Countering ALP opportunism in unions

Hard words rang
across the factory floor
Juan heard the sound of hate
bitter words to injure
a shout that sent the signal
for the war to come

– ‘Brisbane Barrio’ by Jumping Fences

Uber has been a low tax paying global giant since 2010. Twelve 12 years later ABC Announcer, Patricia Karvelas, interviews the incoming Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and the Arts, Tony Burke, about a deal cut between the Transport Workers Union on behalf of Uber workers in Australia. During the rise of Uber worldwide Tony Burke has been a cabinet minister on a off since 2007. Patricia Karvelas claimed in her interview on the ABC’s RN Breakfast with the Minister that there are 100,000 workers employed as fast food delivery riders in Australia.

Karvelas said:

Uber is the market leader in the gig economy with over 100,000 drivers and delivery people on essentially on their books.”

No mention by the Minister that Uber pays little tax, anywhere, particularly in Australia.

ALP minister’s opportunism in organising Uber food delivery

For mine, the obvious question is, what are 100,000 workers doing risking their lives on bikes and scooters for a cyber employer who has no skin in the game (apart from exploiting fast food delivery drivers & riders). The company bears little risk because all the equipment (phone, bike, scooter and labour) is supplied by the riders and drivers and none by the platform?

Also what a costly, inefficient and unhealthy way for people to obtain a meal after work or school by delivery fast food to your door or apartment. I ask what are the people cooking the food being paid? What are their conditions of employment? In the interview with the ABC we hear nothing about this from the long serving Minister (He was a Cabinet Minister under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard from 2007 to 2013).

Employment Minister backs union deal with Uber

The Minister took up the theme of Uber workers dying on the roads and said:

“… the story is not that long ago, we’re in a short space of time, we had six deaths on the road, from people working as food delivery riders. Now there is a direct line between the risks people were taking on the road, and the pressures that they were under for the algorithms that are effectively or their employers. I’ve had riders tell me about in order to make ends meet, and to make sure that they got the next order, because the faster you were, the more likely you were to get the next door to the way the algorithm worked. That would mean that they’d run red lights …

This delivery industry must compete with construction for lack of workplace safety.

So is it the workers who are irresponsible when the roads are made and designed for cars and trucks not bikes and scooters? Where is the infrastructure to support this industry that has been around for quite some time. How is it that it is government trying to manage a situation that is already out of control with workplace injuries commonplace and young people on student visas trying to make ends meet?

Workers became contract labour

A British Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers were ultimately ‘workers’, who are entitled to some – but not all – of the employment rights that are afforded to employees. In Australia, the Fair Work Ombudsman says otherwise, that Uber drivers in Australia are not employees entitled to a full range of benefits including sick pay, superannuation and annual leave. – SMH 7 June 2019

No one (not the ABC, not the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and the Arts, not the even the union) has adequately addressed the underlying problem and that is contract labour. Contract labour was introduced widely in many industries under the Accord during the Labor government of 1983-1996. It was the federal and state labor governments that allowed contract labour into essential services like the electricity industry during the labor’s flirtation with neo-liberal policies under Hawke and Keating.

This spelt a decline in the union movement and the federal arbitration system. According to the Minister: “The Fair Work Commission only has the power to set minimum standards” for employees but not for contractors. The Minister spells out the magnitude of the problem that contract labour has become.

The Minister stated: “It’s not only the apps that people might have on their phone, a whole lot now of the care economy is delivered through the gig economy. So many people on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, for example, who are working there are, in fact working with their employer effectively as an algorithm.

Many people in the security industry are effectively working in the gig economy now and increasingly in hospitality as well.

So this is an area where if we just continue to let it rip, without minimum standards, a whole lot of the rules that we’ve presumed were part of working in Australia will fall away. And we can’t leave it any longer before we have a process to set minimum standards here.”

Countering ALP Opportunism by moving unions fees into strike funds

Nevertheless we can see that Labor in government has an agenda here. The ALP controlled TWU can gain four or five new organisers as a result of unionising the Uber workforce. They will accept union fees from 100,000 workers and obtain a lot of help in winning elections. Because of the decline in the ALP membership the Labor Party looks to unions to provide the necessary assistance in winning elections. We saw that at May Day where unions members from suffering industries of aged and child care were encouraged to assist in the 2022 federal election campaign by the ALP leadership of Albanese, Palusczchuk, together with ACTU lerader Sally McManus.

To counter this opportunism workers need to make sure that instead of funneling union dues into election campaigns they need to contribute to strike funds to assist members during times of struggle.


Transport Workers Union (TWU) signs agreement with Uber to cover food delivery riders

Despite this global giant having set up shop in Australia over ten years ago and during the time he was a cabinet minister exploiting transport workers and avoiding tax the Employment Minister went on to say:

“I want to get the consultation, right. So I’d love to be in a situation where I’m introducing the legislation on it this year. And I need to work through whether we would deal with the whole gig economy at once, or whether we would work through sections of the economy one at a time. So there’s a big piece of consultation that hasn’t yet started, but I’ve spoken with, I’ve started the conversations with the department about how we might put that together.”

Once again the horse has bolted. Workers in these industries are struggling to make ends meet while inflation is rampant, not just here but throughout the western world.

Will an issue by issue approach work when the main problem is class struggle against transnationals Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Deliveroo, fast food companies and global supermarkets like Aldi, Woolworths and Coles.

We have seen the unfair dismissals, the poor pay and the high risk to these workers during the pandemic. Ironically the people most important to the economy are the least consulted. The minister talks about consulatation but he means with big businesses, the fair work commission and unions but not the workers themselves, many of whom are not organised. The Retail, Fast Food and Warehousing Union (SDA) deal with Coles and Woolworths is the classic example. The union covers 200,000 workers across Australia but marches to the drum beat of the transnationals, Woolworths and Coles.

The union equation?

Is it the cynic in me that says this is a strange arrangement where, without struggle by workers, a union backed by an incoming government cuts a deal with a global giant. What does the giant get out it of it? A docile and compliant young workforce riding in the cold and rain on dangerous streets backed by a regulator where 100,000 are drawn into membership of the union that can appoint 3 or 4 organisers to keep everything buttoned down and on track. Why do union officials who have never been delivery riders want to be friends with the boss, Uber? Reformism – will it work without participation by the workers from below?

Food delivery on another scale
Meanwhile there is a famine in East Africa caused by the stockpiling of grain in Odesa as a result Ukraine war. Putin has responded to accusations of a Russian blockade by saying “The Ukrainian military has mined the approaches to their ports; no-one prevents them from clearing those mines and we guarantee the safety of shipping grain out of there.” Russia has pulled out of Snake Island which could have been a launching pad for an attack on Odesa where much of the grain is exported to Africa and the Middle East (see map).

Ian Curr
1 July 2020

How the vision fades
How its shadow taunts me
Have dreams and plans just ended all too soon
The night it murmurs
A lost and lonely tune

The Quiet of the Winter Moon by Jumping Fences

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