“Power to the People” Australian unions organize around bold climate and energy vision

Several Australian unions met by way of a conference call on April 27 to discuss energy democracy and climate change with an eye on building a broad movement for climate justice in Australia. This was the discussion document prepared by the National Union of Workers and the  National Tertiary Education Union.  Both unions participate in TUED.

“Power to the People” A Movement of Movements that can win

The proposal

This is a proposal about how to organise a broad social movement to combat climate change and build a socially just economy. I am coming from a perspective that one aim cannot be achieved without the other.

There are two key elements to this proposal:

  1. a suggestion regarding a process that can thread together a red-green alliance (and other important communities)
  2. a suggestion for to the central claim that has a specific meaning but has both different  meanings for different communities and is symbolic of the separate democratic demands of discrete communities (and indeed the wider struggle itself)

Our shared central claim should be “power to the people” (or a better-framed version of this). This is a deliberately broad and ambiguous claim but within part of its meaning I propose the very specific idea that as a society we should take electricity-generation and distribution out of corporate hands and place it into the domain of the commons. Power to the people means that the people own the power.

The process we can use to thread this together is the extension of collective bargaining from its current constrained domain of individual workplaces onto society at large. I do not mean seeking the legal extension of collective bargaining (other than that being a possible individual claim within this process) but using it as a reference point for campaigning and working together. This allows specific organisations, movements and communities to collaborate and organise around a common process. I admit the label “collective bargaining” is hardly inspirational, in this instance I’m using it as a technical term for a specific process. It is a process that can build power and motivate people to take action. There are a number of steps within the process:

  1. the initial articulation of democratic demands and grievances
  2. the gathering together, grouping and ranking in priority order a number of different democratic demands
  3. pledging/voting up the final list
  4. serving the democratic demands on the employer/the political class
  5. considering the response(s) of the employer/political class
  6. voting on and taking action to achieve a better response
  7. Steps (5) and (6) repeat until we judge we have the optimum outcome from the peak period in which people will continue to take action/mobilise
  8. Have a debrief process open to all involved in the bargain
  9. After a suitable period of rest for all involved repeat the process from step (1) with the planned  application of the lessons learnt

Collective bargaining is a way of gathering together the democratic demands of the constituent parts of the movement of movements. It allows for campaigning momentum to be built independently of (i) elections and international climate negotiations (but allows them to be used where they do occur) and (ii) economic crises as and when they arrive.

It is the central demand though, “power to the people”, that threads together the multiplicity of democratic demands into a unified whole.

Theoretical background

The rise of Syriza and Podemos have influenced me in the writing of this paper. The theories of Ernesto Laclau have played a significant role in the relatively successful strategies which Syriza and Podemos have used to gain support in Greece and Spain. In this paper, I attempt to take the theoretical insights from Laclau’s On Populist Reason (2005) and apply them to the current Australian situation.

1.   To achieve deep change we need a common populist language to link the diverse communities experiencing their unfulfilled demands – this language, in order to achieve its organising outcomes, needs to absorb the meanings that different people and groups will project onto it. The key elements of this popular language are:

      • The creation of a popular identity that links different subjects experiencing different failures within the system for example, “the people”, “the 99%” or the “proletariat”.
      • The creation of a common villain responsible for those failures such as “the political caste” or the “1%”.
      • The creation of a central popular claim which can absorb the meaning of a multiplicity of other democratic demands such as “bread and peace”

2.    The system is unstable and continues to create new demands and recreate old ones – any economic system which places the very habitability of the planet in question is very apparently unstable. This means we are only ever a Tony Abbott brain-fart or economic downturn away from the creation of a whole new set of demands which forces people to re-evaluate their priorities. The location of our diverse democratic demands within a populist language allows us to respond to crises as they inevitably arise. A common populist language can minimise any loss of organising momentum that comes about from a crisis (and the bargaining process allows for a process of incorporation of new demands).

Power to the People – why is this the central demand?

It changes the story

Shifting the fight against climate change to the public ownership of electricity-generation drastically reframes the debate. No longer is climate change “just an environmental issue” instead it becomes an indication that the economy is no longer worker for people. To solve the issue we need an economy that provides common prosperity today and into the future.

No longer is climate change about science either. The science is in. The debate has moved on. We are now taking action based on the science. For this the solution is simple – the public owns and has the power over a transition to 100% renewable electricity generation. This just transition provides secure and union job opportunities for workers today and tomorrow.

This demand allows us to tell a clear story. AGL, EnergyAustralia and Origin Energy are endangering the health of the Australian economy. These big polluters are villains who are putting their own profit before the interests of the Australian people at large. They do this by charging too much for electricity, endangering the communities they operate in and putting their own balance sheets before the community interest in a safe climate.

