Does the Australian working class have the power to change society?

by Tom Bramble • Published 12 March 2011

Marxism is the theory and practice of proletarian revolution. It stands or falls, therefore, on the capacity of the working class to carry through such a revolution. Marxists argue that only the working class has the ability to smash capitalism and, furthermore, that only the working class has a vital interest in doing so. It has to be the leading social force in any revolutionary movement, drawing other layers, for example sections of the middle class, students and the poor, behind it.

However, the working class is not trapped in time, unchanging since its birth in the English Industrial Revolution. It is constantly evolving in line with changes to the structure of capitalist industry and general trends in capital accumulation. It is these changes, and the consequences of them for the power of the working class, that have been the subject of vigorous debate for more than a century as enemies of Marxism – social democrats and liberals, as much as reactionaries – have sought to cast doubt on the revolutionary capacity of the working class. The purpose of this article is to examine the latest round of these attacks and to demonstrate that the Australian working class is potentially as powerful as ever and as capable of carrying through a revolutionary challenge to the capitalist system.

The first line of argument taken by these critics is that the working class has been irredeemably transformed, that it has been bought off, or embourgeoisified. Capitalism has provided sufficient prosperity to lift the working class out of its degraded early nineteenth century situation as depicted by Engels in his The Condition of the Working Class in England. Thus in the late nineteenth century Eduard Bernstein argued that rising living standards for German workers removed any prospect of revolution in Germany. In the 1950s and 1960s, a small army of Western sociologists pointed to full employment, home ownership, paid holidays and possession of washing machines and refrigerators as indicative of the emergence of an “affluent working class”.[1] And today, their intellectual descendants argue that plasma TVs and foreign holidays have lulled workers into complacency. John Howard’s fantasy of an “aspirational society” tapped into a related argument: that even if the conditions of those who remained in the working class could be tough, the potential for self-employment and upward social mobility would neutralise any tendencies to a cohesive working class consciousness oppositional to capitalism.

So the first branch of anti-Marxist arguments suggests that the working class is no longer a revolutionary subject because of the abundance and opportunities for social mobility modern capitalism offers. The second suggests that it is the very exploitation and oppression associated with advanced capitalism, and the restructuring that has been associated with the crisis in the Western economies since the 1970s, that prevents the working class from fulfilling the destiny that Marx and Engels fought for. According to this argument, the capitalists have smashed the core areas of working class strength and neutralised it. This argument is restricted not just to those eager to write off the working class but even some of those who advocate for it. Thus David Harvey wrote in his influential A Brief History of Neoliberalism:

In the neoliberal scheme of things short term contracts are preferred in order to maximise flexibility… Flexible labour markets are established… The individualised and relatively powerless worker then confronts a labour market in which only short term contracts are offered on a customised basis. Security of tenure becomes a thing of the past. Under neoliberalisation, the figure of the “disposable worker” emerges as prototypical upon the world stage… Disposable workers – women in particular – survive both socially and affectively in a world of flexible labour markets and short term contracts, chronic job insecurities, lost social protections, and often debilitating labour amongst the wreckage of collective institutions that once gave them a modicum of dignity and support.[2]

Likewise Zygmunt Bauman writes that:

The present day uncertainty is a powerful individualizing force. It divides, instead of uniting, and since there is no telling who might wake up in what division, the idea of “common interests” grows ever more nebulous and in the end incomprehensible.[3]

Changes to the structure of the working class are commonly blamed for the decline in union coverage and membership in Australia (and overseas). Melbourne University economist Mark Wooden argues that “It thus follows that a large part of the explanation for change, and especially the decline in trade union membership, may lie in structural changes in the composition of the workforce, a view which is widely adhered to.”[4]

Even if the political logic of the argument is not always made explicit, the big majority of contemporary material published on changing structures of the Western working class emphasises the transformation of working class conditions in such a way as to suggest that collective action is now much more difficult if not impossible. What Kevin Doogan describes as “new capitalism” is based on “more tenuous connections between employers and workers” and “new employment relations characterised by a much greater sense of precariousness and insecurity”.[5]

The notion that capitalism has broken or severely damaged the organising power of the working class appears to make more intuitive sense today than the first set of arguments – the “embourgeoisement thesis” – which flourished most obviously during the long post-war boom. It therefore forms the focus of this article. There are several interlocking strands to the argument. One is that in a “globalised world”, with the possibility of offshoring and outsourcing to cheap labour production sites in Asia, the bosses now have the whip hand and the working class now lacks the power to stand and fight. If workers do organise, the bosses can simply shut down their operations – whether they be call centres or car factories — and move overseas. Thus John Holloway argues “Capital can move from one side of the world to the other within seconds.”[6] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri likewise claim in Empire that “Capital can withdraw from negotiation with a given local population by moving its site to another point in the global network… Entire labouring populations have thus found themselves in increasingly precarious employment situations.”[7] Australian writers Mike Rafferty and Serena Yu assert: “Globalisation demands that business benchmark not to local or national standards, but to global productivity and profit norms, and this has created real threats that business will move production to another location if labour resists.”[8] Fearing such an outcome, workers keep their heads down.

A second thread to the argument is that the old blue collar industries of big factories, construction sites and mines have been replaced by small offices and “service” work dominated by fast food workers, hotel receptionists and architects. Workers in such workplaces, writers suggest, lack the collective power of the car workers, the coal miners, the construction labourers, the metal and engineering workers and the railway workers who once dominated working class life in Australia. They are not concentrated in sufficient numbers to organise unions and lack the traditions of blue collar industries. Rafferty and Yu describe a “fragmentation in the relationship between workers” and “a decline in union density as a result of disaggregation of workplaces” even as they also point out that some workplaces are getting larger.[9]

Third, it is widely asserted that the “permanent” or “standard” workforce is now being overwhelmed by the rise of the “non-standard” or “precarious” workforce stuck in “McJobs” – whether part time, casual or contractor. Insecurity and precariousness of employment and income have supposedly become the norm as workers shift from one unstable job to another. Drew Cottle and Angela Keys argue that “A work-house society has been created through speed-ups, casual work, on-call work, piece work, overtime, shiftwork and temporary work.”[10] Australian academic Ngaire Bissett writes that “Since the 1980s and 1990s non-standard work has become the norm for a wide variety of organisations (for example, in banking, finance, sales) and the shift away from permanent, core employment has affected all levels of the workforce.”[11] A Sydney University research team commented in 2003 that “The Australian workforce is now fairly evenly divided between those working as permanent employees, and those working on a non-standard or a more precarious basis.”[12]

In the 1980s and 1990s, some writers argued that the workforces of countries like Britain and Australia were being divided into a relatively privileged “core” and a marginalised “periphery” or that these societies were increasingly divided on a two-thirds, one-third basis, with the former living a comfortable existence, the latter trapped in poverty.[13] More common in recent years, however, is the argument that, for any but the top section of the workforce – upper professionals and managers — the conditions of the vast majority of the workforce are being driven down to those of the erstwhile “periphery”. Former ILO labour economist Guy Standing asserts that:

The old working class…has shrunk to a dwindling minority, while a growing proportion of workers are forming what should be called a precariat. Millions of people all over the world are doing precarious jobs, flittering between casual activities, often without a sense of labour direction, living in what is almost urban nomadism… In a global market system, in which a growing majority are engaged in what are euphemistically called services, most people are outside anything like the standard employment relationship.[14]

Little wonder, then, that Standing sees trade unions as increasingly obsolete.

Women in particular are thought to suffer from marginalisation. Dominant in feminist literature since the 1970s has been the idea that women are disproportionately employed in casual and part time jobs and are restricted to only a few occupations and industries. In the 1970s and early 1980s it was commonly argued that women were a disposable workforce, liable to be squeezed out of work in times of recession.From what was perceived to be their inherent weakness in the workforce and their segregation into a narrow range of jobs, women were thought to be either unorganisable industrially, or to possess different interests to male workers, and as such could only advance their economic interests by means other than strikes or other forms of direct action.[15]

In this article I am going to argue that these arguments are partially or totally incorrect. First, they are inaccurate descriptions of the reality of working life for most Australian workers. Second, even if true, these assertions would do little or nothing to explain the relative industrial and political quiescence of the Australian working class for the past three decades. And third, none of the changes that have occurred prevent any revival of working class combativity. The facts matter. If the working class really has been thoroughly broken down and atomised, it is no longer capable of overthrowing capitalism. This explains why these ideas continue to be regurgitated by a wide range of conservative journalists, academics, politicians, think tanks and business leaders no matter how many times they are debunked by careful statistical study[16]; they serve a useful purpose for opponents of revolution.

But these ideas are replayed not just by those who wish to defend the status quo but also those aligned with the left who have given up on, or only ever toyed with, the notion of working class self-emancipation, in the context of working class defeats and retreat since the mid 1970s. If the working class is no longer capable of changing society, then different social forces will have to take up the slack, either in their own right, or in combination with the working class. Hence Hardt and Negri’s “multitude”, spelled out in their influential books, Empire and Multitude. Negri first developed his ideas of what came to be called “the multitude” in response to the failure of the hoped-for Italian “revolutionary moment” of 1976. He argued that the proletariat would need to be redefined to include the “marginal” elements – the unemployed, students, the squatters, temporary workers, ex-students who hung around the universities. Needless to say, the battles fought by these “marginal” elements in isolation from the factory working class were soon smashed by the Italian police. The ideas re-emerged in the autonomist movement into which Hardt and Negri launched their books in the early 2000s. “Network organisations” were now to the fore in place of unions and political parties. Hardt and Negri argue that “different fields of struggle” – workers, peasants, blacks, women and so forth – “autonomously march forward on parallel paths”.[17] The Italian group Ya Basta! (Enough!) spelled it out. Chris Harman explains, quoting the words of a leading Ya Basta figure, Luca:

Confronting the system does not mean developing workers’ struggles but calling the “general citizenship strike” involving “not just workers – it’s about migrants, pensioners, the unemployed, all the ‘invisibles’ whose lives have been atomised”.[18]

These ideas continue to have currency even as the first signs of a revival of serious working class struggle begin to emerge in Europe and North Africa. In a debate with Alex Callinicos, a leading member of the British Socialist Workers Party, New Statesman blogger Laurie Penny invoked them at the height of the student revolt in Britain in December 2010 to decry the idea of building a revolutionary party based in the organised working class:

The structures of labour and power and information distribution have changed irrevocably since the 1980s…which is why the structures of solidarity and revolution have to change too. The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production while keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities. Thatcher, Reagan and Blair deregulated oppression. In order to be properly effective, rebels have to deregulate themselves.[19]

The argument about the destruction of working class power also matters in terms of rebuilding trade unions. If workers lack the power to collectively withdraw their labour and bring the boss to heel, then other union strategies need to be developed, involving, for example, the courts, Labor governments, or Fair Work Australia. We might also include here the recent emphasis in union circles of “community unionism” in which strikes are shifted sideways, if not off the stage altogether, in favour of building alliances with community groups.[20] The notion that “old fashioned” strikes based on “traditional” methods of organising are now rendered impotent or impossible by the restructuring of the working class (and the allegedly unchallengeable might of the courts) is, of course, a godsend for the union bureaucracy which likes nothing better than a seemingly left wing argument by which to justify its inactivity and passivity. Thus the ACTU press release marking the release of the major study by Rafferty and Yu in 2010 started with the comment “Casual, part time and contract work is gradually overtaking permanent full time employment as the standard type of job for the majority of working Australians.” Its solution to the pressures facing working Australians? “It’s time for businesses and government and unions to work together on these major challenges.”[21] Not a revival of the class struggle, but the perpetuation of the same rotten politics of class collaboration that have brought us record low strike rates and union density.

