent, these differences should come as no surprise; COVID is a novel virus and it took time for the mechanisms via which it spreads to be fully understood. Furthermore, with professional reputations at stake, it is unsurprising that many experts have doubled down on their own position or attacked the conflicting opinions of their colleagues. The additional seduction of building a media profile by publicly endorsing or criticising government position(s) has not helped matters either. Nonetheless, a much bigger debate has unfolded within epidemiology throughout the crisis. This debate centres on how and when to make judgements about the adoption of various preventative public health mechanisms. On the one hand, epidemiologists from the “medical-based evidence” camp have resisted adopting measures without conclusive evidence that supports their value or efficacy. These experts argue that the potential cost of such mechanisms far outweigh any benefits - benefits which they say are at best unproven and at worst, nonexistent. On the other hand, were the epidemiologists who argued that, in the context of a major global public health crisis, it was neither possible nor prudent to simply wait for the evidence to come in. For these epidemiologists, adopting measures such as masks and social distancing was essential because their potential to curb infection risk far outweighed any potential costs, most of which were financial. This debate has occurred publicly, most noticeably in the Boston Review, but also in the exponential increase of opinion pieces and media interviews with epidemiologists regarding not only what actions work, but also what level of effectiveness is worth the social and economic cost. Early in the Pandemic, in response to statements by Bill Gates that “COVID was a once in a lifetime pandemic”, Stanford University epidemiologist John Ioannidis wondered if the coronavirus pandemic might rather be a “once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.”

I’m not in a position to judge the scientific merits of the modelling, but it is important to recognise that these judgements are not purely objective, but informed by subjective judgements regarding how we ought to weigh threats to life against the economic impacts of policy options. I personally stand by the idea that preserving human life and health is where we need to place our priorities - not only because saving lives is the whole point, but also because of the harmful impacts mass illness and death have on people’s livelihoods and the economy at large. Those who prioritise the economy at the expense of human life are not only lacking in empathy but have an unaccounted for, built-in error in their calculations.

Vaccinations: are they a magic bullet?
Since the emergence of viable vaccinations for COVID - public discourse has shifted towards the idea that the way to deal with the virus is to focus on mass vaccinations and that a vaccinated population would effectively eliminate the need for lockdowns. This argument has a number of flaws. First, reaching mass vaccination has been slow. This is understandable, since achieving mass production of vaccines takes time. In particular, the mNRA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna are essentially new technologies, meaning that whole new production and supply chains have had to be created from scratch.

Related shortages in production have contributed to and exacerbated the uneven distribution of vaccines globally. This is not just devastating for those populations left unvaccinated and who are left more vulnerable to infection and death; the mass transition also creates much better conditions for the mutation of the virus and is associated with the development of new strains, some of which may be more infectious, more deadly and/or more resistant to available vaccines. For this reason, it is essential that overcoming global inequalities in vaccine distribution becomes a priority for all rich countries, including Australia - not just as an act of solidarity (though this should be the primary driver) but also as an act of self-preservation.

In addition to the problem of vaccine inequality and the associated risk of new and increasingly deadly strains, much of the discourse around vaccination has overstated the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing infection, illness, and transmission between and among populations. While the effectiveness of vaccines is uneven, no vaccine for any illness delivers these outcomes. This disjuncture between promise and reality has thus lent undue credence to bad-faith actors, expanding and legitimising opposition to vaccinations and lockdown. Opponents, therefore, argue (or at the very least imply) that inaction is preferred to measures that cannot guarantee a 100 per cent success rate.

Still, the reality that mass vaccinations will not eliminate the virus has done little to impede the proliferation of media commentary linking mass vaccination to “opening up”. Instead, it has led to a growth in public discourse about the need to “live with the virus”. Such discourse initially relied on technically true statements that the vaccine would make it less likely for the vaccinated to get infected, to become seriously ill, and to die or infect others. Yet as concerning levels of infections continue to be recorded in countries with much higher vaccination rates, the rhetoric from a section of capital, political parties/leadership and the media have attempted to normalise infections and COVID-related deaths, arguing that these are acceptable price pay for ending “unsustainable lockdowns”. This push has, in many cases, been heavily reliant on modelling by researchers at the Doherty Institute whose research has informed the National Plan to transition Australia’s Covid response. What is clear is that this modelling is inadequate, but also that even the most optimistic projections include much higher levels of infection and death than Australia's previous strategy ever contemplated. Moreover, it is also clear that many of the assumptions which underlie this more optimistic projection, such as effective test, track and isolation mechanisms do not currently exist. Australians are thus being softened up for precisely the horrors seen in other countries - horrors which our collective sacrifice of lockdowns was aimed at avoiding.

This pressure is not new. It has been at play in Australia since the start of the pandemic. The idea that the economy should be prioritised over life - a position that was resisted not only by unions, but sections of capital, and most importantly some of the state and territory governments - most notably Victoria, WA, and Queensland - has drawn persistent attacks from large sections of capital, the media, and the LNP. This is despite the complete failure of their preferred model. Thus these ongoing attacks are not only bad in terms of their intent or potential outcome but are divisive and demoralising, sapping people’s reserve of endurance and tolerance. Lockdown is hard enough without constant reminders that it is too hard, unnecessary, or the supposed fever dream of a crazed dictator. While those who think lockdowns are horrible but necessary are unfairly denounced as mindless cultists, such discourse continues to create fertile ground for the conspiracy theories being actively spread by the far-right.

Human Rights
Questions surrounding the implications of lockdown measures for human rights, including the most appropriate means for convincing people to adhere to public health measures have also been a constant topic of debate. There is no doubt that the impact of lockdowns has been uneven, with race and class location significantly impacting certain populations' experience of not just lockdown but also some of the more repressive measures deployed by governments in the name of public health. For this reason, there need to be not only more and better resources allocated to support those in lockdown, but also increased accountability and scrutiny of the actions of the police. Having said this, focusing on the rights of individuals to not be impacted by the state ignores the intent and positive consequences that such health measures have on reducing infection rates. Protection from potentially life-threatening and debilitating illness is also a significant human right and in weighing these two rights we need to form a judgement about where to place our emphasis. In this respect, I am firmly in favour of preventing loss of life and promoting health. Public health orders play an important role in achieving this goal, and in order for them to be meaningful, there need to be consequences for breaching them - consequences which also must be appropriate, proportionate, and consistent in their application.

Pressure on public health
Part of the discussion regarding the response to’ COVID-19 has focused on pre-existing problems in public health systems, both in Australia and across the globe. These critiques point to the impact that decades of underfunding have had on public health systems as part of the neoliberal transformation of our societies. This transformation has effectively reduced both the available staffing in frontline and support roles and the number of available beds. It has also meant that, despite long-standing concerns regarding the risk of an emergent pandemic, little was done to prepare for it. These are important critiques. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that even in the most ideal situation COVID, with its high level of infectiousness and increased risks of hospitalisation and long term complications, would have been a challenge. This can be seen that globally, despite the different capacities of health systems globally, as well as the different suites of policy responses have had varying degrees of horrific outcomes with a few notable exceptions.