The people (our heroes) must rise up and take control of these corporations in order to ensure a safe and prosperous future. The people aren’t to blame for climate change – our fossil-fuel energy bosses are.

This also takes a whole debate about something as complex as our earth’s climate and our global economy and places it firmly within the realm of experience of the Australian people – the electricity bills we receive every month or quarter. This is something we all taste and something no one likes paying if possible. Utility bills are one of the top factors National Union of Workers members identify as causing the most pressure on their standard of living (behind only housing costs). In existing conversations NUW organisers and delegates are having with members about their living standards 48% of our members are independently identifying utility bills as a major cost pressure for them. The power to the people narrative flips one major threat against strong climate action and turns it into an opportunity.

A good story forms the basis of a solid power building conversation.

It builds a social movement

Power building and action conversations form the basis of a strong social movement. “Power to the people” forms a strong ground to have these conversations and provides a momentum towards action.

As a central demand though, “power to the people” is capable of absorbing different meanings for different communities. For electricity workers it is about being able to have a voice and real power in a just transition so they can protect existing jobs and living standards while opening up greater opportunities for their children. For consumers, low wage workers and those outside of paid employment it opens up the prospect of lower electricity bills. For the middle-class and those who can afford solar units, the prospect of a more favourable arrangement for selling back into the grid. For entrepreneurs and communities there are new opportunities to feed into and sell to a national electricity provider. Such a transition can also foster a large increase in the union-cooperative sector.

Being able to link a democratic demand with someone’s self-interest is the bread and butter of organising and building people power. It cuts through all the noise, confusion and complexity. Aside from the relative simplicity of the demand, it can work to build a social movement as it combines audacity and realism in a way which encourages hope.

The public ownership and control of electricity generation and distribution would be a major change to the Australian economy. People can feel that. It would be an audacious repeal of neoliberal policy-making. Where the realism comes to play though is that it is one of the few areas of Australian policy which genuinely can play out at all three-levels of government. On the most immediate level, activists could campaign locally around such demands as renewable energy producer or consumer cooperatives. This presents a readily apparent reason for neighbour to neighbour conversations. Membership organisations might also look for partnership (and capacity building) opportunities with providers like Power Shop as a step towards lower electricity bills and diminishing the value of fossil-fuel providers. Public control of electricity utilities were a prominent part of both the NSW and Queensland election campaigns. Finally, this can all build up to a demand for change at the federal-level as one of the primary ways to fight climate change.

This ability to present clear corporate villains but transition the campaign through municipal, state and federal fields is one of the reasons the US union movement has finally recovered some momentum and activity with its #Fightfor$15 campaign. Most things fail but transition between geographic fields builds failure into the campaign so that it can ultimately succeed. Congress may vote down an increase to the national minimum wage but a public referendum in one part of the country may succeed where many others fail, and that one success can generate hope. The same can happen here with conservative or insipid governments – all it takes is a hopeful win somewhere around the country and we can all feed off that single victory to generate momentum.

The demand of “power to the people” forces the political class to recognise the power of organised people. The end-demand becomes the method whereby it is achieved. No representative of the political class can give the people power. The people must take it themselves. Structurally this forces allied unions, eNGOs and other partners to consciously nurture the campaign in a manner which grows people power.

It diminishes our opponents power

Building a popular alliance against a handful of corporate executives at AGL, EnergyAustralia and Origin Energy necessarily diminishes their power and room for manoeuvre. The power of the corporate world rests largely on money power – shifting money away from them will lower their power. However, “power to the people” also necessarily whittles away their power in other ways.

“Power to the people” disrupts the alliance that corporations and ideologues have built with sections of the populist right. This alliance has been a key component of neoliberal hegemony over the last 40 years and a large hurdle when it comes to building popular support for climate action.

In the event of success, we will have taught a bunch of corporations that they are indeed mortal. Corporations are the vampires of the economic domain. Their hunger for profit can never be satisfied and they can live forever. Taking our electricity providers into public hands is the economic equivalent of driving a stake through the heart of a group of vampires. It will teach the people and the political class that corporations are mortal. Other corporate actors will want to avoid being the next target.

While we press our central demand, these corporations will have to divert resources away from maintaining and supporting their harmful business model towards defending their very existence. It will have the added benefit of further marginalising denialist thinking as it has less value for fossil fuel corporations keen to fight for their own private existence.

Fossil-fuel electricity corporations will be placed clearly in the centre of the story as the bad guys (and no one wants to be on the bad guy team). They will be held to account for their funding of irresponsible thinking, political donations (in much the same way as tobacco companies) and think-tank funding. Placing them as the central villains will not let them get away with hiding behind industry bodies or second-rate “intellectuals”. In fact, it will give us greater scope to expose the funding relationships that sustain these networks.