In a series of set piece battles with bosses and governments, from the 1998 MUA dispute to the Your Rights at Work campaign, the ACTU has combined supposedly clever legal and public relations strategies with crawling to the ALP. Strikes have been utterly sidelined. The failure of this strategy to halt attacks by employers and governments, both Coalition and Labor, is testimony to the bankruptcy of this argument.

What can appear at times to be a dry argument about statistics is actually of vital importance to the labour movement and the revival of socialist politics. So let’s go through the arguments one at a time before drawing out some of the conclusions that follow – conclusions that point to the fact that although capitalism, and thus the Australian working class, is in a state of constant flux, Australian workers retain as much, if not more, power to change society than ever before.[22]

Is the working class in irreversible decline?

It is worth establishing that, regardless of changes to its internal structure, the working class does still constitute the large majority of the Australian population. The concept of class used here is the Marxist one.[23] Class is about the relationships amongst different groups of people involved in the process of creating social wealth. The working class is made up of those, whether they do blue or white collar jobs, who sell their ability to work for a wage and have little or no formal control over what they and others do in the workplace. The bottom 60 per cent of Australia’s 8.6 million households, comprising largely the working class, hold only 18 per cent of total national wealth, overwhelmingly in the form of homes (and some superannuation). They must be counterposed, most obviously, to the capitalist class, the owners and controllers of productive resources, who purchase workers’ labour power and, as a consequence, own the products of their labour. In Australia, approximately 200 households each hold wealth worth more than $200 million, while 27 households hold wealth of one billion dollars plus. These are the big capitalists. In contrast to the “wealth” of the working class, the wealth of the super rich is mostly in the form of income producing assets – land, property, factories etc.[24]

In addition to the fundamental classes in capitalist societies, defined by the relationship between capital and wage labour, there are other classes. The traditional middle class or petty bourgeoisie combine in one person or family the roles of boss and worker. They are the self-employed, reliant on their own labour and perhaps that of a small number of family members or employees. In large enterprises there are intermediate layers, the new middle class of managers and professionals who either have a great deal of autonomy in their work or spend some or all of their time supervising subordinates. At the top, this layer, both in the private and the public sector, shades off into top management which is part of the capitalist class, who control not only the efforts of those below them but also make important decisions for the organisation, for example about the products or services it creates and investment strategies. At the bottom, leading hands and people with more experience on the job who are responsible for those with less experience and/or lower classifications, shade off into the working class. Although relations of work have a major impact on how much money people have, their form and level of income is a consequence rather than a defining feature of class understood in these Marxist terms.

It is probably true that the proportion of the labour force working in blue collar jobs has fallen in recent decades (but more on this below). However, from a Marxist perspective, which focuses on power relations at work, the widespread notion that “workers” are limited to people who do manual, blue collar jobs is unsatisfactory. People engaged in blue collar activities may be small business people who do some work themselves and employ others. Many of the white collar employees of call centres, the taxation office, insurance companies and banks, for example, have very little control over what they do at work; their incomes are often low compared to those of skilled blue collar employees. We cannot rely on “employment status”, especially the distinction between the self-employed and employees, to define the working class either. The category “self-employed” is a legal rather than a social one. For the convenience of their employers, there are workers who are legally self-employed contractors. CEOs and other senior managers are legally employees, but they have a large amount of control over both the assets of their companies and corporations and the hiring, firing, conditions and work activity of most other employees.

Taking all these factors into account, we are in a position to come to some conclusions about the size of the Australian working class today. By combining the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) occupation and employment status categories, we arrive at a figure of around 70 per cent of the labour force, or close to eight million workers. There was a slight tendency for this figure to decline, from around 73 per cent in 1986 to above 69 per cent in 2008,[25] but this hardly lends credibility to the idea that the working class is disappearing, given the deficiencies of the statistical categories and the high percentage of workers in the labour force throughout the period. Widening our focus to the population at large, we also have to factor in the dependents of those in working class jobs, plus the unemployed, plus working class pensioners. While they lack the strategic power of those in work, the focus of this article, they nonetheless contribute to our understanding of the fact that the working class is the overwhelming majority of the Australian population.

Having established the continuing centrality of the working class as a social category, I now turn to the arguments that are made by those who deny its continuing power.

From metal bashers to baristas?

There is no doubt that the structure of the Australian workforce has changed significantly in recent decades. Sydney University academics Brigid van Wanrooy and her colleagues argue that:

The trajectory of labour market evolution in Australia changed dramatically after the downturn in the early 1980s; it was then accelerated and entrenched during the recession of the early 1990s. All indicators suggest that we are currently consolidating, if not accelerating, fundamental shifts in Australian work and working life that have been underway since the early 1980s.[26]

There is nothing novel about constant changes to the structure of the workforce, they are an inevitable result of the ceaseless restructuring of industry that accompanies capitalist accumulation. The rural sector (agriculture, forestry and fishing) accounted for 26 per cent of the workforce in 1911 but only 1.5 per cent today.[27] In 1911, manufacturing accounted for one in five of the workforce, a figure that peaked in 1966 at one in four. It now stands at one in eleven. Mining has fallen from 6 per cent of the workforce in 1911 to less than 2 per cent today. By contrast, the retail workforce has grown strongly (standing now at 11 per cent of the total), as have jobs in health care and social assistance (also now 11 per cent) and a range of personal and business services. As the industrial structure has changed, so too have occupations. Since 1964, the share of tradesmen, labourers and miners in the workforce has dropped from 37 per cent to 25-28 per cent. By contrast, the share of professionals has more than doubled, from 10 to 22 per cent, clerical and administrative workers are up from 13 to 16 per cent, while managers have grown from 7 to 10 per cent.

But these data do not at all suggest that blue collar workers are an endangered species. Manufacturing industry may have declined but the proportion of the workforce in construction – approaching 10 per cent – is at a record high, up from 8.4 per cent in 1964.[28] Blue collar workers can be found not just in the classical metal bashing and construction industries but across the entire spectrum of the “service” sector, which now accounts for 75 per cent of the labour force, up from 54 per cent in 1971.[29] Workers in this sector are not limited to university professors, surgeons, baristas and hotel receptionists. They include truck, train and bus drivers, forklift drivers in warehouses, crane drivers on the waterfront, postal workers, garbos, grounds staff on university campuses, security guards in art galleries and cleaners.

A lot of the arguments about the disappearance of blue collar workers are based on a definitional confusion. There is a wide range of jobs that were once incorporated in “manufacturing” ­— for example, office, catering, cleaning, security and maintenance workers employed in factories – but which have now been outsourced to contractors such as Spotless, Skilled etc. The Australian Bureau of Statistics now counts them as “service sector” workers but their jobs have not changed one bit. A factory worker who makes Papa Giuseppe pizzas which are then delivered frozen to supermarkets works in food products manufacturing. Someone who makes pizzas at your local pizzeria works in services. A traditional print compositor working in linotype was regarded as a manual worker; their equivalent today, someone who lays out copy on a computer, is white collar. Housewives who used to cook and clean at home did not appear in the formal labour force at all. Those who now work for laundry and home maintenance companies such as Jim’s Cleaning are part of the service sector workforce. These examples all demonstrate the fuzzy and highly permeable border between “industry” and “services”, and between “blue collar” and “white collar”.

Even if a careful examination of the data demonstrated that the share of manual workers, broadly defined and in whichever sector they were to be found, has actually fallen, this has nothing to do with the decline in working class power. Many white collar employees are to be found in working class jobs. Working conditions of blue and white collar workers have tended to converge over time. Compare the work experience of assembly line workers in a factory with that of call centre operators, supermarket check-out staff and nurses: all experience routinised and fragmented jobs; all suffer from a lack of control over their work, and all suffer common occupational health and safety problems, for example Repetition Strain Injury incidence amongst clerical workers, or manual lifting strains amongst nurses or workers in bottle shops. Mike Donaldson notes that workers undertaking “immaterial labour” (work focused on “knowledge, information, communication, human relationships and emotional affect”) are

experiencing an increasing assertion of external control, as well as working conditions that are simultaneously increasingly technologically sophisticated, labour intensive and hierarchically structured. The factory system is paradigmatic yet for all forms of paid work, including immaterial labour itself.[30]

There is, Donaldson argues, no contradiction between the growth of immaterial labour and routinisation of tasks and Taylorisation in the workplace.

There is no barrier to service sector workers engaging in powerful action that can hurt the capitalist class; not just the wharfies and truck drivers and construction workers but also the nurses and teachers. Public health and education are not directly productive in the Marxist sense. Nevertheless, they perform a crucial role in Australian capitalism, maintaining the health of the working class and training workers in important skills, both of which underpin the ability of capitalists to maximise the rate of exploitation of workers in productive industries. Further, while capitalists have for the past 100 years understood their broader interests in maintaining a publicly funded health and education system, they resent having to pay for it. Since the onset of crisis in the mid-1970s they have consistently pressured governments to squeeze funding to these sectors, driving the work intensification which has underpinned the growing willingness of workers in these sectors to take industrial action traditionally associated with “blue collar” workers.[31]

Bank workers, too, hold power in their hands. As banks have centralised their back office operations (e.g. processing of applications for loans, mortgages and superannuation), so they have created concentrations of bank workers in vital operations. So too IT support and maintenance staff who have the ability to stop giant companies in their tracks. As they too are concentrated in larger numbers and experience some degradation of their conditions they are ideally situated, along with bank workers, to play a role as the new shock troops of the Australian working class.[32]

There is a lot of myth making about the blue collar working class, against which white collar workers are invariably and unfavourably compared. Despite their reputation, many blue collar workers have historically been industrially apathetic. It is true that coal miners and wharfies have long been in the vanguard, but this was not always the case. Wharfies in Britain and Australia were regarded as unorganisable until the big union push in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Factory workers have by no means all been at the forefront of the struggle. Indeed, during the heyday of Australian manufacturing in the 1950s, the strike rate was at an historic low. And in the 1960s when skilled metal workers returned to action in large numbers, they were not followed, initially at least, by production workers, who were ridiculed or looked down upon by the tradesmen for their passivity. In the car plants in the 1960s it was the tradesmen who took the lead in establishing union organisation on the factory floor; production workers lagged behind. Ford Broadmeadows was known for militancy from the early 1970s, but its sister plant in Geelong was comparatively very sleepy, as were most of the car plants in Sydney and Brisbane. Union activism in the textile and clothing industry in regional Victoria in the 1950s and 1960s was virtually non-existent. Construction workers may have earned a reputation for industrial militancy from the late 1960s, but in the 1940s and 1950s, builders’ labourers were renowned for their industrial apathy. And coal miners may have been ready to down tools in the post-war decades, but this was much less the case in metalliferous mining.

