Jim Macken,What is to be Done? The Struggle for the Soul of the Labour Movement, The Federation Press, Sydney, 2012, pp. 69.
Jim Macken has a lifetime of experience to inform his research on the labour movement. An effective union organiser in the early 1950s, he was part of the fierce campaign by the Groupers to take control of the Federated Clerks’ Union from the Communists, the union of which he became president. In 1975 he became a judge of the NSW Industrial Commission, returning to the bar in 1989.
The book begins with a concise overview of the union movement and the rise of the Labor Party, starting in the early 19th century. In a chapter entitled “Social Collapse” Macken draws on an unusually wide range of authorities, from Toynbee to Camus, to explain the social changes of the 1960s and the loosening of traditional bonds. He argues that in a world where capitalism has morphed into managerial economism, and the owners of corporations are not individuals but investment managers owned by banks, pension funds and other large financial entities, the policies of corporations are determined by professional managers who may have little contact with the people working in the front line of the organisation. Workers have been dehumanised as “human resources” to be considered on par with other inputs like “mineral resources”. How does labour respond in this changed world?
Macken suggests that permanent employment has been the basis of union organisation, noting that a number of unions, such as the Health Services Union, have no membership rates for part time or casual workers. We have seen the growth of independent contractors and ‘vicarious employment’, where labour hire companies effectively lend workers to other employers – a practice associated with anti-union strategies in the United States. He is encouraged by the Hunter region Labour Co-operative Group, which was set up by the Newcastle trade union movement, in which workers are members of both a trade union and the co-operative.
Union amalgamation, which occurred under the Hawke and Keating governments, led to the formation of huge unions, with union officials increasingly remote from the membership. Many amalgamations were an
ill fit, and Macken is particularly critical of the journalists being merged with Actors Equity, a move he contends led to many journalists simply leaving the union. Macken would like to see the right recognised of all workers, of whatever class, including the unemployed, to belong to the union movement. To this end he advocates OK cards, which have been discussed for many years by labour councils. Upon gaining employment the worker would be transferred to the appropriate union. People in largely non-unionised occupations, such as IT technicians and taxi drivers, should be encouraged to form unions based on a community of interest. He notes that craft unions survived amalgamations better than industrial unions.
The union movement has used tactics for a short term gain that have been detrimental to the long term strength of unions. Macken outlines a recent instance in which ambulance workers felt the HSU was neglecting them, so they formed the Emergency Medical Service Protective Association (EMSPA). In 2010 the HSU responded by asking the NSW Industrial Commission to reduce the pay at senior level by over $22,000. The EMSPA sought redress and were told by the Commission that as they were not registered, their complaints could not be heard. The HSU in turn told the disgruntled employees that “it will teach you to leave the union”.
Macken is international in his vision, looking to the Italian National League Cooperatives and Spain’s 15th largest enterprise, the Mondragon Cooperative, for models to which unions can turn. The Spanish unionists
turned to co-operatives as an alternative when the union movement and its leaders were being destroyed by the Falangists.
Macken is scathing of the closeness of the Australian Labor Party to big business, concerned at its top down style and its factionalism, and sees Arthur Caldwell as the last true labour leader before the advent of the presidential style he believes we now have. He opposes the unions having direct affiliation with the ALP, envisaging a conference of unions which would communicate its decisions to the ALP for consideration. He further proposes that ALP branches should not just be based on electorates but on
interest groups, such as work based or cultural interest groups.
Omitted from this book was the communications revolution. Engaging with people in the digital age is something that political parties are attempting – and the methodology is still in a state of flux. It is not just the Labor Party that is losing members, as for some years community organisations have had increasing trouble attracting participants and office holders.
This well-written book is not a blue print for action. It is a litany of the problems facing labour, and proposes some options for consideration by the political and industrial wings of the labour movement. It is written from the heart by a man who cares passionately about the future of working Australians.