Concerns about lifting lockdown restrictions prematurely
This concern is based on the fact that there is only a narrow margin for error and getting the timing and details wrong would put significant pressure on the country’s already strained health care systems. The reality is that while decisions about how hospital beds are used can be made quickly, simply designating additional beds for ICU or ventilation isn’t sufficient. In order to make these arrangements work, hospitals need additional qualified and trained staff - and those staff simply don’t exist. The Victorian health unions went further on September 17 released a joint statement which included: 
‘‘This has been a long, tough and incredibly stressful 18 months for healthcare workers. The impact on their mental and physical wellbeing has been huge. We need the Premier to hold the line and maintain strong public health measures to help keep the pressure on the hospitals and the healthcare workers as low as possible. We must stop counting bed capacity and start looking at healthcare worker capacity, both mental and physical. Healthcare workers are at breaking point. You have no health system without health professionals to run it”.
So, what are we to do? It is true the current lockdown will eventually need to end. However, the question of when and how must be contested. While rates of community transmission remain high you can’t substantially weaken the provisions without also substantially increasing the level of vaccination rates in the community. Even at this point, the measures need to account for and seek to protect those sections of the community that are unable to be vaccinated. This means that most of the social distancing and PPE measures that have been in place for the virus will need to be retained, at least at some level, for the foreseeable future. Finally, we should not accept the idea of a permanent end to lockdowns. In the event that infections rise again, we must continue to look to lockdowns as an option to protect people and to safeguard health care systems which, if overwhelmed, would exacerbate the possibility of further (and otherwise preventable) loss of life.

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As a disclaimer, it is important to acknowledge that, like the vast majority of commentators in Australia, I am not an epidemiologist. As such I will not attempt to interpret models or do my own modelling, instead, I seek to simply explore issues that I feel are being overlooked in the current discussion.

This article is posted under copyleft, verbatim copying and distribution of the entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved. If you reprint this article please email me at revitalisinglabour@gmail.com to let me know.

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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Endurance Games: Reassessing the mass strike based on recent experiences in France

Joint worker and student protest against the First Employment Contract in Rennes April 4 2006

Lisbeth Latham

Dwindling rates of industrial action - particularly in advanced capitalist countries- are often cited as evidence of the labour movement’s global decline. Yet the value of industrial action, and particularly mass strikes, are often grossly oversimplified. ‘If we strike, we will win’ may galvanise workers temporarily, but it belies the complex nature of social movements, where a willingness to struggle is only part of the formula necessary for victory. The complexity of this reality can be seen in the experiences of the contemporary French labour movement. In comparison to movements in other advanced capitalist countries, the French movement is often seen as incredibly militant and powerful. Yet, since the global financial crisis in 2008, it has suffered a series of defeats and has found it increasingly difficult to mobilise to the same extent as before. This is not to say that the French movement is any less heroic than it was in the past, but that the balance of class forces and the confidence of the French popular classes has declined. This has exposed limitations in the mass strike as an industrial tactic when it is not paired with a broader perspective of victory; winning requires not only mass involvement but also a determination to maintain struggle at times in the face of defeat.

The Mass Strike
One of the most influential works on strikes is The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions written by Rosa Luxemburg in 1906[1]. She sought to explore the experiences of Russia's failed 1905 revolution and draw lessons for the broader European social democratic movement. Prior to the pamphlet’s publication, social democracy had been highly critical of mass strikes, seeing them as an anarchist fantasy, as Luxemburg put it
“the theory of the general strike as a means of inaugurating the social revolution, in contradistinction to the daily political struggle of the working-class – and exhausts itself in the following simple dilemma: either the proletariat as a whole are not yet in possession of the powerful organisation and financial resources required, in which case they cannot carry through the general strike; or they are already sufficiently well organised, in which case they do not need the general strike”[2]
Contrary to this view Luxemburg argued:
“the mass strike in Russia has been realised not as means of evading the political struggle of the working-class, and especially of parliamentarism, not as a means of jumping suddenly into the social revolution by means of a theatrical coup, but as a means, firstly, of creating for the proletariat the conditions of the daily political struggle and especially of parliamentarism. The revolutionary struggle in Russia, in which mass strikes are the most important weapon, is, by the working people, and above all by the proletariat, conducted for those political rights and conditions whose necessity and importance in the struggle for the emancipation of the working-class”[3].

The subsequent role of mass strike movements in creating legitimation crises for the capitalist class, blunting their offensive, and creating the impetus for revolutions has vindicated Luxemburg’s position[4]. At the same time mass strikes, like other tactics, have their limitations and even large mass strikes, as demonstrated by Russia in 1905, do not guarantee the successful achievement of a movement’s objectives.

The recent movements in France in defence of pensions and against labour market reforms are important experiences in demonstrating both the strengths and weaknesses of the mass strike as a political tactic.

Leading into the global financial crisis the French working class had achieved a series of victories against government attacks. Most notably: 
  • the strike wave against attacks on the public sector attacks in 1995 
  • the movement leading up to the defeat of the referendum on endorsing the Lisbon treaty in 2005; and
  • the mass movement lead by students against the contrat première embauche (First Employment Contact - CPE) legislation in 2006[5]

At the same time the French organised left was in a process of breakdown and realignment. The Parti Communiste Francais (PCF) , once the hegemonic force on the French left saw its vote in presidential elections fall from 15.35% % in 1981 to 3.37% in 2002. As its old red-belt strongholds became locations of strength for the Front Nationale. deindustrialisation under successive Parti Socialiste (PS) -with the PCF as a minority partner- shattered France’s traditional heavy industrial areas[7]. The impact on the working class in these areas was devastating. Consequently, the PCF’s parliamentary representation became increasingly dependent on a non-aggression pact with the PS, who did not run candidates against sitting PCF MPs. This dependent relationship between the PCF and the PS was to become a key point of conflict in discussions regarding joint far-left candidates, with the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) and subsequently the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste setting down a priori independence from the PS as a key basis for any discussions about united left electoral tickets[8].

It was not just the PCF who was negatively impacted; the PS suffered the indignity of running third in the 2002 presidential elections behind Jacques Chirac and Front Nationale’s (National Front - FN) Jean-Marie Le Pen[9]. Whilst some blamed this embarrassment on the shock results of the Trotskyist LCR (4.25%) and Lutte Ouvrière (5.72%) candidates, it still posed the question of why people weren’t voting for the PS. It also failed to explain why workers were voting for small far-left parties instead, or even abstaining from voting at all. This put the left in the position of having to respond to a presidential run-off between the right and the far-right - an unenviable position which was repeated in 2017 with the runoff between Macron and Marine Le Pen.