So there is nothing about either white collar or blue collar workers that makes them more or less predisposed to industrial militancy. Further, any decline in the blue collar workforce that may have taken place tells us nothing about its strength. Like the bank and IT worker, each wharfie now has far more capital equipment with which to work. They are much more productive than those who went before. The boss is therefore far more dependent on them to work to release the value embedded in this machinery. Just in time techniques also vest workers in strategic industries – for example trucking, airlines, warehouses and railways – with enormous power. This power is demonstrated in the automotive industry every time a components company shuts down during a strike – very quickly the knock-on effects are felt throughout the industry with production lines in the big three manufacturers – Toyota, Ford and GMH — coming to a halt within hours.

Finally, the notion that declining union membership can be explained by the decline in blue collar work and the rise of white collar is undermined by the fact that union density has declined across the board, in both blue and white collar occupations and industries.[33] Clearly the explanation must be broader than the simple industrial recomposition of the workforce.

Casual and part time: the new “standard” workforce?

There is no doubt that casuals and part time employees have been growing at a faster rate than “full time permanent” staff in the past two decades.[34] (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Growth in non-standard forms of employment, 1992-2009[35]

Putting it another way, the number of employees grew by 2.7 million between 1992 and 2009.[36] Less than half (1.2 million) of this was accounted for by permanent full time employees; the other 1.5 million were employed on either a part time or casual basis (and sometimes both). This is part of a long term trend. In 1964, only 6 per cent of the workforce were part time. By 1978, the figure had more than doubled to 16 per cent and now sits at 30 per cent.[37] Australia has one of the highest rates of part time employment in the OECD.[38] But when we look at the aggregate numbers of employees, a rather different picture occurs. Sixty two per cent of all employees in 2009 were still employed on a permanent full time basis. This figure is certainly down on the 70 per cent employed on a permanent full time basis in 1992, but such staff are far from a minority of workers.[39] (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Changing workforce composition, 1992-2009[40]

Full time employment, as compared to part time employment, is still the norm, especially amongst the core workforce – those aged 25 to 54, more than three quarters of whom are in full time jobs. Significant declines in the share of full time employment have been registered amongst those approaching retirement and amongst those aged 15-24 (see Figure 3). However, amongst those aged 25-54, full time employment has barely dropped. Furthermore, in all three age groups, the decline in the full time employment share appears to have slowed down or even ceased since the early 2000s.[41]

Figure 3: Proportion of Australian workforce employed full time by age groups, 1978-2010[42]

Other data reinforce the fact that a large majority of Australian employees work in relatively “traditional” working patterns. Nearly two thirds (64 per cent) of all employees (including part time and casuals) work a five-day week and 77 per cent work the same number of hours each week. More than two thirds of all employees (68.6 per cent) work on weekdays only.[43] The idea, then, that “non-standard” jobs are now dominant, or that permanent full time jobs have gone the way of the dodo, is clearly erroneous.

We should then break down what we mean by “non-standard” workers. Casual and part time employees are often bracketed together as if they are one and the same. There is some justification for this treatment. Nearly three quarters (72 per cent) of all casual staff are employed on a part time basis. Nonetheless, that still leaves 28 per cent of all casual staff, over 600,000 such staff, employed on a full time basis.[44] One third of casual employees usually work a five-day week. Another 11 per cent work six or seven days a week.[45] And the proportion of employees who are casual, having risen from 21 per cent to 25 per cent in the 1990s, has remained static in the past decade.[46]

The conditions of casuals are not significantly different from non-casuals in some important respects. While they lack paid leave entitlements and are more likely to be part time, casuals were nearly as likely as non-casuals to tell the ABS that they had “some say in start/finish times” (40 per cent versus 43 per cent) in 2007. Fewer could choose when they took their holidays, but the difference was not substantial (77 per cent versus 89 per cent). Their jobs were not in constant flux — nearly two thirds (65 per cent) of casuals work the same number of hours each week and 74 per cent expect to be still working with their employer in 12 months time, as compared to 89 per cent of other workers.[47] Casuals are more likely to think that they will lose their jobs or be retrenched within 12 months than are permanents (15 per cent versus 10 per cent in 2009) but the proportion is relatively small in both cases and, as I shall establish later, greater than the proportion of those who are actually forced out by their boss.[48]

When we break down the casual workforce into three categories, a further picture appears. A large proportion of those employed casually are high school or university students – 40 per cent of all casuals in 2009 were aged 15-24 (compared to only 14 per cent of non-casuals). This fact helps explain why 45 per cent of all casuals have been employed in their current job for less than one year.[49] The situation is very different for older casual employees, a substantial proportion of whom are employed on a reasonably long term basis: average job tenure for casual males and females aged 25 to 54 in 1995 was 3.9 years and 3.7 years respectively. While this was significantly lower than for permanent full time staff, (7.5 years and 6.0 years respectively, job tenure of just under four years gives casual workers plenty of opportunities to get organised industrially.[50]

It is important to distinguish casuals from what are sometimes called temps, i.e.those employed on fixed-term contracts. In November 2009 only 330,000 employees, both permanent and casual, were employed on a fixed term contract. This amounts to just 4 per cent of total employees. This does not mean that temps are irrelevant and that the temp status does not have a significant impact on perceptions of job security amongst many workers. More than one third (34.6 per cent) of all employees working in education and training are employed on fixed term contracts and 14 per cent in both public administration and safety and health care and social assistance. However, in 15 of the remaining 16 sectors, the proportion of those on fixed term contracts is less than 4 per cent.[51] And while those on short term contracts obviously suffer from more job insecurity than those on permanent positions, on most other counts their working conditions are similar to the latter and they are actually more satisfied with their jobs than are permanents.[52]

What of part timers? Like casuals, part time workers are not all in a precarious position. Forty-two per cent of part time staff, well over one million, were employed as permanents in 2009. This is substantially lower than the 90 per cent of all full time employees who are permanents, but it is not an insignificant share. Further, it is this section of the workforce – the permanent part timers, that has been growing most rapidly in the past two decades, not casual part timers, even if the latter are still a bigger share of the total.[53] Very importantly, part timers are no more likely than are full timers to feel that they will lose their jobs in a given 12 month period.[54]

As with casual workers, the biggest driver of rising part time work in recent decades has been amongst those aged 15-24, who account for 30 per cent of the part time workforce. The proportion of employed men aged 15-24 working part time increased from 13 per cent to 36 per cent between 1985 and 2005, and for women from 25 per cent to 55 per cent.[55] The most important factor underpinning this growth is the rapid increase in the number of those staying in education beyond the age of 15 and their increasing preparedness to work while studying – one third of all full time secondary school students and more than one half (53 per cent) of all university and TAFE students work part time jobs now.[56] The result is that more than three quarters of the entire teenage part time workforce comprises young people in full time education.[57]

In no sense are young people becoming detached from the workforce by virtue of their increased propensity to work part time. Indeed, their desire to undertake further study is driven by their wish precisely to find full time work on graduation: many jobs are out of reach to those without post-school qualifications. Further, to the extent that university students, who have massively grown in number, are more likely to undertake paid work during semester, driven by financial necessity, they are actually more integrated into the workforce than in the early post war decades, and this applies particularly to women, more on which below.

Amongst the core workforce, those aged 25-54, the proportion of part timers has been relatively stable, rising for men from 3 per cent to 8 per cent and for women from 41 per cent to 42 per cent between 1985 and 2005.[58] The big surge in the 1960s and 1970s of married women going back to work while raising young children has now plateaued. Unlike the young part timers, women aged 25-54, who comprise one half of the part time workforce, are long term employees in most cases – anecdotal evidence confirms that employers like to employ middle-aged women precisely because of their “reliability” and “stability” knowing that they are either sole breadwinners or contribute a vital income to the joint household given rising household indebtedness and high house prices relative to wages.

Finally, it is important to be aware of what the ABS counts as part time work – all those who work less than 35 hours per week! In 2010 the average hours worked by part timers was 16.3.[59] Given that many part timers, such as high school students, work for no more than 10 or 12 hours, this means that a fair proportion of part timers work three or four days per week, meaning that they are engaged in work on a similar basis as full timers.

This review of the data demonstrates that standard jobs – 38-hour, ongoing work, is still the dominant form for most Australian workers. Those young adults who do not work in such arrangements are not permanently stuck in part time or casual work for the most part, but are in transition to full time jobs on completing their education. A fair number of the younger part time workers may want more hours but the majority of part time workers are happy with the hours that they work.[60] Women in child bearing and rearing years, who comprise another important section of the “non-standard” workforce, are well embedded in the workforce and are in no sense stuck in “McJobs” of short duration and precariousness. Then there are those workers in transition to retirement who make up the remaining 20 per cent of the part time workforce. Many are combining wages and various forms of retirement income. It is neither financially advantageous for this group of workers, nor physically possible in some cases, to undertake a 38 hour a week “standard” job. In all three age cohorts, the “non-standard” nature of their jobs is an important element enabling them to actually stay in paid work.

Clearly, however, there is also a degree of coercion involved in the growth of “non-standard” work – employers who have shifted workers from permanent to casual or full time to part time in order to save money and boost their profits, regardless of the wishes of the workers. Thus, for example, the fact that many teachers graduating from university can only find short term contracts is not the result of their desire for “work life balance” but an indicator of the power of state governments versus the education unions. Likewise, the fact that junior teaching positions in the university system are now predominantly casual tells us about the power of senior management as against the National Tertiary Education Union. But, if the wharfies – unskilled men for the most part, some with criminal records, a life only one step up from a genuinely precarious existence and confronting a plentiful supply of potential scabs – could be forged into a militant union, so too can young school and university teachers who are in a far more advantageous position.

The fact that almost half of all casuals work five days or more per week and more than 40 per cent of all part timers are in permanent positions suggests that such non-standard workers are sufficiently integrated into the workforce to open them up to union organisation – if they are not already members. And the casual status of a lot of “non-standard” workers is a reflection of the weakness of the unions, not the cause of it.

Are women workers weak and marginalised?

