The Prestige of the Working Class
gschofield at SPAMone.net.au
Mon May 7 20:38:22 MDT 2001
Gary I wholehearted agree with Jonathan below. I better understand your
point now, but in terms of immediate tactics Jonathan has hit the nail on
the head. Having once been a student and having worked in a number of jobs
I am afraid the position is just not comparable. Worse when people have
families to support, loosing your house and many other things, can happen
swiftly once you loose a job. The impact on your children alone is enough
for the bravest to think twice - the comfort and security of life hangs by
the thread and in the best unions the organisers know how to dance on a
very thin line - what you may have been seeing is class discipline, the
knowledge from experience that backing away at the right time is the only
I will give two examples from my own experience:
1) In 1981 I was a nurse and spoke at a rally about health care, parts of
what I had said were reported on radio (albeit somewhat innaccurately). The
nurses union at the time was not only right-wing but corrupt (NSW
Australia). I was fired the day after the broadcast on orders from the
hospital board, all my possessions had to be moved from the nurses home by
12 midnight and security guards (who were actually quite nice and good
about it) visited me within a few hours of being pulled off the ward where
I was interviewed by hospital management without representation and was
recorded (not a real problem when you have a full transcript, but held in
secret, it is very easy to edit what is said and put it in the worst
possible light - later I was in the position of having to confirm that
certain words and phrases were used which of course out of context sounded
In this interview I was threatened, I was asked to name other nurses, etc
and the whole thing was about three hours long.
Unemployed and without being able to take up another job (which would have
left the door open to the case being dropped) I had to wait for 3 months
for it to go before arbitration (luckily I was single and without children
at the time).
Even though the law quite clearly states that no-one can be sacked for
this, the arbitration commissioner instructed the hospital to come up with
other charges (in otherwords, he told them how to get around the law and
that was the first day - and he did this openly).
Furthermore I was excluded from hearing any evidence against me, documents
were forged and witnesses found (some of whom I never met) and it was
"proved" that I was a bad nurse and that this was the reason I was sacked.
Other things happened but for nearly six months this charade went on and in
that time I was advised not to seek any other work - for it would harm my
case (I am now convinced this whole process was just another form of
I was blacklisted after that - attended some 33 interviews for jobs and was
sometimes accepted only to be refused soon afterwards. This became
personally a very depressing time for me (not knowing of the blacklist).
Punishing workers is part and parcel of the system.
Australia had what was reputed to be one of the best industrial protection
mechanisms at the time - things are far far worse now.
2) Working as a teacher in the Northern Territory. I was made just 2-3
years ago the secretary of a union branch while still a probationary
teacher, despite a work place agreement about making teachers permanent,
five teachers at my school had been kept on continuous contract and kept as
probationers who have very few rights (ie can be sacked for any number of
reasons - none of which need to be proved). Legally probation can only last
6 months - I had been a probationer for 2.5 years and many of the others
for even longer.
Now at this stage I had two children (luckily also a partner with an income
that was far above my teachers salary - driving 1,000 km a week, keeping
two kids in child care, left me with just $100 per week out of my wages -
consider that normal rents in Darwin ran to $150-200 per week and you get
I knew I had to do something so I lit on the tactic of simply visiting the
Education department everyday after work and just sitting there until the
doors closed - this went on for more than two weeks - the tactic worked,
not without attempt to bribe me (ie we will give you permanency if you go
away etc) you see I said I would come down every day during the school
break with my kids and I threatened then to call the media so that the
department could explain to them why a teacher could not know whether work
was possible in the new year (contracts terminated at the last day of
school and new contracts were issued just a few days before school
The tactic had worked, we got permanency (however probation remained -
quite illegally). However, in my naivety I had forgotten how spiteful
bosses can be. Back at work with just two weeks left of my probation - my
principal unilaterally extended it by another six months, the following
year and just a few weeks into term I was subjected to probation meetings -
two or three a week (I had only four such meetings the previous 2.5 years).
Within two weeks I could not sleep, because of these regular 1-3 hour
meetings - you see I was being quite openly harrassed (the union even
sympathised with principal and offered to support her!).
I complained, my next big mistake.
Now I had the supervisor of schools threatening me over the phone. I went
to the complaints tribunal which seems specifically set up to give people
the run around. As my documentation was good I thought in the end someone
is going to do the right thing. I used all my accumulated sick leave (I had
barely taken a day off - because mainly the contract system makes you so
insecure - I had worked with the flu, taught when I was barely able to
stand and I was not the only one who did this).
