What is the Australian Unemployed Workers Union? What are its goals? When and how did it form?
The Australian Unemployed Workers Union is an organisation run by the unemployed, for the unemployed. Formed earlier this year, the AUWU’s mission is to protect the interests of the 750,000 (and growing!) people currently unemployed and stop the governments ongoing assault against Australia’s welfare state.
While we formed, the idea behind the AUWU actually is a product of the way Australia has been treating the unemployed for the past two decades. Throughout this period, successive Australian governments – both Labor and Liberal – have been consistently making it harder and harder for the unemployed to collect a benefit.
Beginning with the establishment of the Work for the Dole scheme by the Howard government in 1997-1998, there has been radical shift in how the government treats the unemployed. Almost overnight, being unemployed became a punishable offence.
What are the political affiliations of the AUWU? Who funds the organisation?
The AUWU is not affiliated with any political parties, and is entirely self-funded.
Which organisations does the AUWU want to form alliances and relationships with? Are there particular groups that have been very supportive of your work?
The AUWU has been received very well by a number of political groups. The Anti-Poverty Network in South Australia has been particularly helpful and has been a major source of encouragement. We are looking forward to working closely with them in the future.
The response amongst Trade Unions has also been very encouraging. After our extensive campaign to build union links, we received official endorsements from National Union of Workers (NUW) and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU). We are currently in contact with a number of other unions across Australia to build up a strong relationship between unemployed and employed people. To all those union members out there, we strongly encourage you to help us by talking to your union leadership and spreading the word about the AUWU and our fight to protect the unemployed.
Unions for unemployed people existed during the Great Depression and lasted until the 1970s/80s when they died out – why is now a good time to revive them?
Yes, we have a quite a strong history of unemployment activism in Australia. I was actually quite surprised to read that it goes right back to the 1920s before we even had a welfare state. Even more recently there was a short-lived Unemployment Workers Union set up in the 1990s. This strong history of unemployment activism I think demonstrates both the need for Unemployment Unions in Australia, and the difficulties associated with keeping them active and strong.
As some of the most vulnerable people in our society, the AUWU strongly believe that all unemployed people should be politically represented. Right now, this is simply not the case.
In a capitalist society like ours, people that are ‘economically unproductive’ – such as the elderly, Disabled and unemployed people – are always going to be easy targets for governments looking to cut their costs.
However, that being said I think it is more pressing now than ever before to establish a strong unemployment union in Australia. The moment that the government starts forcing the unemployed to do unpaid, largely unsupervised labour (as much as 25 hours a week) is the point where Unemployed people need to stand up for themselves and demand adequate protections. Not only that, but considering other attacks against unemployed people – most obviously the government’s plan to cut unemployed people under 30 from any benefit for 6 months, which effectively means the death of the welfare state as we know it – means that a strong organisation representing the needs of the unemployed is essential. Simply put, in the wake of all these attacks, the unemployed need a voice within Australian society so they can defend themselves.
What are some of the major challenges/problems facing unemployed people and other Centrelink clients today?
While the proposed expansion of Work for the Dole and the plan to increase the eligibility age of Newstart to 25 years old are all significant attacks on the unemployed, first and foremost, I have to say that the major concern of the AUWU is the governments plan cut all unemployed people under 30s from any benefit at all for six months. By the government’s own estimates, this will plunge 110,000 people per year into extreme poverty. This policy will essentially move these people out of the dole queue and into the streets begging for assistance from charities.
This attack represents the most significant assault of the unemployed since the welfare state was first introduced in 1945. It goes against the very principles on which modern Australian society was built. Even the conservative Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies acknowledged back in 1944 that people should be able to collect unemployment and sickness benefits as “a matter of right”. It is beyond belief that a country with the resources of Australia would even consider such a destructive policy. The effects of pushing 110,000 people per year into extreme poverty will be felt not just by the unemployed who will no longer be able to afford adequate food, clothes and housing, but also by everyone else within Australian society. Crime will surely skyrocket. Businesses will suddenly have less demand for their products, meaning further unemployment, which will then in turn lead to more poverty. The flow on effects of this policy will be nothing short of disastrous for Australian society as a whole.