Women are oppressed, and working class women suffer especially keenly from that oppression. Pay is worse, promotion prospects fewer and lifetime earnings (and thus superannuation) substantially lower than for men. Indeed, reversing a trend since the 1970s, the gap in wages between men and women has grown in recent years. These facts, however, do not mean that women are marginal to the workforce or lack potential industrial power.[61] Women are far more entrenched in the workforce than ever before.[62] The proportion of all women of working age in the workforce has doubled in the past 50 years, from 29 per cent in 1954 to 45 per cent in 1980 to 59 per cent in 2010.[63] The biggest increase has been amongst married women, 59 per cent of whom were in paid work in 2005, up from a mere 25 per cent in 1964; their participation rate is now higher than that of non-married women and has been so since the late 1980s.

Women are no more likely to shift between jobs either. Despite the fact that more women are in casual employment, the proportion of women who had been in their current jobs for less than a year in 2010 was only slightly higher than for men (18.7 per cent versus 17.5 per cent). Reflecting broken career paths due to time spent raising children, the proportion of women holding their jobs for more than 10 years was lower than for men (22.7 per cent versus 26.5 per cent) but again the difference was not substantial.[64] Van Wanrooy et al found in their study of more than 6,000 workers that “there was no noticeable overall difference in levels of job security or dispensability between males and females” between 2006 and 2009.[65]

Women, like men, are more likely to be working part time than previously, but most women are in part time work for only part of their lives: together with males when they are studying, and then again at some point or periods in their late 20s to early 40s, the peak child bearing and rearing ages. And it remains the case that in every age category from age 20 to age 54, more women work full time than part time.[66] The tendency is for an ever shortening of the time elapsed between bearing children and returning to work — more than half (53.4 per cent) of all women with young children aged 0-4 are now engaged in paid employment. It is also far from the case that women are all stuck in a narrow range of low skill occupations. Female representation in the more highly skilled sections of the workforce has risen from 40 per cent in 1999 to 45 per cent in 2010 – in line with their representation in the workforce as a whole.[67] Live-in domestic service, which was once a major employer of women, has essentially vanished.[68] The strong growth in the proportion of the female workforce with post-school qualifications, and not just in traditional areas, continues apace. Finally, the idea, popular in the 1970s, that women constitute some form of reserve army of labour, subject to the sack when business conditions deteriorated, has been repeatedly refuted by the experience of every jobs downturn since then. In all four cases – those of 1981-83, 1990-92, 2000-01 and 2008-09, female full time jobs fell by a far smaller degree than for men.[69]

All these changes are of immense significance. First, growing female participation has led to a big increase in the absolute size of the employed working class. The total labour force, which includes those employed and those unemployed but looking for work, has grown as a proportion of the total population – from 58 per cent in 1964 to 66 per cent in 2010, and it has been rising female participation that has driven this trend as the male participation rate has sunk.[70] Second, it has changed the working class for the better. Traditionally women were regarded as having a conservatising impact on the class struggle. Although some of this was just stereotyping by union officials who never bothered to try to organise women workers, it was the case that women were less likely to be trade unionists, less likely to strike, and were marginally more likely to vote conservative in the first half of the twentieth century. This relative conservatism reflected the closeting of many women in the stifling world of child rearing and housekeeping, either as mothers or as domestic servants, where they were much more subject to the barrage of conservative propaganda from governments, employers and Church.[71] Whereas this conservatising impact could be and often was attenuated by the involvement of working class women in struggles by the unemployed and trade unionists (for example, in the mining towns or waterfront), or on occasion through their own involvement in strikes, when they could often be more militant than the men, it was nonetheless the case that women played less of a role in political and union life than did men for many decades.[72]

As married women were increasingly drawn out of the private sphere of the home to the public sphere of work and, with this, gained some degree of economic independence, so they advanced politically. Women are now equally likely as men to be trade union members and, by some reckoning, equally likely to vote Labor.[73] And, given that many work in health, education and the public service, women have been involved in the thick of strikes and other forms of industrial action in the last two decades. Working class women march alongside men in the ranks of the organised working class, even if they continue to suffer from a double burden of oppression.

Here today, gone tomorrow?

On average Australians stay in their jobs for seven years. By comparison with European workers, this is relatively short. The average in the UK is nine years, 11 years in Germany and 12 years in Italy and France.[74] Nonetheless, there is no evidence of increasing job instability, rather the opposite. In 1975, 23.1 per cent of all those employed had held their current job for less than a year. In 2010, the proportion had fallen to 18.0 per cent. The proportion of those who had held their job for more than five years rose from 37.3 per cent to 42.4 per cent.[75] A four-year longitudinal study of more than 6,000 workers by van Wanrooy et al found that over the period from 2006 to 2009, nearly 60 per cent of all employees aged 25 to 44 did not change jobs, and nearly a third only changed jobs once.[76] For those aged over 45, 71 per cent did not change jobs. It is only amongst the young that job churn is evident, with 30 per cent of all younger workers aged 16-24 having two or three new jobs in this period, a figure which is hardly surprising given the transitions in the life circumstances of young adults. Further, it is not the case that most job churn is the result of workers being tossed out of their jobs by capricious bosses: in any given year, only 2 to 3 per cent of the workforce suffers retrenchment.[77]

Job stability is not the same as the absence of perceived job insecurity. Workers can be insecure about their work prospects and therefore unlikely to quit voluntarily, pushing up average job tenure. Further, Kevin Doogan points out that workers can have a strong sense of job insecurity far outweighing the actual chance they will lose their jobs. Doogan attributes a lot of this to media attention to the wave of white collar redundancies in the first half of the 1990s, the first time that white collar workers had been hit to the same degree as blue collar workers.[78] But fear of job loss also results from measures that the bosses themselves take – during recessions, the bosses go out of their way to exaggerate the threat of job loss precisely in order to cow the unions. And not just during recessions. American labour researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner has tracked union organising campaigns in the United States: in half of all cases employers threatened to shut down part or all of their operations, but in less than 3 per cent of cases did the bosses follow through with this threat.[79] And finally, there are several dimensions to job insecurity that do not necessarily track the actual likelihood that workers will lose their jobs: these include the availability of alternative jobs at equivalent pay and conditions, the pace of organisational and technological change in the workplace and the income available to workers who lose their jobs.

But while job stability may not be the same as the absence of job insecurity, there is not much evidence that the Australian working class has been significantly weakened by a paralysing fear of job loss. Even in the aftermath of the global financial crisis (GFC), 90 per cent of all employees expected to still be with their current employer or business 12 months hence, and the 10 per cent of those who did not included those who desired to change jobs as well as those who feared that they might be forced out.[80] Further, “precariousness”, about which much has been written in the past 20 years, is nothing new for the working class. Workers in most areas of the private sector had absolutely no redundancy rights until 1984 when the Arbitration Commission introduced minimum notice and payouts for workers. Unfair dismissal provisions were only introduced in 1993. Before these formal and minimal legal protections, the only thing that stood between private sector workers and instant dismissal was a strong union.

Given the weakness of both legal protections and union strength in most workplaces, why do workers enjoy relative job security in Australia? The most important factor is that most workers, once employed, are not easily replaceable. Bosses spend a lot of money in selecting, recruiting and training staff. Once employed for more than a month or two, workers develop a range of tacit skills that relate to the operation of the company or enterprise and which bosses cannot easily buy “off the shelf” from outside. This is illustrated by the fact that employers who undertake mass sackings invariably bemoan the loss of “corporate memory” in the aftermath.

Workers are, if anything, becoming less dispensable because they are, on average, becoming more skilled. This is a controversial assertion. There are clearly areas where work has been deskilled: the apprenticed printing trades for example. Nonetheless, in contrast to the exclusive focus on deskilling associated with Harry Braverman’s influential book Labor and Monopoly Capital, a range of writers have argued that there are both deskilling and upskilling trends at work in manufacturing. Chris Harman points out that along with “the disappearance of particular skills learnt through long years of apprenticeship in industry” there has also been a “rise in the average level of literacy and numeracy required to handle a range of jobs continually changing due to technological innovation”.[81] And while tradespeople may have been fired in large numbers at times, the general trend in manufacturing is for a reduced demand for unskilled labour in response to a shift to more high value added operations. Australian government researcher David Rozenbes commented in 2010: “Manufacturing’s proportion of employment declined…because the industry restructured towards advanced manufacturing and knowledge intensive activities, which means that the falls in the proportion of employment are likely to have come from lower-skilled areas of the industry.”[82]

This trend is not restricted to manufacturing: the proportion of the total workforce employed in the highest skilled occupations has risen from 26 per cent in 1999 to 30 per cent in 2010, as against a decline in the proportion of those in low skilled occupations, from 21 per cent to 18 per cent. In construction, the use of prefabricated materials has reduced demand for highly skilled craftsmen on building sites but this has occurred alongside a decline in the need for manual lift and carry work.[83] These trends are accompanied by a steady rise in the proportion of the workforce with post-school qualifications in every occupation, including labourers and production workers.[84] Further, the upskilling of the workforce in the context of the much vaunted “ageing workforce” (and the desire by bosses to skimp on training) puts workers in a stronger bargaining position. Business is well aware of this contradiction that results from their failure to spend on training. During the GFC Australian Industry Group CEO Heather Ridout dismissed the idea that bosses could now rest easy with plentiful labour at their disposal: “As soon as the labour market conditions improve, skill shortages will re-emerge with a vengeance, especially given our ageing workforce.”[85] And so it turned out, just 18 months later, as the Business Council bemoaned pressing skill shortages in 2010, and not just in the obvious area of mining but also in telecommunications (with the National Broadband Network “causing a lot of wage pressure on engineers”), health and education.[86] The metal tradesmen of the 1960s had tremendous bargaining leverage due to the shortage of skilled trades in Australia at the time. Merely the threat of a strike, or at most a strike of a few hours, was sufficient to bring the bosses to heel. And their unions used this fact to great advantage, pushing up wages year after year. Unions could do this today if they had the will.

So much for the data, which tend to undermine bleak notions of continuous job churn and precariousness for the Australian working class. But what does any of this mean for the organising capacity and power of the working class? The answer is not altogether obvious because there is no straightforward relationship between job stability and militancy. This can be demonstrated in a range of ways. First, workers in those industries where they traditionally enjoyed “jobs for life” and minimal job churn – universities, the public service, the post office and telephone service, local government and the banks – have historically been utterly backward industrially and politically. Secure employment bred conservatism and loyalty to the boss. By contrast, those sectors with high levels of casual employment and turnover – such as shearers, the wharfies and seafarers, the meatworkers, miners and the cane cutters – were bastions of industrial militancy in the first half of the twentieth century. When such workers won employment security through union campaigns, industrial militancy tended to drop, even if union membership stayed high. Employment security can breed a degree of passivity. Likewise it has only been in the last 20 years, when casualisation and redundancies have become a regular feature of employment in the university system, that the university unions have mounted strikes. A case could be made that it is precariousness, not job stability, that underpins workers’ willingness to strike and exercise their power. Indeed, many employers have recognised that loyalty, and thus industrial peace, can be bought by providing employment security.