2009 Post GFC Movement
Triggered by the mass defaulting of subprime mortgages in the US economy and exacerbated by the failure of the mortgage backed securities which underwrote the loans, the GFC of 2007-2008 spread like an infection through the global financial sector. Yet as governments scrambled to bailout high finance, they also sought to shift the cost onto working people.[10]

In France this response was met with mass resistance. The intersyndicale (an informal alliance of union confederations at a national level) called for mass mobilisations against the policies of Sarkozy and the Fillon government. Their demands included: Increases in the minimum wage and payments to the unemployed and pensioners; Increased social spending on public housing; Action to reduce job losses including bans on redundancies at profitable companies; Reversal of the tax cuts given to the rich at the start of the crisis; Reversal of job losses and restructuring of the public sector[11]

The intersyndicale achieved a series of mass mobilisations throughout 2009, the largest of which was the general strike of March 19 which drew over 3 million people[12]. Despite these mobilisations the coalition was unable to force any real concessions from the government and, as they progressed, the mobilisations lost impetus.

This development was not a surprise to all the union leaderships. One of France’s most militant union confederations, the openly anti-capitalist Solidaires, consistently argued for a need to go beyond individual days of mobilisation. Solidaires predicted that, however successful, individual days of mobilisation alone would not be enough to steer the government from its well-worn course of protecting capital at the expense of working people. Instead, Solidaires argued for the need to build towards a renewable general strike[13]. As evidence of the effectiveness of this approach they pointed to the successful strikes by workers in the French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe from January to March of that year. Although Solidaires leadership did concede under pressure from other unions that capacity for such action did not exist, they argued that the work still needed to be done. Affirming the movement’s need and capacity to mobilise on both a mass and ongoing basis would be more productive than simply acknowledging and accepting its inadequacies, they felt[14].

As 2009 continued the movement declined. By 13 June the once three million-strong movement had plummeted to a mere 150, 000 and was essentially over, having achieved very little in the way of concessions. At the same time, the state was preparing a new wave of attacks on working people, this time in the form of an assault on France’s pension system.

Joint mobilisation against the attack on France's Pension System 2010

2010 Pension Struggle
In early 2010, the Fillon government announced that it was seeking to change France’s pension system. The proposed changes included raising the retirement age and increasing workers’ contributions to the social security scheme - effectively requiring workers to work more hours over a greater duration of their lifetimes.

In the wake of this announcement, the Intersyndicale resumed meeting in earnest. Their concerns were well-founded. Though Fillon’s attack on the pension system threatened to disadvantage all workers, its impacts would be felt most acutely by women, significantly reducing the number of women expected to qualify for a full pension and exacerbating the problem of French women retiring into poverty.

From the outset, the unions were divided in their view of the objectives of the movement. The class-struggle unions (combat syndicales), whose membership includes Solidaires (Solidarity), Force Ouvrière (Workers Force - FO), and large sections of both the Federation Syndicale Unitaire (FSU) and Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) wanted the proposals to be totally withdrawn. The more conservative unions, most notably the Confédération française démocratique du travail (French Confederation of Democratic Workers - CFDT) and Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (French Confederation of Christian Workers - CFTC) were more conciliatory, seeking greater consultation with the government regarding the changes. Yet despite these differences, there was eventually a basis for a common united movement involving France’s eight main union confederations and federations - although the early movement involved just five[15].

Initially, the 2010 movement was far smaller than the previous years with the March protests reaching only 800, 000 nationally. These disappointing numbers inevitably gave rise to commentary that the defeat of 2009 had undermined the mobilising capacity of the movement. However, as the year progressed the movement began to grow and the pace of mobilisations increased. By 24 June mobilisations had reached 1.92 million. Numbers continued to grow as the legislation worked its way through France’s legislative processes in September and October. Ultimately, there were seven mobilisations, all exceeding two million people and peaking at 3.5 million. However, the total number of people involved in the movement is likely to have been far greater[16].

Solidaires Adverstisment calling for a genderal strike on September 9, 2010

Significantly, in a number of industries the days of mobilisation were linked by strike action. Initially these renewable strikes began in France’s oil refineries - triggered by a struggle around Total’s plans to close its Dunkirk refinery[17]. Yet the movement also spread to other sectors. This spread was facilitated, in part, by a decision within the intersyndicale to allow industrial action in workplaces, and at the municipal level, to be initiated by general assemblies of workers at those levels. This meant that, in those sectors and regions where the more militant unions had greater influence, they were able to link protracted strikes to the mobilisations, which were then called and supported by all unions between the punctuating mass mobilisations. Under France’s Labour Code and constitution, if one union in a workplace issues a strike notice then any worker can participate regardless of their union affiliation. While there were a number of spaces where renewable strikes were in effect, the most important of these was in the oil refineries whose closure massively disrupted fuel supplies across France[18].

Despite the size and escalating character of the movement the government pushed ahead with passing the legislation. In the wake of the passing of the legislation in November, there was one more joint mass mobilisation on November 23. The interior ministry estimated the protests size at 52, 000 and the unions did not announce a size estimate. This small mobilisation indicated that the movement had effectively collapsed. The more conservative unions withdrew from the campaign on the promise that the legislation, whose impact was not immediate but delayed, could be defeated via the election of a PS government in 2012.Those workers who remained on strike - most notably the oil refinery workers - became increasingly isolated as the movement collapsed. In Marseille, a city controlled by the PS, municipal workers were forced back to work using legislation introduced by the de Vilipin government the year before[19]. This legislation, which guaranteed minimum essential services during strikes, was anti-worker by design and undermined a number localised strikes that were holding out against the collapse of the broader movement

 
Mobilisation in Marseille March 18, 2006

Movement against the First Employment Contract
In 2006, the de Villipin government had sought to introduce the CPE, a change in France’s employment laws which would have weakened the rights of workers under the age of 26, including allowing employers to dismiss young workers aged between 18-26 without notice or reason during their first two years of employment[20]. By targeting just younger workers, the de Villepin government hoped that by focusing on one section of the workforce they could divide and limit any potential opposition movement.

Initially this was the case, as there was limited united resistance by the union confederations[21]. However, despite the lack of leadership from workers’ unions, high school and university students, primarily organised via the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (National Union of Students of France), Fédération indépendante et démocratique lycéenne (Independent and Democratic High School Federation), and the Union Nationale Lycéenne (National Union of Secondary Students) began their own mass mobilisations - shutting down schools and universities and driving mass mobilisations of students. These student mobilisations gave impetus for militants within the union confederations to push to support the student protests[22]. Between the rising peaks of mass mobilisations, student pursued a broader goal of disrupting the economy via their own collective actions and concentrated on building alliances with workers to support and exacerbate the disruption. By March 2006, 68 of France’s 89 universities were either occupied or on strike with many high schools across France barricaded shut by striking students[24]. More spectacular were the student occupations of rail lines or the successful blocking of Airbus airliners being transported from manufacturing plants[25].