As well as trying to protect our welfare state from its would-be executioners, the AUWU is also strongly focussed on lifting the current low rate of Newstart, which hasn’t lifted in real terms since 1994. Relative to the average wage, for the last two decades the unemployment benefit has been in free-fall. While in 1996 the unemployment benefit was 23.7% of the average male wage (still very low), recently Newstart was calculated to be only 18.5% of the average male wage.
To give you some idea of how low the unemployment benefit has gotten in Australia, the Melbourne Institute recently calculated that a single Australian with housing costs needed $1017.04 of income per fortnight to live out of poverty. Today, Newstart is $510.50 per fortnight, just over half of what is needed to live out of poverty. Consequently, Australia has one the lowest unemployment benefits in the OECD. Even America is ahead of us!
This consistently low rate of the Newstart payment shows that we are not just fighting against the Abbott/Hockey attacks, we are also fighting against the whole political establishment in Australia which has continually forced the unemployed deeper and deeper into poverty.
It is interesting to note that the government have always justified the low rate of Newstart by saying it is meant to be a “temporary payment”. However, if you look at the facts this is simply not true. Australia’s long-term unemployed (defined as one year or more) recently skyrocketed to 170,600 in March 2014, an increase of 30% since the start of the year. At this rate the long-term unemployed would be well over 200,000. Long-term unemployed is also rife among young people (15-24 years), with at least 50,000 young people currently considered as long-term unemployed. This figure has tripled in the last six years.
How can the government expect people to live in such extreme poverty for so long? Do they really expect people who live in poverty to be able to find work, or even be employable?
What are the main problems job seekers are facing with the labour market, Centrelink. Job Networks, etc.
This brings me to probably the most important fact surrounding unemployment today: the lack of jobs available in Australia.
Today there are 750,000 unemployed people and around 920,000 under-employed people. For this group of 1.6 million Australians looking for work, there are only 146,000 job vacancies across the country. This means that for every job vacancies, there are on average 10 job seekers applying.
Put another way, if every job vacancy was filled by an unemployed person tomorrow, there would still be more than 600,000 people who would remain unemployed. From this perspective, it is no surprise to see that unemployment is reaching record high levels. And yet the government and the mainstream media continue to blame the unemployed for this crisis by labelling them ‘job-snobs’ or ‘dole-bludgers’!
Consequently, the experience of most unemployed people is generally one of rejection, demoralisation, and humiliation. Centrelink and Job networks try and force the unemployed to find work that simply isn’t there. In all my time with Job Agents (around 5 years or so), I have not been offered one job. I have found that the only reliable way of getting work, or even being considered for work, is by knowing someone who can put in a good word for you to the boss. Recently, I was lucky enough to have a friend who helped me get casual work in a kitchen. But after a few weeks of work they stopped giving me shifts. I’m actually still waiting for them to call me back to tell me what happened.
What kinds of tactics will the AUWU use to fight for the rights and well-being of unemployed people?
Recently, the AUWU launched its real wages are currently at their worst point in 17 years.
From this perspective, it is clear that uniting the unemployed and the employed in the common struggle for a humane Australian society is essential. This is where Unemployment Unions have failed in the past. Once these two sections are united, there is no government that can stop us.
What is the AUWU’s response to the 2014 Budget?
The federal budget is an attack on Australia’s most vulnerable people. While the AUWU believe that the attacks on unemployed – particularly those under the age of 30 – are the most damaging to our society, it is important to note that the unemployed are just one of many sections of society that are under attack. In addition to cutting $1.9 billion from unemployment benefits over the next 4 years, the Abbott government’s budget also plans to:
- Cut $6.2 billion from the disabled and sick
- Cut $4.3 billion from Tertiary education
- Cut $3.3 billion from Pensioners.
Considering these attacks, the AUWU wants to unite with all those under threat to fight back. In particular, we encourage all those dependent on Centrelink to join us in the fight to save our welfare state.