There is no straightforward story to tell about job churn and the organising capacity of the working class when we compare historical periods. In the Great Depression of the early 1930s, when jobs were very insecure and shortly after the unions had suffered some heavy defeats, the strike rate plunged. But when unemployment began to dip from 1934 onward, and job security thereby improved, industrial militancy, driven by workers’ memories of being shafted by the bosses, increased. The strike rate rose sharply after World War II, when mainstream economists were predicting a return to Depression conditions, but then slumped in the 1950s when full employment had been secured. It is possible that the relationship is dynamic. Insecurity, such as that experienced by the wharfies and the coal miners in the 1920s and 1930s, can drive workers to fight. They may then win job security and establish closed shops but on winning these, relations with the bosses settle down for a prolonged period. For example, union coverage peaked in 1955 on the back of a surge of union struggle in the 1940s, but the 1950s was also a trough in the strike rate and a period of tremendous social conservatism. All of these factors demonstrate that job stability, or lack of it, explains very little of the ups and downs of the class struggle.

Contractors and labour hire

Contrary to the fantasies spun by John Howard and the right wing think tanks, Australia is not becoming a nation of thriving entrepreneurs. Indeed, according to The Australian newspaper, itself a regular proponent of such arguments, the proportion of employers and self-employed, as a share of all non-farm employment, fell from 14 per cent in the early 1990s to 10 per cent in 2008.[87] The ABS uses a broader measure of self-employed which counts owner managers of incorporated and unincorporated enterprises, but the same trend is obvious — with owner-managers as a proportion of all those employed relatively steady at about 20 per cent in the 1990s and early 2000s, but then falling sharply to only 16.5 per cent in 2009.[88] Far from declining, the proportion of employees in the workforce is rising.

Much media attention has been focused on the rise of independent contractors, defined by the ABS as those “who operate their own business and who contract to perform services for others without having the legal status of an employee”, and who may or may not employ others. One million Australians fall into this category out of the nearly 11 million employed.[89] Half work more than 40 hours a week. One third work in the construction industry, followed by 15 per cent in the professional, scientific and technical services industry. But these are not all little bosses in the making. Eighty per cent of contractors have no staff.[90] Nearly one quarter (23.5 per cent) of all independent contractors were not usually able to work on more than one active contract in a week, and more than one half (53 per cent) had only one active contract in the week that they were surveyed by the ABS in 2009. Forty-three per cent said that they did not have authority over their own working procedures.[91] These data suggest that a large proportion of independent contractors actually fall into the category of dependent contractors or quasi-employees, a conclusion drawn by some industrial courts and the NSW and Victorian governments in the 1990s and 2000s.[92] Adding weight to the idea that many of the self-employed, including contractors, are simply employees by another name, their proportion in the workforce tends to wax and wane in line with unemployment, rising steadily in the two decades to the early 1990s, a period marked by three major recessions and a trend increase in unemployment, and then falling back in the 2000s, a period of strong employment growth. Many of the self-employed are evidently people who, given the chance, wish to be employees with the associated steady incomes and workplace rights, not Liberal Party success stories.

Many contractors are simply former workers with industrial rights who have now been tipped by their bosses into self-employment as a way of offloading all the associated “on costs” of employing workers and breaking trade unions. More than 100,000 contractors with Australian Business Numbers (ABNs) are classified as labourers, giving credence to what the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) national secretary John Sutton called “an epidemic of sham contracting” in late 2009.[93] In a case in Perth in February 2011, CFMEU state secretary Kevin Reynolds was thrown off a building site after responding to complaints that contract labourers with ABNs were being paid $25 an hour, with no overtime, superannuation, holiday or other entitlements.[94] The dynamic is different for the 13 per cent of contractors who are IT professionals, where there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of public service professionals taking redundancy packages on Friday and being taken back on a contractor basis on the following Monday.

However several caveats need to be registered before we conclude that the bosses can simply use contractors to destroy trade unionism. First, there is no reliable data that contractors have become a significantly bigger proportion of the workforce in the past two decades. Indeed, as pointed out already, with booming employment in the past ten years, the proportion of employers and self-employed has actually fallen. Second, where they exist, contractors can be organised by unions. The Transport Workers Union has engaged in a campaign over years to represent owner drivers in the NSW trucking industry; the Electrical Trades Union represents thousands of electrical contractors. Precisely because many are employees in all but name and work for only one or two companies, contractors share a small number of common enemies and can find common cause. In this way, numerous groups of contractors working on gang systems – in the coal mines, in the cane fields, in the shearing sheds and at Broken Hill – were drawn into unions and union activism in earlier decades.

Contracting is not a new strategy of the bosses by any means. E.P. Thompson refers to it in English industry in the late 18th century, as employers debated the pros and cons of hiring contractors versus employees.[95] In most cases they plumped for employees for some of the reasons discussed in the previous section – they value the greater ability to control workers, as opposed to contractors, and they welcome the relative predictability and simplicity (one payroll) and the in-house skills that employees develop. There are therefore important limits to the degree to which Australian employers are going to convert their workforces into an army of contractors in order to break union power.

Agency workers, or labour hire – those who are employed by companies such as Kelly’s, Skilled, etc. – are a related section of the workforce. Many workers, ranging from factory labourers to nurses and council workers, are now employed by agencies rather than directly by the employer for whom, in some cases, they might once have worked as employees. Agency workers are commonly added to contractors as an indication that the working class is being balkanised – broken up into bits with no common identity and therefore lacking the power to come together and strike against the boss. While some agency workers switch from job site to job site on a monthly basis, they are however still employed by the same agency and, if collectively organised, could do much to squeeze the agencies. Further, security guards, cleaners, canteen staff, clerks and IT workers employed by big contractors such as Skilled are working for a much bigger company than many of them did as direct employees, giving them greater collective leverage. They may more easily develop a collective identity as, for example, Group 4 security guards than they ever could as a lone security guard in a plastics plant. In the 1970s crane drivers who worked for contractors and went from site to site were one of the most militant sections of the construction industry workforce. Further, agency workers do not all shift jobs on a week to week basis. Many, such as nurses, stay in the same workplace for years and, like contractors, become quasi-employees of the enterprise in which they work. If involved in a unionised workplace on strike they could withdraw their labour as well.

Whether bosses succeed in using agency workers to break trade union power is in the hands of the unions themselves. In 2007, the British Socialist Worker newspaper recorded a case of picketers on strike at a Royal Mail postal depot in England convincing two dozen Polish agency workers who had been bussed in by management to turn around and go home. The branch secretary recounts:

I explained the issues to them. I told them that I had worked at the mail centre for 25 years, and I told them what the union meant. I told them that if it were broken, we would all have to work like slaves.

His appeal met with a debate amongst the Polish workers and in the end only six of the 30 went in to scab. The branch secretary concluded:

The most important lesson out of this is that agency workers are workers. And that if you approach people as workers, and explain the issues to them, they can be won to our side.[96]

From mass to micro workplaces?

While many factories and steel plants have shed staff in the past 30 years, their place as big workplaces has been taken over by hospitals, universities, public service and local government offices, airports and call centres. Likewise the shift in residential construction from stand-alone houses in the suburbs to high rise residential apartment blocks in the inner city brings building workers in the residential, alongside those in the commercial, construction sector into larger concentrations. And some factories have increased in size as company operations have been centralised in one city and other plants shut down. Given these factors, it is not surprising, although it does run against the conventional wisdom, to find that workplaces are, on average, getting larger not smaller (see Figure 4). In 2001, big workplaces, those employing more than 500, accounted for 8.4 per cent of total employment (including self-employment). Eight years later, in 2009, the figure had risen to 11.4 per cent. By contrast the proportion working in workplaces with fewer than five staff shrank from 24 per cent to 20 per cent and, if the self-employed and family businesses were taken out of the picture, the share of the workforce in such small workplaces would be substantially lower.[97] Clearly the notion that we are increasingly working in small workplaces, with few prospects for developing strong unions, is on shaky ground.

Figure 4: Distribution of Australian workforce by workplace size (number employed), 2001 to 2009[98]

These data do not, however, convey the complete story: there are plenty of small workplaces which are part of much larger businesses – bank branches or bottle shops for example. There is a world of difference in the work experience, and industrial power, of a sales assistant working in a mum and dad newsagency and a bank clerk working for the Commonwealth Bank. In 2009, more than one half (52.4 per cent) of the total workforce (including the self-employed) worked in businesses (as opposed to workplaces) employing more than 100 staff. More than one third (34.8 per cent) worked for businesses employing more than 1,000 staff.[99] These data are comparable with the ABS study of manufacturing enterprises where data, provided by the employer, should presumably be more accurate. ABS tells us that just under one half (48.4 per cent) of the manufacturing industry workforce works in businesses employing more than 100. And bigger businesses continue to be central to the fortunes of Australian capitalism. Manufacturing enterprises employing more than 100 people accounted for 62 per cent of all wages and salaries paid, 71 per cent of all sales and service income and 64 per cent of total industry value added in 2006-07. Those businesses employing more than 1,000 account for 28 per cent of value added.[100]It is true that companies hiring only a few hundred workers are small by comparison with those in Europe, Japan or North America, but they are hardly small sweatshop enterprises. Action by workers in just a few medium sized workplaces has the potential to have significant ripple effects throughout the broader industry, if not the economy at large.

The concentration since the 1970s of retail outlets in shopping malls and offices in high rise office buildings also has the effect of bringing workers in different businesses together in closer proximity. In such circumstances it is easy to see how flying pickets could shut down an entire shopping centre or one or two storeys of an office building in a matter of minutes. Unionists in retail could picket other stores and shut down the loading and delivery bays, causing multiplier effects on every other shop or office using the same facilities. By comparison, retail workers in traditional high street shops had far less disruptive power. Finally, even if there were actually a trend towards small workplaces, this would not definitively cripple the Australian working class. While it is true that small workplaces have for decades had weaker union organisation on average, there are examples where this has not been the case – the shearing sheds and the Melbourne tramways being two examples. These cases demonstrate that workers can be organised even in workplaces employing only one or two dozen.

Footloose capital?

The notion that Australian workers lack power because their jobs may be easily shipped overseas to cheap labour destinations is very misleading.[101] Clearly there is a wide range of services that simply cannot be shipped in from overseas but have to be performed on site by Australian workers – everything from trucking, construction, the waterfront, hairdressing, bakeries, cinemas, dentists, solicitors and telecommunications, to government services such as education, health and social services, tax collection and energy generation and transmission. Thus wharfies and dental assistants have no fear that their jobs can be sent overseas or wages dropped to the equivalent levels in Egypt or the Philippines.

Then there are industries that are literally fixed in the ground such as the mines or big civil engineering projects. Evidently companies can simply shut up operations and shift to low cost mines in Asia or Latin America, but the favourable technical conditions of Australian resources and the infrastructure laid on for the mining companies by state and federal governments make it very unlikely that mining companies in the Pilbara or Central Queensland are going to shut down their operations and move overseas.

