“Not a real union”: why does the AUWU come under attack from self-described progressives?

June 24, 2021

In August of last year, YouTuber and self-described journalist Jordan Shanks, known as friendlyjordies, who is deeply aligned with the Australian Labor Party (ALP), released a video in which he attacks the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) and its leadership.

Emma Dawson, director of ALP-aligned think-tank Per Capita, who is also running for ALP preselection for the seat of Melbourne at the next federal election, also condescendingly talked down to an AUWU activist back in April when questioned for making excuses for not supporting raising welfare rates above the poverty line.

This of course wasn’t the start, nor the end, of it.

Shanks’ video and Dawson’s attacks were a continuation of several months of slander by relatively prominent Twitter users aligned with the ALP and its Labor Unity/Right faction, who have taken issue with the AUWU holding the Federal Opposition to task over its lack of commitment towards substantive welfare policy. A common line of attack is that the AUWU isn’t a “real union”. We’ll address this a little later.

Holding politicians to task on policy grounds what any reasonable person would expect any advocacy group to do. Not only is the AUWU assertive with the ALP on its lack of welfare policy, it’s also highly critical of the government.

Rightly so, especially when one Labor MP responds to a question about raising JobSeeker payments above the poverty line with “wait and see and hope you are pleasantly surprised”; when an election commitment during the 2019 Federal Election was to promise a review into the JobSeeker rate, with the aim of increasing it, without actually committing to a dollar amount that it should be increased by.

“I don’t know the number we’ll come up with”, then Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said at the time. “Common sense says that a review is going to conclude that amount is too low. I won’t pre-empt it but I’m not having a review to cut it.”

Inspiring stuff.

Of course, as mentioned before, it isn’t just the ALP that comes under fire. The Coalition – in particular Employment Minister Stuart Robert – also cops scorn on the basis that they’re in government and actively implementing increasingly cruel and punitive welfare policy.

Now, addressing the earlier point – let’s define what a union is. In context of non-electoral political organising, a union, according to Oxford Languages, is: “a society or association formed by people with a common interest or purpose”. The AUWU, therefore, fits the definition of a union in that it’s an association of people (unemployed workers) with a common interest or purpose (campaigning and advocating for good welfare and employment policy).

So why do Shanks and other ALP megaphones use the AUWU “not being a union” in the legal sense to try and delegitimise the AUWU?

Furthermore, outside of isolated instances, why do these same megaphones not make the same arguments against the Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union (RAFFWU), even though it competes directly with the formally recognised Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Alliance (the SDA), who are also not a registered organisation nor affiliated with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU)?

Of course, one can argue that the AUWU falling outside of the ALP’s organisational framework would motivate the smear to which it’s subjected – and that’s no doubt a key motivator. But that doesn’t explain why RAFFWU isn’t subjected to nearly the same level of vitriol.

It comes down to the groups of people that the AUWU are attempting to organise and give voice to versus who RAFFWU organise. While RAFFWU are only organising retail workers, the AUWU is organising unemployed and underemployed workers across all industries.

The AUWU is also potentially the first taste of unionism that a young person may experience if they are unemployed or underemployed. And it’s the good kind of unionism. The same applies to retail workers who are RAFFWU members.

If the AUWU were to grow in size and numbers, this would pose a threat to existing union power structures – with a small bureaucracy effectively dictating what a relatively large grassroots base can and can’t do – that have been in place since the 1980’s with the Hawke-Keating Accords.

While RAFFWU do some superb work in genuinely engaging retail workers that’s largely free of careerist motivations, where the SDA lacks, it still broadly plays within the same consensus that has been in place since the 1980’s.

The AUWU, who don’t have to worry themselves with negotiating enterprise agreements and navigating the Fair Work Act, fall completely outside of the current consensus. This allows them to focus their resources entirely on campaigning and mobilising.

Unemployed workers are seen as a demographic by the broader trade union bureaucracy, and by extension the ALP, that can be treated as know-nothings, to be taken for granted and ignored – or to be condescendingly patted on the head while said bureaucrats’ cash in their abnormally large paychecks.

They’re viewed as a group that should be led, shown the way, and even divided rather than given autonomy and space to unite, become politically engaged and fight for their own collective well-being in an organised way.

When the AUWU comes along and gives unemployed workers the inspiration and motivation to organise (and on an entirely volunteer basis) on explicit, political demands; this gets taken into workplaces once they gain employment. This then gets them asking questions that union bureaucrats and ALP power-brokers would rather not have to deal with.

It takes the narrative away from union bureaucrats and puts the assumption in people’s heads that unions can be run, and action driven, from the bottom up. That unions can be led by workers, not by bureaucrats looking for a win they can take credit for in seeking ALP pre-selection.

This is a threat to the current hold on power these bureaucrats have; and that’s why they and their mouth-pieces seek to delegitimise the AUWU by any means they see necessary.

Matt Hrkac

Matt Hrkac is a photographer and photojournalist based in Geelong and works across Melbourne and throughout Victoria.


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