While the Coalition insists that Australia must bring the budget into surplus to avoid some kind of an economic meltdown, it is worth nothing that this current obsession with achieving a surplus is relatively new. Economic priorities of governments used to be very different. Going back to the period after the Second World War, what was important wasn’t maintaining a surplus but making sure the Australian economy was utilising all its resources – or in other words, being at “full employment”. Consequently, for about 30 years between 1945 and 1974, Australia’s unemployment rate averaged 2%, which was considered ‘full employment’. During this time, workers had considerable freedoms and mobility within the labour market, as they were not being undercut by a growing number of unemployed people. My elderly neighbour told me recently that he was once was hired by three different jobs on the one day. However, since 1975 Australia has changed its priorities and stopped trying to run a ‘full employment economy’. Just like in England with Margaret Thatcher and with Ronald Reagan in the US, what became more important was cutting government spending and running a surplus. Unsurprisingly during this period, unemployed skyrocketed to record high levels. As I mentioned earlier, rising unemployment pushed down wages and conditions leading to real wages reaching a record 17-year low earlier this year.
What is the AUWUs response to Eric Abetz’s proposal to expand Work For The Dole to all job-seekers under 50 and double the number of jobs that job-seekers must apply for to 40 per month?
The planned Expansion of World for the Dole is a major attack against the unemployed. After being introduced on 1 July 2015, this plan will force all unemployed people to Work for the Dole regardless of how long they have been looking for work. Under this plan, unemployed people under 30 will be required to Work for the Dole for 25 hours per week, unemployed people between the ages of 30-49 will be required to Work for the Dole 15 hours per week and unemployed people between the ages 50-60 will be required to do an “approved activity” for 15 hours per week.
When you consider the complete lack of jobs available in Australia, forcing hundreds of thousands of unemployed people to Work for the Dole can be seen as nothing other than a cruel form of punishment. The potential work-place dangers that await hundreds of thousands of unemployed people at these forced labour sites across the country cannot be under estimated. Who is looking after the interests of these people? What rights do unemployed people have when they are working for Dole?
To top it off, the government are also expecting all unemployed people to apply for 40 jobs a month, double the previous rate. This means there each month there will be over 30 million applications being lodged to the 146,000 job vacancies currently available in Australia! How can the government justify such stupidity?
The answer is that these attacks on the unemployed are not trying to get unemployed people into work at all. If the government wanted to do that, they would simply implement a job creation scheme, a tactic that has been used to great effect throughout Australia’s history. What the government really wants is change our attitude to how Australia society should operate. According to the government, unemployment people are not ‘entitled’ to any government support. They have to work for it. Students are not ‘entitled’ to an education; they have to pay for it. The sick, disabled and elderly are not ‘entitled’ to healthcare; they have to pay for it. If you want something, no matter who you are, you will have work for it.
Andrew Forrest has recently released his Indigenous Employment and Training Review, calling for all working-age income support recipients (2.5 million people) to have 100 percent of their funds restricted through Income Management – what does the AUWU think of his idea?
Firstly, let me just say that the idea of billionaires mining magnates being able to influence government policy is ridiculous. Who elected this man? What ever happened to democracy in Australia?
And secondly, it comes as no surprise that a billionaire would suggest that attacking the unemployed is the best way to fix our country’s shameful neglect of Indigenous Australians. As a billionaire mining magnate, I wouldn’t expect him to come up with any other solution, as attacking the unemployed conveniently puts a downward pressure on wages and conditions.
However, it must be noted that Forrest’s suggestion to restrict the income of all the unemployed people through income management is nothing new. Income management has already been introduced in many areas across Australia such as Bankstown (NSW), Playford (SA) Rockhampton (QLD) and throughout the Northern Territory affecting thousands of people. Indigenous community have been particularly affected. While the government has justified income management on the basis that it protects people from substance abuse and addiction, the real role of income management is so the government can maintain its very low Newstart rate. The Newstart rate has become so low that the government is worried people will not survive unless the government makes sure all of it is spent on food and essentials! The introduction of schemes like income management in low socio-economic has made it easier for the government to continue lowering the Newstart allowance. Accordingly, the government has recently frozen the rate of Newstart for the next three years, meaning it will not keep up with inflation and will actually decrease in real terms. While it looks that Forrest’s suggestion will not be taken up right now, I expect it will be put back on the table later on as those on Newstart sink deeper and deeper into poverty.