It shifts the money

The “power to the people” demand can shift money away from the big privatised electricity corporations in three ways:

  • the very operation of the campaign can lead to greater numbers of people pushing away from them and towards renewable (and even better cooperative) sources of energy. There should be a way (although how and when needs to be carefully considered) to incorporate Powershop and Earthworker at this stage of a campaign. This directly and immediately diminishes the customer base of the privatised providers and transfers resources towards a renewable sector.
  • the “power to the people” demand can give additional campaigning and policy momentum to the vibrant divestment movement. There will be new activists and supporters pushing for the end of the exploitation of fossil fuel resources (even if this is indirectly). The existing divestment movement will get to speak to a different audience of union workers and industry superannuation funds. In addition, the very visible nature of the campaign places an additional risk premium on fossil fuel assets – not only do corporations face the real prospect that these assets may become stranded but they are also increasingly subject to sovereign risk.
  • A successful winning of the demand will kill these corporations and their ability to peddle influence with their fossil fuel money.

It opens up the scope for new political and legal changes

Electricity is one of the fundamental inputs of our economy. It being subject to public and community control (and not just the top-down nationalising model of the 20th century but a richer direct community and worker input) suddenly changes the power equation in the economy at large. People now have agency and power, and we can use that to solve other issues. Hope is incredibly infectious once it gets started.

Pushing our common democratic demands

According to Stephen Lerner, the SEIU strategist behind Justice for Janitors, “

[t]he movements of the ‘30s and ‘60s were successful because they were disruptive”. For the labor and green movements in Australia to grow today we must be disruptive again. This means targeting the 1% and linking together a coalition of groups with widely and deeply felt democratic demands against their rule. The operation of our economic system produces more points of tension than the labour/capital and nature/capital relationships.

The urgent fight workers and their families face for a decent future where their fundamental needs are met across housing, education, health and the environment links in with but goes beyond workplace issues. This is a fight with the 1% about how we work together and share our common wealth. Therefore, we cannot limit collective bargaining simply to workplace issues on an enterprise by enterprise basis. We need to change everything about how our system works.

The “power to the people” demand is symbolic of this deeper process. As a central demand it is capable of not only absorbing other interpretations and demands but linking other democratic demands that spring from the dysfunctional operation of our economic system. We can only save humanity from disastrous climate change if we completely change our economic system. We can only change our economic system if we can provide a mechanism though which we can meaningfully build a coherent coalition of different democratic demands around “power to the people”. Collective bargaining can provide such a foundation and structure for this coalition. It would not be a term of widespread usage in the campaign but instead a process which allows us to identify and prioritise additional democratic demands around “power to the people” as well as building in participation and activity that is linked with but independent of the election/international summit cycle.

Collective bargaining is a process that can build power and motivate people to take action. The very process itself and not just the successful obtainment of the central demand builds our power. There are a number of steps within the process:

  1. the initial articulation of democratic demands and grievances
  2. the gathering together, grouping and ranking in priority order a number of different democratic demands
  3. pledging/voting up the final list
  4. serving the democratic demands on the employer/the political class
  5. considering the response(s) of the employer/political class
  6. voting on and taking action to achieve a better response
  7. Steps (5) and (6) repeat until we judge we have the optimum outcome from the peak period in which people will continue to take action/mobilise
  8. Have a debrief process open to all involved in the bargain
  9. After a suitable period of rest for all involved repeat the process from step (1) with the planned  application of the lessons learnt

This process allows the coalition to build an action plan

  • It changes the story

Collective bargaining builds “the people” as the protagonists in the story thereby strengthening the 1% and the owners of privatised fossil fuel electricity corporations as the villains. It does this both individually and collectively in stages.

  • Initial articulation/grouping and tanking claims: individual members of “the people” and groups within it can voice their demands and have a chance to describe how the system is negatively operating on their own lives and the lives of their members. They are speaking for “the people” and democratically determining their priorities. This provides a chance for individuals to elect to self-identify as a member of “the people”.
  • Pledging/serving the demands: here “the people” have become a collective actor playing the role of hero in a direct confrontation with the villains though public meetings, protests, strikes and other collective actions. In signing onto the collective demands individuals are consciously deciding to become part of “the people”.

Collective bargaining allows people to take direct actions in a conscious effort to influence the behaviour of the political class and the 15. Thus, the process reinforces the narrative and part of the story becomes about what “the people” are doing and how the villains are reacting to it.

  • It builds a social movement

This is the singular biggest positive of collective bargaining as a process. It is a way of strengthening alliances between groups and movements while at the same time internally strengthening those same groups and movements.