As inspiring as the movement was, it was not significantly bigger or more disruptive than the 2010 movement. What really differentiated the 2006 movement against the CPE from the 2010 movement to defend pensions was that when the CPE was passed, the movement continued. In passing the legislation in 2006, the de Villepin government gambled that passing of the legislation would dissipate the movement and remove the threat to French state and capital[26]. When the movement continued despite the legislation passing the threat effectively expanded with no hope that it would decline in the short-term. In response to the movement’s determination, the government retreated and the legislation, despite passing, became a dead letter[27].

The lesson to be drawn from comparing the events of 2006 and 2010 is not that mass movements are no longer capable of winning, or that strikes are no longer crucial to achieving victory in industrial and political struggles. It is instead that these struggles are ultimately battles of will and endurance. What changed between 2006 and 2010 was not the capacity of the movement to mobilise- indeed the 2010 movement was arguably larger in size than the 2006 mobilisations. No, what differed between them was the determination of the ruling class to persist with their attacks on working people and, even more crucially, the ability in 2006 of the more radical sections of the movement, most notably the student unions, to cohere and mobilise after the passing of the legislation. It is not sufficient for our movements to be massive or powerful. In order to be victorious,the will and determination of workers must be strong enough to outlast that of capital and its governments. Escalating and disruptive action is thus most effective when deployed as a means of undermining capital’s confidence and endurance. The continuation of the mass movement of 2006 and consequent disruption of the economy cast the gamble made by the right to push forward with legislation as a grievous error, creating the fear that the movement would not stop. By contrast in 2010, the government’s bet proved correct, the movement did collapse and the state and capital could both be confident not only to maintain that round of attacks but contemplate and implant further attacks on working people.

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1 Luxemburg, R. 1906. The mass strike, the political party, and the trade unions. Marxist Internet 
Archive
. https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/.
2 ibid.
3 ibid.
4 Haug, F., Wilde, F., and Heidenreich, F. 2018. “Mass strike.” Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. https://www.rosalux.de/publikation/id/43671/mass-strike?cHash=4dc514bc263b77a899f91e9878b10683.
5 Cézard, Yann. 2020. “1995-2003-2010: lessons from three large-scale mobilizations.” International Viewpoint. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article6347.
   Carasso, L. 2005. “E After the success of the "no from the left."” International Viewpoint. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article845.
   Carasso, L. 2006. “A major social and solitical crisis.” International Viewpoint. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1070.
6 Amable, B. and Palombarini, S. 2021. The last neoliberal: Macron and the origins of France's political crisis. London: Verso.
7 Jacobin. 2016. “When the workers were communists.” Jacobin. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/when-the-workers-were-communists/.
8 Perez, Benito. 2007. “The presidential campaign is rotting French political life.” International Viewpoint. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1214.
   Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire. 2007. “For the foundation of a new anti-capitalist party.” International Viewpoint. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1290.
   Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire. 2008. “Address for a new anticapitalist party.” International Viewpoint. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1422.
9 Henley, J. 2002. “French poll result seen as catastrophe.” DAWN. https://www.dawn.com/news/29700/french-poll-result-seen-as-catastrophe.
10 Mirowski, P. 2014. Never let a serious crisis go to waste: How neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown. London: Verso.
11 Latham, L. 2009a. “French unions ready for a general strike on March 19.” Revitalising Labour. https://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2009/03/french-unions-ready-for-general-strike.html.
12 Latham, L. 2009b. “French unions plan campaign against financial crisis Following 3 Million strong general strike.” Revitalising Labour. https://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2009/03/french-union-plan-campaign-following-3.html.
13 National Burea of the Trade Union Solidaires. 2009. “Together let us make the assessment - To be stronger tomorrow.” Revitalising Labour. https://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2009/09/solidaires-assessment-of-french.html.
14 ibid.
15 Latham, L. 2010a. “Thousands of French workers march to defend pensions.” Revitalising Labour. https://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2010/03/thousands-of-french-workers-march-to.html.
16 ibid
Latham, L. 2010b. “French workers mobilise to defend pensions.” Revitalising Labour. https://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2010/06/french-workers-mobilise-to-defend.html.
Latham, L. 2010c. “Millions of workers march to defend pensions in France.” Revitalising Labour. https://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2010/09/millions-of-workers-march-to-defend.html.
Latham, L. 2010d. “French workers fight back against pension attack.” Revitalising Labour. https://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2010/10/french-workers-fight-back-against.html.
Trade Union Solidaires. 2010. “Solidaires - Pensions: Win by our determination!” Revitalising Labour. https://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2010/10/solidaires-pensions-win-by-our.html.
17 Latham, L. 2010e. “French Senate votes to raise retirement age as unions prepare for a day of strikes.” Revitalising Labour. https://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2010/10/french-senate-votes-to-raise-retirement.html.
18 Andrews, W. and Vandoorne, S. 2010. “Fuel imports into France surge as protests imperil transportation.” CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/10/18/france.strikes.shortage/index.html.
19 Latham, L. 2010f. “France: Sarkozy enacts pensions law as mass mobilisations continue.” Revitalising Labour. https://revitalisinglabour.blogspot.com/2010/11/france-sarkozy-enacts-pensions-law-as.html.
    Smith, M. 2010. “France: Not victorious, but not defeated.” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal. http://links.org.au/node/2034.
20 Steven. 2006. “The French movement against the CPE, 2006.” libcom. https://libcom.org/blog/short-history-cpe-protests-france.
21 Cézard op cit.
22 Cézard op cit.
     Steven op cit
     Périn, M. 2006. “Inside the occupation movement: ‘Together we are recreating our university.’” Socialist Worker, March 18, 2006. https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/8300/Inside+the+occupation+movement%3A+Together+we+are+recreating+our+university.
23 Smith, M. 2006a. “Student movement puts government on the defensive.” International Viewpoint. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article996.
Wolfreys, J. 2006. “Daniel Bensaïd: ‘This movement is directly based on a social question.’” Socialist Worker. https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/8364/Daniel+Bensa%C3%AFd%3A+This+movement+is+directly+based+on+a+social+question.
24 Duthu, M. 2006. “French workers and youth unite against the First Employment Contract: No to all precarious contracts.” In Defence of Marxism. https://www.marxist.com/french-workers-youth-unite160306.htm.
Smith, M. 2006b. “Anti-labour law movement enters key stage.” International Viewpoint. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1000.
25 Chrisafis, A. 2006. “Chirac backs down and scraps youth job law.” The Guardian, April 11, 2006. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/apr/11/france.angeliquechrisafis.
26 ibid.
     Cézard op cit.
     Steven op cit.
27 Cézard op cit.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Misplaced Sympathies: Anti-Lockdown Protests Undermine Social Solidarity

Lisbeth Latham

As more Australians enter lockdown in response to the spread of COVID-19 there has been an associated rise in protests against lockdowns and other public health measures designed to curb the spread of the virus. These protests are not a new phenomenon but have been occurring since the beginning of the pandemic. Although initially condemned, in Australia at least, there are now attempts to paint these protests in a sympathetic light or even as somehow progressive. According to these commentators, the protests, although misguided, are really a response to the state’s failure to deliver sufficient support to working people. Yet while financial hardship may be a motivating factor for some participants, remedying financial stress is by no means the objective of these rallies. Instead, the protests rely heavily on militant individualism and opposition to state limitations on behavior which are justified by appealing to a range of interlocking conspiracies that question the reality of the pandemic and the motivations for the various state responses to it.