Why does the AUWU think unemployed people and other people on income support payments are so frequently attacked by governments? What makes them so vulnerable as a group?
With capitalist societies like ours, you are only truly valued by the government if you are ‘economically productive’. Thus people who don’t fall into this category, such as the elderly, the unemployed and the disabled, are easy targets for those in power. The bottom line is that the government is far more concerned with keeping the economy producing an acceptable rate that ensuring the well being of the most vulnerable sections of society. As long as there is no opposition, the government has nothing to loose by attacking those who are ‘economically unproductive’.
Not content with just making life harder for society’s most vulnerable people, the government, along with the mainstream media, are also waging a vicious propaganda campaign against these ‘economically unproductive’ people. Here, they are trying to turn the ‘economically productive’ areas of society against them, thus clearing the way for ongoing attacks. It is for this reason that the AUWU has created a campaign to build links between the unemployed and the rest of Australian society, particularly trade unions. As soon as the unemployed and employed realise their united interests in creating a humane and fair welfare state in Australia, then – and only then – will we be able to create a humane welfare state for generations to come
Why do harsh, punitive policies like Income Management and Work For The Dole are relatively popular among the broader public, despite there being little evidence these policies improve economic and social outcomes for struggling low-income people?
The simple answer is brainwashing. There is no other explanation. The government, along with the mass media, have for decades been trying to whip up ill feeling toward the unemployed. By labelling the unemployed ‘job-snobs’ and ‘dole-bludgers’ and blaming them for the government’s failure to create enough jobs they are serving two important functions:
Firstly, the government manage to avoid any blame or responsibility for its continual failure to create enough employment and instead direct all blame against the unemployed themselves.
Secondly, aware of the potential threat of a united and organised force of employed and unemployed people, the government manage to divide these two camps.
How can people individuals and organisations get involved? What kinds of resources and support do you need to get off the ground?
At the AUWU we are building up a strong online presence and are active on Facebook, Twitter and our website. We encourage anyone interested in helping us to visit our volunteer page on our website and read our three-step plan to protect the unemployed and the welfare state more broadly. In brief these tasks are:
(1) Unite the unemployed so e can fight together against the attacks;
(2) Educate the population about the real nature of being unemployed and the government’s failure to create enough jobs; and
(3) Bring employed people and trade unions into the common struggle to save our welfare state and ensure a living wage for all workers.
We ask that people donate their time – no matter how small – to help us grow. We welcome any ideas you may have to assist in this struggle, but right now our focus is to try and get our message out to Australian society through our brochure and building union links. And its completely free to join!
How are attacks on welfare recipients and attacks on workers connected?
To answer this question, I’m going to have to briefly explain the history of how since the 1970s successive Australian government have systematically undermined the power of workers by bashing the unemployed.
Between 1942-1974, the unemployment rate in Australia averaged around 2%. This was considered full employment at the time, and as a result of the low rate of unemployment, working people in Australia were given unprecedented security and bargaining power in day-to-day negotiations over the sale of their labour power. Trade Unions flourished during this period as membership rates peaked at 60% during the mid 1950s. This was a familiar story throughout the OECD.
By the late 1960s, big business and their representatives became deeply frustrated at the political and economic power full employment gave to workers. By the 1970s, there was a massive push by big business to have full employment abandoned as the favoured economic policy in order to weaken the irresistible power of organised labour. And this is exactly what happened.
After 1975, unemployment in Australia rapidly tripled to around 6% and has averaged around 7% ever since. This tactic worked spectacularly for business as Trade Union membership plummeted, which in turn led to a massive stagnation of real wages in Australia leading to higher profits for business. As the pool of impoverished unemployed and underemployed workers skyrocketed in Australia, business found they could play workers off against each other in order to drive wages down and weaken the power of trade unions.