Even manufacturing companies are usually loath to uproot themselves. Many have extensive operations in Australia which they would find enormously disruptive to dismantle, ship overseas and install in another country. The alternative, scrapping the factory or selling it off, obviously involves substantial losses for the company concerned. In some cases, such as manufacturing bricks and heavy building materials, the products have a very low value-to-weight ratio that makes importation relatively costly. Advantages of local production include not just lower transport costs and avoidance of delays in international trade but also the availability of technical expertise, close contacts with (and financial support from) state and federal governments, security of and familiarity with the Australian legal framework, enforceable copyright and patents, higher labour productivity and availability of labour with the relevant skills, both formal and tacit. Even in companies with relatively simple manufacturing processes such as textiles, clothing and footwear (TCF), Australian companies venturing overseas can be caught out by political instability, one relatively recent case being the virtual shut down of the predominantly Australian-owned Fijian clothing industry in the aftermath of the coup by George Speight in 2000.

Now, there are obviously a range of areas within manufacturing which were once done within Australia but which have since been shipped overseas. These are mostly commoditised products using basic capital equipment and relatively low skilled labour, such as in TCF, toys, whitegoods and other household electrical equipment. The closure of Pacific Brands’ seven Australian factories in 2009-10, with the loss of 1,800 jobs, and of Fisher and Paykel’s Brisbane refrigerator plant in 2008-09, with the loss of more than 300 jobs, are recent examples of this process.[102] The ABC reported of the Fisher and Paykel jobs:

They’ll move to Thailand and Mexico where the company says it can pay workers two or three dollars an hour. In Brisbane they’re paid an average hourly rate of $18 to $21.[103]

But this process of factory flight has now pretty much concluded – in 2007 there were only 2,000 jobs left in footwear manufacturing, 24,000 in clothing manufacturing and 3,000 in whitegoods.[104] The threat that factory flight poses to the Australian working class is therefore diminishing. Further, most of the jobs that have been lost in these sectors have been the result of rationalisation and technological advancement, not competition from low wage countries – in 1994, the Reserve Bank estimated that “productivity improvements” in the TCF sector accounted for twice as many job losses as imports from low wage countries in the 1980s and early 1990s.[105] And then there is the simple fact that although employment in manufacturing has fallen by 30 per cent since 1974, it still stands at one million and the industry is still the country’s third largest employer.

But what about overseas call centres (the banks, the phone companies, IT support etc.), or data processing and software development which in popular folklore have all shifted to India or the Philippines? Many companies have clearly moved some or many of these operations to low-wage destinations. This is self-evident. But, taken as a whole, these jobs represent only a small proportion of total employment in these companies.[106] And for every call centre operation offshored, other call centres are built in Australia. The offshoring of these services obviously has damaging effects on workers in these areas but it is not a dominant trend in industry as a whole.

What of moves by Qantas to outsource its aircraft maintenance to various Asian countries? Qantas is clearly using this, and the offshoring of its flying and cabin crews in Jetstar operations, as a way of cutting costs and weakening the unions. But the airlines, with their hundreds of millions of dollars invested in airplanes, are acutely vulnerable to industrial action by staff: a serious strike by Qantas ground staff in Australia could bring management to its knees and prevent the further outsourcing of maintenance.

There is no evidence that Australian companies are undertaking significant foreign investment in cheap labour zones. Sixty per cent of the stock of Australian foreign direct investment (FDI) is held in just three high income countries: the USA, the UK and New Zealand. Another 8.5 per cent is held in other EU member states, making nearly 70 per cent in the rich countries.[107] The ASEAN nations (Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia and Laos), by contrast, account for less than 5 per cent of all Australian FDI; and Singapore, which represents nearly one half of the ASEAN total, is hardly low wage. Even though much is made of the business opportunities for Australian companies in China and India, the two countries barely register, accounting for less than 1 per cent of all Australian FDI in 2009.[108]

The fact that the large majority of Australian FDI stock is situated in high income countries is not surprising. Although we do not have figures for Australia, the main component (67 per cent in 2006) of global FDI is mergers and acquisitions – the process of centralisation of capital involving already established companies. Thirty per cent involves reinvestment of earnings of existing foreign operations, and only three per cent “greenfield” investment, that is, the establishment of brand new operations overseas.[109] Most targets for mergers and acquisitions are found in other advanced economies, not in less developed countries. Australian companies by and large do not want to be operating in low wage countries where power supplies and sanitation are unreliable, where skilled labour is lacking and where they may face demands for bribes and legal systems stacked in favour of local operators.

Unfortunately, the ABS does not provide data on foreign investment by country by sector, only foreign assets by country. Foreign assets include both direct investment and portfolio investment and thereby include a large component of short term speculative investment. Nonetheless, the figures do give us some broad idea of what is important for Australian capitalism: nearly 70 per cent of all Australian assets held overseas are in finance and insurance. Thirteen per cent are in mining and a mere 5.4 per cent in manufacturing.[110]

Further, FDI is usually not an alternative to local production but tends to rise and fall in line with domestic investment, both being influenced by the general state of the world economy.[111] FDI is driven primarily by a desire to capture market share in other wealthy countries, not to take advantage of cheap labour.[112] Finally, far from being undermined by flows of foreign investment, Australian industry is a significant net importer of capital and has been so since its first appearance.

The threat by employers to shift operations overseas is therefore far more apparent than real. It happens relatively rarely. Where it does occur the shift may well be to high wage countries rather than low wage Asian nations. And, in the case of low-end Australian manufacturing, little of this is now left and thus the threat that it once posed to thousands of Australian workers has diminished substantially. Further, globalisation is a two-edged sword for the bosses. It may have weakened the position of clothing workers, historically a weak area of union organisation, but it has strengthened the strategic power of the traditionally strong wharfies and seafarers, along with airline workers and financial sector workers, occupying as they do important pressure points in international trade.

The argument that Australian workers are powerless in the face of globalisation provides an excuse for the union bureaucrats. It is no coincidence that the unions that have been most aggressively protectionist – the textile, clothing and footwear union and the vehicle builders union – have been amongst the most class collaborationist and least militant and with poor wages and conditions. If union leaders forge alliances with their bosses to “keep production local”, they invariably end up cutting the throats of their membership.[113]


The purpose of this article is not to suggest that nothing has changed, that the bosses have not pushed the working class back since the 1970s upsurge. Clearly, for example, the fact that one third of employees in education are employed on fixed term contracts is part of an offensive to undermine job security and the union amongst teachers, particularly young teachers. A layer of Australian adults in their 20s and 30s experience a cycle of casual employment and unemployment, with a secure job hard to find. A minority of part time workers would like a full time job but have to make do with short hours because this is all they can find. Feelings of job insecurity are not simply an ideological construct created by the bosses, the media and some left wing writers, but reflect something that is very real for a layer of workers, and by extension their families. But this is not typical for the Australian workforce as a whole. Instead we find that:

· the working class as a proportion of the total workforce is as large as ever

· the decline of blue collar employment is much exaggerated

· the rise of white collar employment has not weakened the working class

· the working class is structurally more powerful as many more working class women are now in paid work

· working class women are solidly entrenched in paid work

· the majority of workers are still in so-called “standard” jobs

· many workers in so-called “non-standard” jobs have working lives not fundamentally different to those in “standard” jobs

· tertiary students are much more integrated into working class life than in earlier decades (even if, disproportionately, many end up in middle class professions)

· average job tenure for workers is increasing and most workers stay put in their jobs from year to year

· bosses are generally reluctant to sack workers on a whim and tend to value long job tenure

· self-employment is in decline and the proportion of employees is on the rise

· average workplace size has grown in the past decade and many workers in small workplaces work for much larger businesses or in locations that enable them to more easily combine forces with workers in similar situations

· the majority of workers are not at any risk of seeing their jobs sent overseas to low wage sweatshops

· globalisation presents the Australian working class with opportunities as well as threats.

And, it should be added, even though workers’ perceptions of themselves have no necessary correlation with what they do – plenty of workers who regard themselves as middle class can be union militants – as many people regarded themselves as working class in 2003 as they did in 1979, despite, as David Peetz puts it “the efforts of corporations as employers, as advertisers and as mass media, and despite changes in the nature of occupations”. Likewise workers express a strong and continuing identification with collective and cooperative values as opposed to individualism.[114]

These are the facts. But, as I have pointed out, even where bosses have taken steps to, for example, casualise their workforce or replace full time with part time staff, and even where workers work in small workplaces, this by no means “explains” the apparent powerlessness of the Australian working class today. On many occasions in history, workers have had to contend with precariousness or apparently insuperable obstacles and organised regardless. That was true in the early days of the Industrial Revolution when the capitalists went out of their way to eliminate the “flexibility” that workers enjoyed with their traditional fairs and holidays, including Saint Monday. Predictability and the 44 or 40-hour week became the norm by the middle of the twentieth century. Today, bosses have used a limited amount of “flexibility” to get the working class to shoulder some of the burden of business volatility. Socialists and unionists have had to organise in all these circumstances.

An emphasis on the alleged structural weakening of the Australian working class only provides an excuse for the lethargic and class collaborationist strategies of the union bureaucracy whose actions since the early 1980s have paved the way for the low union coverage and weak workplace organisation and union activism that we see in so many places today.[115] Rather than making the casualisation and precariousness that does exist an “explanation” for why the unions are weak, it should be used as an argument precisely why strong unions are needed. Indeed, as Kevin Doogan argues, generalisation by left wing writers about the “transience” of employment, “disembedded capital”, and the growth of jobs that are “low paid, low quality and lacking in prospects”, “is debilitating and undermines rather than raises confidence on the part of labour”.[116]

At all the major episodes in the class struggle in the past 30 years, the structure of the workforce was irrelevant to the outcome. It does nothing to explain why under the Accord arrangements of the 1980s Australian workers experienced a serious wages cut, with the support of the ACTU. It tells us nothing about why the enormous potential for solidarity action in support of the wharfies in the 1998 Patrick Stevedores dispute was frittered away and the wharfies left with a rotten deal and many of them in casual positions. Nor was the changing structure of the workforce to blame for the fact that the mobilisations of hundreds of thousands against WorkChoices were pushed to one side for a “Vote Labor” campaign in 2007 or for the continuing prostration of the union bureaucracy in the face of the maintenance of WorkChoices in all but name under Rudd and Gillard.

If history is any guide, it will be those workers who are today regarded as backward or unorganisable who will play a leading role in the next labour upsurge. And it is through the process of struggle that these “precarious” workers will establish themselves as a new bastion of unionism. This was the case with the dockers’ struggle in London in 1889, the sit down strikes in the US car industry in 1934-36 and the explosion of strikes in France and Italy in 1968-69. Precisely the fact that such workers are so oppressed today can fuel their explosive qualities when they fight. We cannot predict today which groups will move first when the next upsurge takes place in Australia, but we do know that few workers are in positions where their actions will be easily ignored by the bosses. (See Figure 5.)