In most countries, the early protests against lockdown and other public health measures aimed at limiting the spread of COVID. This was particularly aimed at the compulsory wearing of masks and the limiting of movement. The right-wing character was made clear not just by the groups pushing heavily within this framework - such as in the US militias, and other far-right currents such as the Proud Boys, and various Christian patriot groups, but the language that was used to justify and legitimise refusal to comply. These were heavily drawn from highly individualistic, right-wing libertarian sources, such as sovereign citizenship etc. which apart from denying the right of states to govern rely heavily on completely nonsensical quotes of non-existent legal arguments regarding the Magna Carta and other historical and totally irrelevant documents. These mobilisations were often also pushed by sections of capital who did not want to forfeit their right to make a profit at the cost of saving lives.

One of the numerous anti-lockdown advertisements published by Clive Palmer in major Australian newspapers.

In July of this year, the protests in Australia were bigger than earlier protests. This has lead to some on the left searching for a basis for this growth, the answer that a number have come to the conclusion that the driver is the shift in the level of financial support provided by the government to workers in lockdown and as such the protests are really, to paraphrase Marx, the sigh of the oppressed. While there is some appeal in being able to explain the growth in the protests as simply the growth in anger at financial difficulties brought on by the pandemic, you do need to be able to establish more than a correlation to demonstrate causation particularly if we are not descending into vulgar forms of materialism and accelerationism. However, the advocates for a position that this is a prime driver provide limited if any evidence. Tom Tanuki, in an article in the Independent Australian, whilst acknowledging that it is:
“a ’big tent’ conspiracist movement that houses discordant ideas and sometimes leaderless factions. It’s given direction by a ruling caste of portrait-video-filming figureheads who often scrap with each other for viral supremacy. The attention-seekers among them get a sugar rush of shares, the grifters get lots of money and the political careerists try to craft a future voting bloc.”
Despite this Tanuki plays down the significance of this reality and instead posits the movement, at least in Sydney, as “left” based on the participation of the working-class and sections of the Lebanese community from Sydney’s South West - however, no evidence is provided to support any of these claims. Christopher Knaus and Michael McGowan writing in the Guardian outline the global far-right network that has been seeking to build the anti-lockdown movement globally and notes that at least some of the organisers in Australia are embedded in these global far-right networks. However, Knaus and McGowan also cite Josh Roose, a senior research fellow specialising in extremism at Deakin University, as suggesting:
“While there were elements of far-right rhetoric among the protestors, what they actually shared was a level of marginalisation and distrust in authority.
“There are some similarities and commonalities to the far right in terms of content but these protests are not driven by the far-right per se,
“What immediately distinguishes these sorts of protest groups from the far right is that they’re highly multicultural and they’re made up not just of angry men at a patriot rally but also women.
“In both Melbourne and Sydney the people and areas being represented are the areas that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. There’s also issues here with the cultures and communities often have a deep-seated distrust of government, often for good reason.”
Again no evidence is provided to support either the observation or the conclusion. The idea that the presence of workers, people of colour, or women, may not fit with some people’s stereotypes of the far-right, but all of these identities are heterogeneous and historically they have all been sources of recruitment, particularly amongst more marginalised sections of communities, for the far-right even if our image of the far-right are young white men.

In questioning this argument I am not saying that financial hardship is not a factor. There would undoubtedly be people at the protest who have suffered financially - moreover, there are many people experiencing severe financial hardship due to the inadequacy of state and Commonwealth financial support. For some, this experience may have been a driver for their participation. Whether it is a driver of mobilisations, we should be raising demands not only to increase the level of financial support to workers, the self-employed, those reliant on welfare payments, and small business. Such financial support policies need to be consistent and locked in to provide greater certainty for people in the coming months. Our demands need to go beyond simply demanding the reinstating JobKeeper, and the COVID support supplement, but addressing the significant flaws in JobKeeper, many of which were entirely by the design of the Morrison government and for the COVID support supplement to be incorporated into all government pensions.

In saying this, I am also saying those advocating that financial hardship as the primary driver, or even a significant driver, need evidence that is the case. For me, a key basis for judging motivations of mobilisations are the public justifications for the mobilisations and the demands raised spontaneously within the participants. On this, the evidence does not suggest that seeking to address financial hardship is a key driver. It does not feature highly in the calls to action or with the homemade signs. Instead, we see calls for “freedom” and around the need for an end to lockdowns and other social distancing mechanisms, such as masks, and rejections of vaccines - which are core issues of this movement since its initial development.

Also, the growth and development of the movement internationally while not uniform, suggests it is growing irrespective of the financial and social distancing regulations which are actually in place in any given city or country. So rallies have occurred in cities without lockdown or provisions such as compulsory masking in place, although in these cities the protests tend to be smaller - which you would expect as the perceived threat is not present.

This does beg the question as to why there has been a growth in the anti-lockdown movement? Well, I don’t think it is for a singular reason. One factor is that there has been significant disinformation spread regarding both the virus and the various mitigation measures, including masks and vaccines. This is highlighted by the recent seven-day suspension of Sky News Australia from YouTube over the spreading of Covid misinformation. As the distress of lockdown and other limits on movement have built, it is understandable that some people who are experiencing extreme emotional distress would find the idea that that distress is both unnecessary but also can be ended simply by ending lockdowns. This is particularly the case in a country such as Australia where the health impact of COVID has been more limited - it is easier to imagine proceeding as normal without the fear that infections could explode to the levels experienced in other countries. This is contributed to discussions in both mainstream media and on social which talks about the Australian experience without contextualising it in the global context: at the same time the discussion also tends to discuss the Australian governmental response as far more repressive and restrictive than other states - this is particularly notable in discussions of Australia’s border policy as being unique in closing and limiting travel in and out of the country - which a review of sites such as the International Air Transport Association’s COVID-19 Travel Regulations Map - it is clear that Australia is not alone in having travel restrictions in place, nor does it currently have the harshest restrictions internationally.