Australia has a rich tradition of bargaining beyond the workplace from the “green bans” movement, winning universal healthcare and helping to end apartheid. One of the major positives of collective bargaining as a process is that it can both build and mobilise a powerful base to achieve change. This process has not been significantly utilised since the 1980s but we can rediscover it again.

Participating strengthens each individual group and movement. Members of a group get an opportunity to have input into what the other democratic demands connected to “power to the people” should be. Activists and grassroots leaders can be trained and tasked with asking people to participate in getting their input into the demands through running a meeting at work or hosting a kitchen table event. This also provides people with an opportunity to join the relevant organisation or the campaign. It, therefore, expands the individual reach of each group and the total reach of the entire movement.

The list of democratic demands becomes the basis for a large alliance between groups as each group signs onto (at least some of) the key goals for other organisations. The alliances themselves are also strengthened through a democratic mandate won through member participation in a common project/movement.

The process itself becomes an excuse for building the real organising strategic capability of each group. It allows for groups to engage help with training or getting key personnel from other groups to serve a campaign related placement to skill up paid staff and key volunteers to have campaign related conversations, get other people to take action, follow up people and recognise their contribution. This should encourage a learning and sharing culture across the movement.

By choosing this process as well we are recognising that it is the power of the people organised to stand together which wins positive change. There is a consistency between the means and the end. Collective bargaining provides a clear methodology with which to empower people within a campaign whose goal is to win “power for the people”. It also provides a framework for the considered planning and tracking of conversations across a diverse range of society which sets up a structure for the repeated exchange of key information from the field that feeds back into planning and analysis for further stages of the bargain.

While the geographically distributed nature of the “power to the people” demand allows the movement to feed off isolated hope stories in the face of initial and likely failure, the building up of a list of other linked democratic demands also increases the likelihood of other successes which can build momentum. The political class will not initially meet the democratic demands but this builds that likely failure into the campaign as they may decide to make gestures on some selected demands. In this way our strategy in relation to failure is not how to avoid it but how to incorporate it into the overall campaign to fail better and more often so that our eventual success is ensured. Those who control the political and economic system need to win every confrontation to maintain their control – the people only need to win once. Our challenge is to set up a process where they don’t give up – collective bargaining can be that process.

Allowing for diverse democratic demands builds a diverse social base. No one group need be told that they have to subsume their own particular demand for the greater good – rather they can be encouraged to make sure that their particular experience of the tensions and contradictions within capitalism can be both expressed and connected to other demands. There is one caveat with that – they have to be organised enough to get their base to at express their demands and want to campaign for them – a campaign culture of sharing and development between groups should be at least partial compensation for any starting difficulties some groups might have in achieving this.

Collective bargaining campaigns are generally run by a committee of workplace leaders and delegates. Their job is to make sure that all the workers at the site has a say, that there are good quality communication structures in place at the workplace so that feedback can be sought and solidarity actions taken quickly. A good committee has reps from all the key sections, shifts and groups within a workplace. Developed well such a committee is a powerful engine of democratic and distributed leadership. It is possible to scale up this structure for a large national campaign where all key movements and groups are represented.

  • It diminishes our opponents power

A collective bargaining process can diminish our opponent’s power in two ways:

  • It gives a process to speak honestly and directly with those people who identify as conservative or right-wing and shift them towards supporting “power to the people”. This will put pressure on conservative politicians and make them concentrate their mental energy on attempting to straddle the tension between the views of their constituents and their donors. There is strong bipartisan support among voters for the proposition that privatisations mainly benefit corporates and while privatisations in general are unpopular the private control of utilities like electricity are particularly unpopular. A collective bargaining approach allows us to open this conversation with the conservative base.
  • Setting up a network of campaign representatives around the country who can have face to face conversations with their neighbours, friends and family members can cut through the power of a largely hostile mass media.
  • It shifts the money

If the people are pushing multiple democratic demands that are not directly contingent on whether anthropological climate change is occurring will shift the focus and resources of the fossil fuel-corporate nexus. Funding climate change deniers won’t make as much rational sense as shifting their focus towards the direct defence of the dominance of private control of our common wealth. The debate will necessarily become one about transition rather than whether to make one or not.

  • It opens up the scope for new political and legal changes

The process opens up the scope of change because it includes additional demands and a way of incorporating new and shifting democratic demands over time. As the political class responds to us by incorporating some demands and opening up other fields of division – a cyclical process of collective bargaining allows us to renew and redraw our coalition around new links while fighting for a safe and sustainable climate.

By |2016-11-01T02:27:28+00:00May 9th, 2015|News, Uncategorized|0 Comments