Figure 5: Labour costs and operating profits by industry, 2008-09[117]


Employment (’000)

Total labour costs ($m)

Labour costs per head ($)

Operating profit before tax ($m)

Profits per head ($)

Profits as % of labour cost

Agriculture, forestry and fishing





















Electricity, gas and water














Wholesale trade







Retail trade







Accommodation & food services







Transport, postal and warehousing







Information, media and telecommunications







Rental, hiring and real estate services







Professional, scientific and technical services







Administrative and support services







Public administration and safety (private)







Education and training (private)







Health care and social assistance (private)







Arts and recreation services







Other services







Total selected industries







The final nail in the coffin of the argument that the working class has now been rendered impotent by structural changes is also the sharpest. Workers continue to hold enormous power in their hands for the simple reason that it is their work that provides the profits that make the system run. It is the very exploitation of the working class that, far from ensuring its continued impotence, is its strength. It is precisely because capitalists derive their profits from our labour that they are at our mercy: they need us, we don’t need them. This fact is confirmed every time that workers go on strike.

Data provided by the ABS gives us some idea of the extent of profits that bosses make from Australian workers. Bosses lay out on average $45,000 each year on the cost of employing workers. But in return for that outlay, they make a profit of $27,000, equivalent to a 60 per cent return on their investment (Figure 5).[118] Where else could they get such a return? Our labour is vital to keeping the wheels of industry turning. Whether we are casual or permanent, full time or part time, male or female, in industry or the service sector, in workplaces big or small, this is the secret to our power – withdraw labour and watch the bosses tremble. This is why Marx and Engels called the working class the gravediggers of capitalism.

Analyses of the working class that emphasise only the weakness of the class, even if they are guided by sympathy for the plight of workers, actually end up reinforcing the power of the bosses and state by making it seem as if resistance is useless. They are a dangerous diversion and need to be vigorously challenged wherever they appear.

[1]This literature is summarised in John H. Goldthorpe, David Lockwood, Frank Bechhofer and Jennifer Platt, The Affluent Worker in Industrial Society, Cambridge University Press, London, 1969.

[2]David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, p.169-70.

[3]Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society, Polity, Cambridge, 2001, p.24.

[4]Mark Wooden, The Transformation of Australian Industrial Relations, Federation Press, Leichhardt, 2000, p.19.

[5]Kevin Doogan, New Capitalism? The Transformation of Work, Polity, Cambridge, 2009, p.3. The new political economy allegedly in the process of formation has been described in a host of different ways over the decades: post-industrial society, information society, the knowledge economy, reflexive modernity, the network society and post-Fordism. Hardt and Negri argue that “immaterial labour” is becoming the predominant form of labour. There are differences between these approaches, but they also share common characteristics. Doogan provides a detailed and very useful critique of this “new capitalism” literature.

[6]John Holloway, “Global capital and the national state” in Werner Bonefeld and John Holloway (eds.), Global Capital, National State and the Politics of Money, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1995, p.125.

[7]Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard, Boston, 2001, pp.296-97.

[8]Mike Rafferty and Serena Yu, Shifting Risk: Work and Working Life in Australia. A Report for the ACTU, Workplace Research Centre, University of Sydney, 2010, p.5.

[9]Rafferty and Yu, Shifting Risk, p.10.

[10]Drew Cottle and Angela Keys, “International labour and the Global Financial Crisis: chained or unchained?”, Labour and Industry, 20, 3, 2010, p.273.

[11]Ngaire Bissett, “The history and changing structure of employment”, in Geoff Dow and Rachel Parker (eds.), Business, Work and Community: Into the New Millennium, Oxford, Melbourne, 2001, p.133.

[12]Ian Watson, John Buchanan, Iain Campbell and Chris Briggs, Fragmented Futures: New Challenges in Working Life, Federation Press, Leichhardt, 2003, p.17.

[13]See for example John Atkinson, “Manpower strategies for flexible organisations”, Personnel Management (UK), August 1984; Marxism Today, Manifesto for New Times: A Communist Party Strategy for the 1990s, London, 1989; Will Hutton, The State We’re In, Jonathan Cape, London, 1995. Anna Pollert subjected the whole notion of the core-periphery workforce to a devastating critique in “Dismantling flexibility”, Capital and Class, 34, 1988.

[14]Guy Standing, “Work and occupation in a tertiary society”, Labour and Industry, 19, 3, 2009, pp.51-52.

[15]Janey Stone has reviewed this literature in her pathbreaking study “A different voice? Women and work in Australia”, in Rick Kuhn and Tom O’Lincoln (eds.), Class and Class Conflict in Australia, Longman, Melbourne, 1996, pp.74-94.

[16]See for example Doogan’s New Capitalism and contributors to Anna Pollert (ed.), Farewell to Flexibility, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991.

[17]Cited in Alex Callinicos’s review of Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Socialist Review (London), March 2010. See also Paul Thompson, “Foundation and Empire: A critique of Hardt and Negri”, Capital and Class, 86, 2005, and Joseph Choonara, “Empire built on shifting sand”, International Socialism Journal (hereafter ISJ) 109, London, 2006, pp.143-52 for useful critiques.

[18]Chris Harman, “Thinking it through”, Socialist Review (London), 252, 2001.

[19]Laurie Penny, “A response to Alex Callinicos”, New Statesman blog, 27 December 2010, deregulating-resistance, accessed 28 December 2010.

[20]See, for example, the initiative taken by Unions NSW in 2007 to form the “Sydney Alliance” with 25 other community organisations. Details at:

[21]ACTU, “Loss of permanent full time jobs is putting families at greater risk: new report”, press release, 4 October 2010.

[22]Many of the points in the sections that follow concerning the underlying stability of working class experience and power are also made in Doogan, New Capitalism? See also Robert Taylor, “Britain’s World of Work – Myths and Realities”, Economic and Social Research Council Seminar Series, London, n.d.; Bill Dunn, Global Restructuring and the Power of Labour, Palgrave, London, 2004 (and in “Myths of globalisation and the new economy”, ISJ 121, 2009) and several articles by Chris Harman (“Globalisation: a critique of the new orthodoxy”, ISJ 73, 1996; “The workers of the world”, ISJ 96, 2002; and “Theorising neoliberalism”, ISJ 117, 2008, pp.110-12) and Martin Smith (“The shape of the working class”, ISJ 113, 2007). The originality of this article rests on its examination of the debate in the Australian context.

[23]For a more detailed account of class in Australia, see Rick Kuhn (ed.), Class and Struggle in Australia, Pearson, Frenchs Forest, 2005.

[24]All figures from this paragraph are from Phil Ruthven, “How rich are we?”, IBISWorld newsletter, February 2011, IBISWorld Pty Ltd.

[25]From 1986 to 1996 workers are defined as all employees except those in the following occupations: Managers and Administrators, Professionals not further defined (nfd), Natural Scientists, Building Professionals and Engineers, Other Teachers and Instructors, Business Professionals, and Miscellaneous Professionals. From 1996 to 2008 workers were defined as all employees except those in the following occupations: Managers and Administrators, Professionals nfd, Science, Building and Engineering Professionals, Business and Information Professionals, Nurse Managers, University Lecturers and Tutors, University and Vocational Education Teachers nfd, Economists, Urban and Regional Planners, Miscellaneous Social Professionals nfd, Film, Television, Radio and Stage Directors, Air Transport Professionals, Sea Transport Professionals, Miscellaneous Professionals nfd, Social, Arts and Miscellaneous Professionals nfd, Branch Accountants and Managers (Financial Institution), and Managing Supervisors (Sales and Service). The calculations were undertaken by Rick Kuhn for Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn, Labor’s Conflict: Big Business, Workers and the Politics of Class, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2011, using ABS Labour Force, Australia, Detailed, Quarterly 6291.0.55.003, Data Cubes E08_aug86 and E08_aug96.

[26]Brigid van Wanrooy, Sally Wright, John Buchanan, Susanna Baldwin and Shaun Wilson, Australia at Work: In a Changing World, Workplace Research Centre report, University of Sydney, November 2009, p.87.

[27]All figures in this paragraph are drawn from Michael Keating, The Australian Workforce 1910-11 to 1960-61, Australian National University, Canberra, 1973; W.E. Norton and P.M. Garmston, Australian Economic Statistics, 1949-50 to 1982-83: I Tables, Reserve Bank of Australia, Occasional Paper No. 8A, Sydney, 1984; and ABS Forms of Employment, November 2009, Catalogue 6359.0, Table 4. Occupational definitions vary over the decades so these figures should not be taken as entirely consistent, but the trends are clear.

[28]Norton and Garmston, Australian Economic Statistics; ABS Forms of Employment, Catalogue 6359.0.

[29]Rodney Tiffen and Ross Gittins, How Australia Compares, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p.62.

[30]Mike Donaldson, “Explorations in the working class in a time of crisis”, Labour and Industry, 20, 3, 2010, p.287.

[31]Harman, “The workers of the world”, p.12.

[32]See the popular Dilbert cartoon strip for wry commentary on managerialism extended to the world of IT workers,

[33]Mark Western, “Australian union decline”, in Dow and Parker (eds.), Business, Work and Community.

[34]The terms “permanent” and “casual” employee are obviously problematic. Under capitalism, no-one is “permanently” employed. The ABS uses instead “those employees who are entitled to paid sick or holiday leave” and “those employees who are not entitled to paid sick or holiday leave” for “permanents” and “casuals” respectively. Those in the latter category are paid a casual loading of 20-25 per cent to compensate for lack of paid recreation, sick, carer’s etc. leave. “Casual” employees are very often not employed “casually” in the common-or-garden sense of the term. However, rather than clutter up the text with the longer ABS terms, I will stick with the more commonly used “permanent” and “casual” while acknowledging their limitations.

[35]ABS Australian Labour Market Statistics, Catalogue 6105.0.

[36]Note, “employees” excludes owner managers. ABS Australian Labour Market Statistics, Jan 2011, Catalogue 6105.0.

[37]ABS Australian Labour Market Statistics, Jan 2011, Catalogue 6105.0.

[38]ABS, “Labour force participation – an international comparison”, Australian Social Trends, 2007, Catalogue 4102.0.

[39]ABS Australian Labour Market Statistics, January 2011, Catalogue 6105.0.

[40]ABS Australian Labour Market Statistics, Catalogue 6105.0.

[41]ABS Labour Force, Nov 2010, Catalogue 6291.0.55.001.

[42]ABS Labour Force, Australia, November 2010, Catalogue 6291.0.55.001.

[43]ABS Forms of Employment, November 2009, Catalogue 6359.0, Table 5.

[44]ABS Australian Labour Market Statistics, Jan 2011, Catalogue 6105.0.

[45]ABS, “Patterns in work”, in Australian Social Trends, December 2009, Catalogue 4102.0.