Even in countries where infections and deaths have been much higher, most of the experience has been isolated to sections of the community particularly health care workers, and those who have experienced close family and friends become extremely sick and die. This is reflected in experiences in a number of countries of hospitals being targeted by anti-lockdown/COVID sceptical individuals as being part of a big lie to justify incursions on civil liberties.

The problem with identifying the drivers of protests is that they are not singular. However, it is clear that the process of the pandemic and associated public health measures have been extremely distressing for the vast majority of society. This is not a real shock, particularly when we consider the lack of certainty faced by many individuals, will they have work, will they be able to go see friends, will they be able to see family or travel. Uncertainty is highly stressful. It makes us feel anxious and that we have no power, or ability to control our own lives. It should be no surprise that psychological distress would help to create a fertile medium for conspiracy theories and anti-science denial to grow and take root. These ideas provide certainty, against a reality of a virus that might kill you and your loved ones - a counter reality where there is no virus and the restrictions are simply part of a conspiracy by the powerful to control us, can be appealing on many levels. That detachment from reality would not necessarily be a problem if it weren’t for the reality that rejecting the public measures increases the risk of exposure of everyone to a highly infectious virus that not only kills but causes long-term health problems in many of those who catch it.

These dynamics can only get worse as the emotional wear of the pandemic builds.

So what is the answer? While we must always come from a position of empathy, and understand that many participants in the protests are coming in situations of significant and understandable distress - I don’t think that empathy should let us fall into a position of accepting their arguments and motivations as being legitimate. These actions are aimed at undermining measures that protect public health - whilst people should not be treated with excessive or unreasonable force - the protests do need to be limited and prevented as they are aimed at disrupting the limits on social distancing needed to suppress the virus and save the lives and health of the broader community. Our efforts to maintain support for public health measures need to be premised on social solidarity and the idea that through some individual pain it is possible to reduce the severity of the impact on any individual - which means that the pain does need to be shared across the community - the idea of locking down working-class communities and communities of colour in order to enable rich suburbs to go on as if nothing is happening is unconscionable and reasonably erodes the idea that we are trying to protect everyone.

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Saturday, August 21, 2021

Did the Accord Cause Australian Neoliberalism?

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating key architects of Australian Neoliberalism

Lisbeth Latham

Reading the publications of the Australian far-left has seen a sharp rise in the discussion of the Prices and Wages Accord and attempts to relate that experience to the contemporary Australian union movement’s attempts to respond to the double crisis of the COVID pandemic and the associated financial crisis[1]. While there is much to be criticised in the Accord experience - these left critiques tend to see the Accord as a singular process, rather than the complex dynamic interaction with the unfolding not only of the Accord itself but the broader dynamics of Australian political and economic life in the period of the 1980s and 1990s. Many of these left critiques oversimplify and overplay the level of the intentionality of the leaderships of the labour movement in the implementation of the Accord and posit it as the key mechanism by which neoliberalism was established within Australian society. In this article, I aim to outline: 
  • the circumstances that the labour movement found itself in that lead to the Accord project; 
  • the changing character of the Accord over the period of its implementation; 
  • the internal processes of control and discipline within the labour movement to enable the Accord to be implemented and maintained and the impact of these on democracy within the labour movement; 
  • the impact of the Accord on working people; and 
  • the impact of the Accord experience on the capacity of the Union movement to organise and respond to attacks from the state and capital.
Inflation and unemployment crisis
In the early 1980s the Australian economy, like other advanced capitalist economies, entered into recession. The Fraser government responded to the recession by seeking to impose wage restraint by using the centralised wage-fixing system to cut real wages. In 1981, in response, unions, most notably the Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union (AMWSU)[2], launched a campaign to achieve a 35-hour week with no loss in pay - in order to maintain workers’ buying power and to create jobs by reducing working hours. This campaign was partially successful, the AMWSU, operating outside the arbitration system, won a pay rise of $20 per week and a reduction in the working week to 38-hours per week in 1981, with a further pay rise to be paid in the second increase of $14 in 1982, based on projected inflation for the next six months. These gains were based on a basis of the union agreeing to no further claims for twelve months[3].

In the wake of this victory, the crisis in the Australian economy deepened as the global economic crisis intensified driving down demand for consumer and capital goods. This downturn had already begun to be felt in Australia before the wage campaign, but the AMWSU had been protected from it initially due to residual demand for skilled workers.

In response to the crisis, manufacturing employers started to rapidly shed jobs, and about 90,000 workers were sacked. In the face of this assault, the AMWSU’s leaders abided by the “no-strike” agreements and did not take industrial action to try to protect jobs. At some shops, workers tried to secure jobs by agreeing to reduce their hours to a four-day week at four days’ wages[4].

This experience is now raised by the right as demonstrating the inevitable consequence of workers achieving wage rises [5]. Whilst, that conclusion is deeply wrong, and a fundamental misreading of the situation, this experience gave greater weight to the position adopted by the ALP in 1979 supporting the creation of an agreement with the union movement aimed at maintaining living standards that avoid either a wage breakout or hyperinflation[6]. The impetus for this position within the ALP had come from the period of hyperinflation during the Whitlam government (1972-1975). This was particularly the case within the AMWSU and other unions where members of the Communist Party of Australia were part of the leadership[7].

Stated objectives of the Accord
The initial objective of the Accord was to reduce unemployment and to hold inflation in check. This would be achieved by limiting inflation by restraining wages, while at the same time improving the standard of living of working people by boosting the “social wage” via expansion of government spending particularly around healthcare (Medicare), increased family payments and childcare. A major flaw of the Accord process was that whilst the system had mechanisms that effectively restrained wages, via a centralised wage-fixing system, there were no such restraints on capital regarding the setting of prices, leaving the system open to companies covering any rise in their costs via increasing prices, or just deciding to do so to boost profits. This limitation meant that understandably groups of workers, if not whole unions, were motivated to break out of the Accord in order to defend wages[8]

Control and discipline
The process of entering the Accord sparked immediate resistance within the labour movement. Most notably this was reflected in individual far-left individuals and organisations opposing the proposal. The Socialist Party of Australia (SPA)[9], which had a number of members who were elected officials in unions, most notably the Building Workers Industrial Union{10], Waterside Workers Federation, Seamen’s Union, and the Firemen and Deckhands' Union of New South Wales[11], publicly opposed the Accord and sought to direct their members who were union officials to oppose the Accord. These members revolted against the direction, arguing that it represented an attack on union democracy, splitting away to form the Association of Communist Unity (while some officials were expelled by the SPA for their refusal to follow party discipline, others simply resigned)12. While there are a range of reasons for this refusal to abide by party discipline, one factor was undoubtedly the reliance of these officials to their collaboration and alliances with officials from the CPA and the Labor left who supported the Accord. Brown has argued that these internal processes of control and discipline impacted on individual officials who had second thoughts regarding the Accord who could expect to be disendorsed and excluded from internal tickets if they did not tow the pro-Accord line[13].