At the point of near exhaustion (emotionally) I finally presented all the
documentation - a rather large file. I was told the complaints department
had never had such a file and it would take some time to go through it -
meanwhile I had to return to the school and suffer the harrassment that
made me take sick leave in the first place. The complaints tribunal
suggested seeing a psychologist when I pointed out the injustice of this (I
was willing to go to any school by that time).
Later I discovered that the complaints tribunal kept a tame psychologist
who would certify any worker as unfit who went to the tribunal - the
tribunal had in its history never found in a workers favour unless the boss
agreed before hand.
Gary, these two stories aren't much. In both cases I was in a rather good
position, in both cases I knew something of my rights and could pursue
them, and in both cases I could suffer unemployment without much ill
effect. Even though they ended the same, I was in an exceptional personal
position to pursue the issue. Likewise, on another occasion I pursued
through the correct channels a wrongful docking of my unemployment benefits
- in this case the tribunals etc lasted over six months and finally I found
myself faced with a solicitor and barrister flown in from Canberra to fight
against my claim of a mere $200 deduction - I won the case that time but
the Appeals tribunal would not award me the money because I was then employed.
You see what I am saying is that even when it appears everything should be
right, the class issue runs through like a golden thread. This is what most
workers know from childhood - they are just pawns, they are disposable and
their lives mean nothing.
Strong militant unions make a lot of difference in all these cases I stood
a good hope of retaining my position if the union had been what it should
be. However, such unions are rare.
Even with a militant union, the line that needs to be negiotated is a very
thin one indeed.
In Australia it was not that long ago that Clarrie O'Shea was imprisoned
for simply being a union leader during a strike. The penal powers have
snuck back-in in my country though they have not been used as yet. I have
friends working on contract in metal shops, living in slums, working
full-time and barely able to make ends meet, others hold down two jobs just
to survive, unionism has not fared well. There does need to be shake up
with the union movement, they have to be prepared to get back to the shop
floor, but even in the best conditions unions must be wise for so much
depends on that wisdom - the balancing act is not easily achieved and while
many topple over into the comfort of passivity, do not mistake this for the
conscious restraint of others.
I think the only point of judgement you can have is when you have children
and know the suffering they will face if worse came to worse. This is why
communists so readily praise the restraint and discipline of the class,
that they fight at all is a wonder, that in effect they fight and struggle
every day is beyond praise. The chains that bind are very real, very
material, the room to maneuver is narrow, personal tragedy can be but a
word away. But the struggle goes on, quietly often, but occasionally when
things line up as they should - it explodes.
Comrade, judge things not by your own standards, but for a while walk in
their shoes (mentally at least), place yourself there and you cannot but
help to hear the whispers, the murmurs of discontent - listen carefully and
you will also hear the depth of understanding, the unasked demands, the
dignity of those that suffer indignity and sup its bitterness - daily.
When Marx speaks of wage-slaves it is not hyperbole that marries wages to
slavery, but that wages are a slavery. Slaves do not have, by definition,
the means to risk their lot on little things, less to risk their all on
what they know to be abstractions. Judge not so harshly and reserve a
little self-criticism for those actions which appear so laudable - I say
this not disparage those who go onto the street and protest, but ask you to
place this in its context, see all the rest as well, acknowledge the
protests for what they are, brave, young, passionate expressions of so much
more, but expressions, just the tip of a mighty berg - there is so much
more to be done to unleash the rest.
At 07:38 7/05/01 -0400, you wrote:
> >> A group of us sat down and blocked the entrance to the power station.
>Around us were a large number of workers. They stood watching us dumbly.
>Then the police moved in and a trade union official called out, "That's it.
> we are out of here." and the working class turned round and shuffled off
>after him. Meanwhile the academics who
>had been protesting for workers' rights were arrested etc. That whole
>strike was marked by worker passivity. <<
>You seem to miss the difference, Gary, between a group of academics or
>students who can "afford" to get arrested, spend a spot of time in the
>pokey, and then go back to their lives, and the life situation of workers.
>Workers just don't have the luxury of the dramatic gesture. They have
>families to support, and bosses who would fire them immediately if they
>were to engage in the type of action you describe. Of course they might get
>back to work eventually, but what happens in the meantime? It might be a
>year or years, if ever before they returned to work. This is just a cold,
>hard fact of working class life.
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