[46]ABS Australian Labour Market Statistics, Jan 2011, Catalogue 6105.0.

[47]ABS, “Casual employees” in Australian Social Trends, June 2009, Catalogue 4102.0.

[48]van Wanrooy et al, Australia at Work, p.111.

[49]ABS, “Casual employees”.

[50]Wooden, Transformation, p.132. No more recent data are available to the author’s knowledge.

[51]ABS Forms of Employment, November 2009, Catalogue 6359.0.

[52]Watson et al, Fragmented Futures, p.66.

[53]ABS Australian Labour Market Statistics, Jan 2011, Catalogue 6105.0.

[54]van Wanrooy et al, Australia at Work, p.111.

[55]ABS, Australian Social Trends, 2006, Catalogue 4102.0.

[56]ABS, “Are young people learning or earning?”, Australian Social Trends, March 2010, Catalogue 4102.0, p.3. A 2001 survey came up with the much higher figure of 72 per cent of all university students engaged in paid work during semester: Michael Long and Martin Hayden, Paying their way: A survey of Australian undergraduate university student finances, Australian Vice Chancellors Committee (Executive Summary), 2001.

[57]Of the 474,000 teenagers aged 15-19 working part time in November 2010, 364,000 were in full time education. By contrast, a mere 17,400 of the 219,000 teenagers working full time were in full time education. David Rozenbes, An Overview of Compositional Change in the Australian Labour Market and Award Reliance, Fair Work Australia Research Report 1/2010, February 2010, p.41; ABS Labor Force, November 2010, Catalogue 6202.0, Table 15.

[58]ABS, Australian Social Trends, 2006, Catalogue 4102.0.

[59]ABS, Australian Social Trends, Data Cube – Work, Table 1, 21 December 2010, Catalogue 4102.0.

[60]ABS, “Trends in hours worked”, Australian Social Trends, 2006, Catalogue 4102.0.

[61]Janey Stone, “A different voice?”

[62]In Janey Stone, “Women in the Metal Trades”, Frontline, 5, 1976, p.10-11, Stone makes the important point that at least a section of working class women have always been in work, long before the surge in female employment in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus in 1933, women comprised 28 per cent of all wage and salary earners, rising further to 34 per cent in 1943 at the height of wartime factory production when 710,000 women were employed in civilian work. However, with the return of men to civilian work after World War II, the female share of the workforce fell back to 27 per cent, where it stayed until the 1960s – in 1964, the female share of the workforce was still only 28 per cent. In the next decade, however, it leapt by 7 percentage points to 35 per cent in 1974 and since then by another 10 percentage points – women now represent 45 per cent of the Australian workforce, a record high. Data from ABS Labour Statistics, Australia, 1952, Catalogue 6101.0; Norton and Garmston, Australian Economic Statistics; ABS Labour Force, Australia, November 2010, Catalogue 6202.0.

[63]Watson et al, Fragmented Futures. 2003, p.136; ABS Australian Social Trends, Data Cube – Work, Table 1, 21 December 2010 Catalogue 4102.0.

[64]ABS Labour Mobility, February 2010, Catalogue 6209.0.

[65]van Wanrooy et al, Australia at Work, p.16.

[66]ABS, “Trends in women’s employment” in Australian Social Trends, 2006, Catalogue No. 4102.0.

[67]ABS, Australian Social Trends, Data Cube – Work, Table 1, 21 December 2010, Catalogue 4102.0.

[68]Employment changes associated with World War II destroyed live-in domestic service. In 1939, 125,000 women, or 22.1 per cent of all women employed, worked as domestic servants; by 1947 the figure had fallen to 40,000, only 6.0 per cent of the female workforce (ABS Labour Statistics, Australia, 1945 and 1946, Catalogue 6101.0). Live-in domestic service is a negligible sector of employment today.

[69]ABS, “The labour market during recent economic downturns”, in Australian Social Trends, March 2010, Catalogue 4102.0. These data confirm the arguments of Ann Curthoys, one of the few feminists who stood against the stream on this issue in the 1980s, in For and against Feminism: A Personal Journey into Feminist Theory and History, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1988, p.58.

[70]Norton and Garmston, Australian Economic Statistics; ABS Labour Force, November 2010, Catalogue 6202.0.

[71]Andrew Leigh, “Economic voting and electoral behaviour: How do individual, local and national factors affect the partisan choice?”, Australian Political Science Association, Adelaide University, September 2004; Jennifer Curtin, The Gender Gap in Australian Elections, Australian Parliamentary Library, Research Paper 3 1997-98, Canberra, 1997; Christian Leithner, “A gender gap in Australia? Commonwealth elections 1910-96”, Australian Journal of Political Science, 32, 1, 1997, pp.29-47; ABS “Trade union membership” Australian Social Trends, Catalogue 4102.0, 2008.

[72]See Sandra Bloodworth and Tom O’Lincoln (eds.), Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History, Interventions, Melbourne, 1998, for some case studies. Janey Stone refers to this phenomenon – of relative passivity interspersed with periods of combativity amongst working class women – as an example of “combined and uneven development”.

[73]Leigh, “Economic voting and electoral behaviour”.

[74]van Wanrooy et al, Australia at Work, p.28.

[75]ABS Labour Mobility, Catalogue 6209.0.

[76]van Wanrooy et al, Australia at Work, p.29. The latter figure includes not just those in work changing jobs but also those who lose work then find a new job.

[77]ABS, Australian Social Trends, Data Cube – Work, Table 1, 21 December 2010, Catalogue 4102.0.

[78]Doogan, New Capitalism, pp.194-98.

[79]Kate Bronfenbrenner, “Uneasy terrain: the impact of capital mobility on workers wages and union organising”, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, September 2000,, accessed 23 January 2011.

[80]ABS Forms of Employment, November 2009, Catalogue 6359.0, Table 2. Van Wanrooy et al in Australia at Work (p.111) come up with greater fear of employer-initiated job loss – 11.6 per cent of employee respondents in 2009 agreed that “There’s a good chance I will lose my job or be retrenched within the next 12 months.”

[81]Harman, “The workers of the world”, p.42.

[82]Rozenbes, “An Overview of Compositional Change”, 2010, p.24.

[83]Dunn, “Myths of globalisation”, p.89.

[84]Rozenbes, “An Overview of Compositional Change”, 2010, pp.17, 21.

[85]Quoted in Patricia Todd, “Employer and employer association matters in 2009”, Journal of Industrial Relations, 52, 3, p.308.

[86]“Wages blowout from worker shortages”, The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 1 December 2010, business-council-tips-wages-blowout/, accessed 16 February 2011.

[87]George Megalogenis and Lauren Wilson, “Self-employed go back to the boss”, The Weekend Australian, 25-26 April 2009, p.4.

[88]Rozenbes, “An Overview of Compositional Change”, p.45.

[89]ABS Forms of Employment, November 2009, Catalogue 6359.0. The other one million were “other business operators” who generate their income from managing staff or from selling goods or services to the public, rather than providing a labour service directly to a client.

[90]ABS Forms of Employment, November 2009, Catalogue 6359.0.

[91]ABS Forms of Employment, November 2009, Catalogue 6359.0, Table 10.

[92]Watson et al, Fragmented Futures, pp.63-64 and 71-72.

[93]Julian Drape, “CFMEU bemoans sham contracting”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 September 2009.

[94]Lewis Todman, “CFMEU officials arrested for investigating sham contracting”, Socialist Alternative, 8 February 2011.

[95]Pollert, “Dismantling flexibility”, p.46.

[96]“Class unity wins over agency workers in Watford”, Socialist Worker (London), 4 August 2007.

[97]Calculated using unit record data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, Release 9.0 provided to the author by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, 11 January 2011. It is important to note the usual caveats with data sourced from employee responses – workers may not have access to reliable data on workplace or employer size. But even if the absolute figures are not altogether reliable, it is the trend that tells the story.

[98]HILDA survey data.

[99]HILDA survey data.

[100]ABS Manufacturing Industry, Australia, 2006-07, 26 August 2008, Catalogue 8221.0.

[101]I have reviewed this argument in more detail in Tom Bramble, “Solidarity versus sectionalism: the social tariff debate”, Journal of Australian Political Economy, 48, 2001, pp.73-114.

[102]Ben Schneiders, Ari Sharp and Katharine Murphy, “Work heads offshore as Pacific Brands axes jobs”, The Age, 26 February 2009; ABC PM, “Cheap labour draws Fisher Paykel factory to Thailand”, 17 April 2008, content/2008/s2220250.htm, accessed 23 January 2011.

[103]ABC PM, “Cheap labour draws Fisher Paykel factory to Thailand”.

[104]ABS Manufacturing Industry, 2006-07, Catalogue 8221.0.

[105]J. Fahrer and A. Pease, “International trade and the Australian labour market”, in P. Lowe and J. Dwyer (eds.), International Integration of the Australian Economy, Reserve Bank of Australia, Sydney, 1994, p.203.

[106]Doogan, New Capitalism, p.79.

[107]ABS International Investment Position, Australia: Supplementary Statistics, Calendar Year 2009, Catalogue 5352.0. Foreign direct investment is distinguished from portfolio investment. The former refers to investment that is undertaken with a view to establishing a controlling stake in some foreign entity. A controlling stake is defined as holdings of more than 10 per cent. The latter involves investment that is not aimed at establishing a controlling stake, more usually simply an investment made with a view to getting a return on capital invested.

[108]ABS International Investment Position, Australia: Supplementary Statistics, Calendar Year 2009, Catalogue 5352.0

[109]UNCTAD,World Investment Report, 2006.

[110]ABS Balance of Payments and International Investment Position, Australia, 2010, Catalogue 5302.0.

[111]Doogan, New Capitalism, p.68.

[112]Doogan, New Capitalism, p.75.

[113]See Bramble, “Solidarity or sectionalism” for an elaboration of this argument.

[114]David Peetz, Brave New Workplace, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2006, pp.31-32, 39.

[115]This argument is explained in detail in Tom Bramble, Trade Unionism in Australia: From Flood to Ebb Tide, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2008.

[116]Doogan, New Capitalism, p.206.

[117]ABS Australian Industry, 2008-09, Catalogue 8122.0, Tables 1.1 and 1.2.

[118]Note that “employment” figure includes working proprietors as well as managers. If these were deducted profits per head would be notably higher.

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Tom Bramble assesses and rejects the argument that the end of 'fordism' means the end of working class power.

Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?

Tom Bramble, drawing on decades of research and active involvement in the labour movement, argues that 35 years of passivity and class collaboration rather than an emphasis on militant, class struggle unionism is the core reason our unions are in crisis.

Left populism versus revolutionary Marxism: Debating economic strategy in Australia

Rick Kuhn critically reviews the economic strategies promoted by the left in Australia, in particular the left nationalist ideas popular in the 1970s and ’80s. He argues that such reformist strategies offer no threat to capitalism and no way forward for the working class.