Efforts to tie the movement to the Accord only intensified as the process continued. The Accord was posed as a necessary protection against the threat to the movement by the “new right” - in the form of the members of the Institute of Public Affairs and the HR Nicholls Society. This meant that those unions which sought to break from the Accord, were not just seen as revolting from the Accord, but risking the protection that the Accord was seen as offering the movement. So those unions that did revolt, such as the Confectionary workers[14], Builders Labourers Federation[15], and the Airline Pilots, not only faced aggressive and hostile employers, which included deregistration processes, strike-breaking, and the initiation of civil damages suits, but also were isolated, vilified, and raided by their “comrades” in rest of the union movement, including the Hawke Labour Government. Most notable was the deregistration of the BLF in the ACT, in NSW, and in Victoria[16].

How the Accord changed over the course of the process As much as it is tempting to discuss the Accord as a singular process, it changed considerably over the course of the 13 years it was in effect - with eight different Accords negotiated (although Accord Mark VIII was never actually implemented)[17]. Whilst the early Accords had wage-fixing aimed at addressing specific macroeconomic issues, such as inflation and unemployment, Accord Mark III, in 1987, introduced the concept of two-tier wage rises - with all workers automatically receiving the first tier of wage increases, and the second tier only being received subject to improvements in structural efficiency[18]. This shift both resulted in extremely uneven timing of when the second wage-rise was received, it marked a significant shift in the conceptualisation of the basis on which wage increases would occur, that they should be tied to demonstrated productivity increases beginning a process of Award restructuring.

As the Accord proceeded, a major justification for the need to maintain the Accord process, was to both hold off the introduction of enterprise bargaining (which was seen as a project of the new right) and to maintain the ALP government to prevent anti-union attacks that had been implemented by conservative governments globally – Peetz as argued that one of the major achievements of the Accord was precisely this delay. However, with the introduction of the Accord Mark VII in 1991, enterprise bargaining, that is negotiations on a company by company basis, rather than industry-wide arbitration and conciliation, was introduced[19]. While bargaining had always occurred within the Australian Industrial Relations system this process had always had a complex and integral relationship with the centralised systems around the Award System. The 1991 process, enshrined in the Industrial Relations Act, began to unravel this relationship. A process which has been deepened with the 1996 Workplace Relations Act, 2005 WorkChoices Act, and the 2008 Fair Work Act. Historically improvements achieved by militant unions in their better organised and more industrially strategic “hot shops”, most notably the AMWU, at the enterprise level could be leveraged and incorporated into the Awards via the state and federal industrial commissions. Enterprise bargaining began a process of severing this connection - which meant that militant unions and their members could only bargain for themselves in their local workplaces (albeit they have attempted to work around this via pattern bargaining which is now legally banned), rather than their actions to improve conditions serving as pacesetters for the conditions of all workers reinforcing individualism and breaking social solidarity between workers, which is such a central drive of the neoliberal project[20]. This process led to a tiering of working conditions based on the extent to which workers had access to enterprise bargaining, with those works reliant on the awards not only falling substantially behind on wages but in their broader working conditions through a combination of the successive award stripping by the Howard government and the achievements by workers and their unions within the EA system in adding and improving conditions.

Peetz has argued that the Accord process provided important protections to Australian unions in delaying conservative governments and their full-frontal assault on unions in Australia similar to what occurred in New Zealand as a consequence of the Bolger government’s attacks[21]. It is also arguable that the Accord process rather than protecting unions instead left them more vulnerable to the attacks when they came[22]. Whilst comparisons can be made to New Zealand and the devastation wreaked on the labour movement. A counter comparison can be made to the experience of the French labour movement which via ongoing resistance, including splits within the labour movement over responding to attacks by employers and governments[23]. This response meant that while the French movement, like the working class globally over the past forty years, suffered defeats in the wake of government attacks it was able to limit these defeats. In raising the example of France it is not to say that that course was necessarily open to the Australian movement, or would have been easy to pursue if it was but to make it clear that there are and were always multiple responses to challenges confronting movements, and that accepting one as the only alternative path to disaster can unnecessarily close off other alternative paths which may pose the possibility of a more positive outcome.

Over the course of the Accord, it delivered less and less on its promised objectives. Whilst there was an expansion in the social wage, real wages declined[24]. This decline was not simply problematic due to the stress it put on households but because real wages only failed to decline further as a consequence of increased productivity, i.e. as a consequence of work intensification and the reduction in broader working conditions - which were at the core of Accord Mark III and all subsequent Accords. This normalisation of wage rises to increases to productivity rather than maintaining and improving living standards is now embedded in what is left of Australia’s wage-fixing system under the Fair Work Act[25].

These shifts have resulted in a sharp and ongoing shift in the wages share of GDP, which has helped to drive up company profits. While this shift began under the Accord, it is important to recognise that this shift has occurred across advanced capitalist countries as corporations have sought to overcome declining growth and maximise their share of income[26].