By tripling the amount of unemployed workers in Australia – and subsequently paying them an insufficient unemployment entitlement and labelling them with humiliating labels like ‘dole bludger’ or ‘welfare cheat’ – from the mid 1970s onwards big business and its representatives have been able to systematically undermine the power of working people.
The basic idea is to make the unemployed and underemployed so desperate, so impoverished, that they would be willing to accept almost any work at any conditions. As a direct result of this, today the growth of real wages has fallen to its lowest rate for 17 years.
Consequently, making life difficult for welfare recipients is an essential part of this wider plan attacking working people.
The insufficient rate of the Newstart benefit – which has not been increased in real terms since 1994 – must be viewed in this way.
So too the Work for the Dole scheme, which after 1 July will be expanded across the forcing unemployed people to conduct unpaid labour much sooner into their period of unemployment (6 months instead of 1 year), and for longer (25 hours per week instead of 15).
The Government’s decision to give privately owned Employment Service Providers with the power to fine Newstart recipients who fail to attend their Job Search appointment without a valid excuse is another similar to technique.
Income management, the privatization of Employment services, the harsh eligibility requirements for Disability Support, the raising of the retirement age, the tightening of the Single Parent Benefit and low rates of payment’s across the board are further examples. It is no exaggeration to say that as a result of these ongoing attacks today is the worst time in Australia’s post war history to be unemployed.
In order to prevent the continual decline of the working movement, it is essential that unemployed and employed workers unite in a common struggle to achieve full employment, and ultimately, a more humane society.
What are some strategies for bringing together struggles by workers and unions, and struggles by unemployed people and others on income support payments? How do you convince workers that they have an interest in defending those on Centrelink payments?
The AUWU is currently conducting a campaign to formalise our relationship with the Trade Union movement. While this will no doubt be an up hill struggle given the state of the trade union movement today, we are confident that this it is only a matter of time before unemployed and employed people realise their common interests. For example, Tony Abbott’s recent statement that Work For the Dole will give business the opportunity to “try before you buy” is a clear attack on Trade Unions. We believe that in this situation Trade unions and their members will be more easily convinced of the importance of bringing together of employed and unemployed workers in a common struggle for a fair society.
What is the AUWU Union’s “Fight The Fine” campaign? Who are you trying to target?
On 1 July 2015, the Abbott Government will introduce legislation that will effectively give the privately owned and operated Employment Service Providers the unprecedented power to fine the unemployed for missing their Job Search appointments.
If found to have missed an appointment without a ‘reasonable excuse’, Newstart recipients will stand to be fined one tenth of their Newstart entitlement, or roughly $50. Considering the already inadequate rate of Newstart benefit – which is $280 per fortnight below the poverty line – this punitive measure will only serve to push the unemployed further into poverty and ultimately away from employment.
This punitive legislation is a shameless attempt by the Federal Government to avoid their responsibility to solve the on-going unemployment crisis, in which there are 11 Job Seekers competing for every job vacancy.
In opposing this harsh law, the AUWU will be running a national ‘fight the fine’ campaign on 1 July and have already organized events in Melbourne and Adelaide.
In our campaign, we will be challenging both the government’s unprecedented attack on the unemployed and the prominent role this fine gives to the privately owned and operated Employment Service Providers.
A number of these Employment Service Providers – including the so-called ‘charitable’ agencies – have been routinely exposed as money-hungry organisations that treat the unemployed merely as a means to make money. This has resulted in the systematic mistreatment of the unemployed, as organisations force the unemployed do whatever is necessary to maximise their Government funding.
Rather than give the Employment Service Providers more powers to punish the unemployed, we demand that the Government investigate the Employment Service Providers for its harsh treatment of the unemployed.
Recently, the US-owned Employment Service Provider Max Employment threatened to sue the AUWU over our campaign exposing their cruel treatment of the unemployed.
After receiving two letters of legal threats, we decided to organise protests outside Max Employment’s offices in Melbourne and Adelaide on 1 July. At these protests we will focus not only on Max Employment’s bullying tactics, but also the Abbott government’s ongoing encouragement for the cruel treatment of the unemployed by the privately owned and operated Employment Service Providers.