Whilst the adoption of the Accord was contested within the labour movement, and as outlined above it was not a singular experience, its character changed over time. Contrary to some claims within the left, the early phase of the Accord, whilst deeply corporatist, was not neoliberal, in particular, the expansion of the social wage was not a neoliberal project, objectives which could be seen as neoliberal objectives came later in the life of the Accord[27]. Indeed, whilst the solution via collaboration was a break with the historic approaches of many of the communist lead unions, it was not a sharp break from that of many unions, particularly those associated with the right-wing of the ALP and formations to its right, such as the Democratic Labour Party[28]. These more conservative unions had long relied on “friendly” relationships with employers and the state in order to hold their own in demarcation disputes and contests with left unions. Indeed, Peetz argues that it was the ending of these relationships which were the driver of the decline in union membership and power rather than the Accord. Unlike the claims of some on the left, such collaboration is not inherently neoliberal, if anything the experience of neoliberalism globally has been an intensification of hostilities by capital against organised labour. The primary driver of the neoliberal transformation of Australian society was the Hawke and Keating Labor governments[29]. The initial incorporation of neoliberal aspects into the Accord was justified as a necessary defensive response rather than the direct intention of those who proposed and advocated the Accord and its maintenance. While this argument may have been cynical on the part of some of its advocates, it also reflects the extent to which direct advocacy of neoliberalism would have been resisted, even if the movement, like the rest of society, having absorbed neoliberal ideas as a consequence of the hegemonic position neoliberalism[30]. 
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Footnotes
1  Glanz, D. 2020 ‘Morrison’s ‘Accord 2.0’ talks are a trap for the unions’, Solidarity, [online document] accessed 23 May 2021. https://www.solidarity.net.au/unions/morrisons-accord-2-0-talks-are-a-trap-for-the-unions/.
    O’Shea, L. 2020 ‘Beware union leaders bearing deals’, Red Flag, [online document] accessed 23 May 2021. https://redflag.org.au/node/7224.
    Boyle, P. 2020 ‘Reject the Coalition’s Accord-style JobMaker’, Green Left Weekly, [online document] accessed 23 May 2021. https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/reject-coalitions-accord-style-jobmaker.
    Knobloch, B (18 October 2020) ‘How Australia’s Labor Movement Helped Build Neoliberalism’, Jacobin, [online document] accessed 23 May 2021. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/10/australia-labor-party-neoliberalism-accord
2  Now the Metals Division of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union 
    Smith, B. A. 2001a ‘Amalgamated Metal Workers & Shipwrights Union (1976 - 1983)’, Australian Trade Union Archives, [online document] accessed 16 May 2021. https://www.atua.org.au/biogs/ALE0053b.htm.
3  Latham, C. ‘Wage rises don't mean job losses’, Green Left Weekly, [online document] accessed 23 May 2021. https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/wage-rises-dont-mean-job-losses.
    Wright, C. F. 2014 ‘The Prices and Incomes Accord: Its significance, impact and legacy’, Journal of Industrial Relations, 56(2):264-272. 2014
4  Wright ibid. 
    Latham ibid.
5  Hewett, J. 2009 ‘Lost lessons of the 100,000 'dead men'’, news.com.au, [online document] accessed 23 May 2021. https://www.news.com.au/news/lost-lessons-of-the-100000-dead-men/news-story/81ef1b0ee808c0db147562597741559b?sv=927bc14851e593f17f7ed5b4ea4305c9.
6  Latham op cit.
7  Strauss, J. 2013 ‘Opposition to the Accord as a social contract’, Labour History, 105:47-62.
8  Wright op cit.
    Stilwell, F. 1991 ‘Wages policy and the Accord’, Journal of Australian Political Economy, 28:27-53.
9  Now the Communist Party of Australia, but distinct from the original CPA which was founded in 1920 and dissolved in 1991
10 Now a major component of the Construction and General Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime, and Energy Union (CFMMEU). 
     Smith, B. A. 2001b ‘Building Workers Industrial Union of Australia (ii) (1962 - 1991)’, Australian Trade Union Archives, [online document] accessed 16 May 2021. https://www.atua.org.au/biogs/ALE0316b.htm.
   Holland, P. and Jerrard, M. 2018 ‘Unions have a history of merging – that’s why the new ‘super union’ makes sense’, The Conversation, [online document] accessed 4 June 2021. https://theconversation.com/unions-have-a-history-of-merging-thats-why-the-new-super-union-makes-sense-93077.
11 These unions amalgamated to form the Maritime Union of Australia and are now the Maritime Division of the CFMMEU. 
     Smith, B. A. 2001c ‘Maritime Union of Australia (1993 - )’, Australian Trade Union Archives, [online document] accessed 16 May 2021. https://www.atua.org.au/biogs/ALE0595b.htm.
     Holland and Jerrard ibid.
12 Bentley, S. 2003 ‘The origins and politics of MUSAA’, Green Left Weekly, [online document] accessed 29 May 2021. https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/origins-and-politics-musaa.
     Strauss op cit.
13 Brown, T. 2004 ‘Silencing dissent to win consent: National training reform in the Accord years’, Labour & Industry, 15(1):33-51.
14 Now part of the Food and Confectionary Division of the AMWU. 
     Smith, B. A. 2001d ) ‘Confectionery Workers Union of Australia (1986 - 1992)’, Australian Trade Union Archives, [online document] accessed 16 May 2021. https://www.atua.org.au/biogs/ALE0379b.htm.
15 Now part of the Construction and General Division of the CFMMEU. 
     Smith, B. A. 2001e ‘Australian Building Construction Employees Builders Labourers Federation (ii) (1976 - 1986)’, Australian Trade Union Archives, [online document] accessed 16 May 2021. https://www.atua.org.au/biogs/ALE0134b.htm;
     Holland and Jerrard op cit.
16 Strauss op cit.
17 Stilwell op cit
     Wright op cit.
     Strauss op cit.
18 Stilwell op cit.
19 Peetz, D. 1998 Unions in a contrary world: The future of the Australian trade union movement, Cambridge University Press: Melbourne.
20 Buchanan, J. Oliver, D. and Briggs C. 2014 ‘Solidarity reconstructed: The impact of the Accord on relations within the Australian union movement’, Journal of Industrial Relations, 56(2):288–307.
21 Peetz op cit.
22 Ewer, P, Hampson, I, Lloyd, C, Rainford, J, Rix, S and Smith, M (1991) Politics and the Accord, Pluto Press: Leichhardt.
23 In 1988, the leadership of Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT - French Democratic Confederation of Labour) expelled workplace unions from the Confederation’s federations in health, post, and telecommunications over a series of wildcat strikes that the workplace unions had supported. These expelled workplace unions formed a new federation within Post France and France Telecom, the Solidarity, Unity Democracy PTT - which played a leading role in subsequent mass mobilisations in defence of employment conditions, pensions, and workplace rights within French society over the three decades. Their success led to further splits by the left-wing of CFDT particularly in transport, health, and government services. These make up the core of the Trade Union Solidaires which is one of the most militant and left-wing confederations within the French labour movement.  
     Damesin R. and Denis, J.-M. (2005) ‘SUD trade unions: The new organisations trying to conquer the French trade union scene’, Capital & Class, 86:17-37.
     Connolly, H. 2012 ‘Union renewal in France and Hyman’s universal dualism’, Capital & Class, 36(1):117–134.
24 Stilwell op cit.
     Wright op cit.
25 McKenzie, M. 2018 ‘The Erosion of Minimum Wage Policy in Australia and Labour’s Shrinking Share of Total Income’, Journal of Australian Political Economy, 81:52-77.
26 Lapavitsas, C. Kaltenbrunner, A. Labrinidis, G. Lindo, D. Meadway, J. Michell, J. Painceira, J. P. Pires, E. Powell, J. Stenfors, A. Teles, N. and Vatikotis, L. 2012 Crisis in the Eurozone, Verso: London.
27 Humprys, E. 2018 How Labour Built Neoliberalism: Australia’s Accord, the Labour Movement and the Neoliberal Project, Brill: Leiden.
     Stilwell op cit.
28 Peetz op cit.
     Peetz, D. and Australian National University, Centre for Economic Policy Research 1997 The Accord, compulsory unionism and the paradigm shift in Australian union membership, Centre for Economic Policy Research, Australian National University Canberra.
29 Peetz op cit.
     Hillier, B. 2020 ‘Sally McManus is a neoliberal’, Red Flag, [online document] accessed 23 May 2021. https://redflag.org.au/node/7340
     Harvey, D. 2005 A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
     Quiggin, J. 1999 ‘Globalisation, neoliberalism and inequality in Australia’, The Economic and Labour Relations Review, 10(2):240—59.
30 Mirowski, P (2013) Never let a serious crisis go to waste: How neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown, Verso: London.

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