The Government’s recent decision to reward Max Employment with a 5-year $800 million dollar contract sends a clear message to other Employment Service Providers that harsh treatment of the unemployed is not just tolerated, but encouraged.
In this way, the Government effectively use Employment Service Providers as hired-guns to punish the unemployed. This new fine will continue this well-established policy.
If you are interested in helping us organise a ‘Fight the Fine’ rally in your local area on 1 July, please contact us by email or on our Facebook page. The more volunteers we have, the better equipped we will be to fight this cruel attack on the unemployed.
As an activist, what are some of the most common myths you have encountered about welfare and unemployment?
The biggest and more enduring myth around unemployment is undoubtedly that unemployed people could find work if they tried hard enough, and are therefore labelled ‘dole bludgers’ and ‘job snobs’.
This belief completely ignores the wider picture of the Australian economy in which according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics there are 11 Job Seekers competing for each job vacancy. Even if each and every 770,000 unemployed people filled every available job vacancy tomorrow, the stats show there would still be roughly 1.7 million job seekers left over. Clearly, it is not a problem involving the unemployed but rather a problem concerning Australia’s wider economic management.
For unemployed people and others on welfare payments, what are the most concerning parts of the Federal Budget?
In most instances, the Budget is simply continuing the harsh attacks aimed against the unemployed that were first launched in the 2014 budget.
Probably the most concerning attack, however, is the Government’s proposal to make under 25s applying for income support to wait one month before receiving anything. What will these young people live on exactly?
This year (2015) marks the 21st anniversary of the last time Newstart Allowance was raised in real terms, with the payment now over $140 per week below the poverty-line. Why do both major political parties refuse to raise the incomes of the unemployed?
Keeping the unemployment benefit well below the poverty line is an essential part of the Australia’s long-established economic policy that keeps real wages down for workers, thus helping businesses maximise their profits.
The basic idea is to make the unemployed and underemployed so desperate, so impoverished, that they would be willing to accept almost any work at any conditions. As a direct result of this, today the growth of real wages has fallen to its lowest rate for 17 years. [repeated phrase!]
‘What else could trade unions be doing to fight for unemployed people and others on welfare payments? For example, should the ACTU being calling for Newstart to be raised by more than $50 per week (their current demand)?
Ever since we formed, the AUWU have been campaigning for the Trade Union movement to fight for the rights and dignity of the unemployed. It is essential that the Trade Union movement understand that every attack launched against the unemployed is designed and executed as an attack on the workers as a whole. We are all workers: our struggles are theirs, and their struggles are ours. This reality must be reflected in the way Trade Unions operate. Thus, we are asking the Trade Union movement to join us in opposing the raft of punitive policies aimed at the unemployed. Work for the Dole is a particularly important issue for Trade Unions to oppose, as it is a scheme which was found by the productivity commission to directly force down the growth of real wages. Therefore, WFTD represents a great opportunity for the political collaborations of employed and unemployed workers.
How important do you think it is that we challenge the government’s use of language and how it defines key concepts, when it comes to poor people? Do you think terms like ‘welfare recipient’ and ‘Centrelink client’ are problematic?
The way the Government and the mass media present the unemployed is a major barrier restricting the development of the AUWU. By demonizing the unemployed as ‘job snobs’, ‘leaners’, ‘welfare cheats’ and ‘lazy’, the Government is not only trying to turn employed workers against the unemployed, it is also is deeply humiliating for unemployed people themselves. While handing out leaflets in Centrelinks, on many occasions I get a luke warm reception from the unemployed as they feel embarrassed for even being there. The last thing they want to do is rise up and fight for the rights and dignity of the unemployed! Being unemployed is as much of an internal struggle as anything else. It is no surprise then, that it was recently found that unemployment is a major cause of mental illness and even suicide.
What we need to do then is reframe what unemployment is by smashing the myth of the ‘job snob’ and educating people on what the reality of unemployment is.