Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ecosocialist responses to the failure of global capitalism

By Tim Ayres
NSW Secretary
Australian Manufacturing Workers Union
Australian Left Renewal Conference
Search Foundation
May, 2010

I would like to start by first acknowledging the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present. It is a challenge for a group of speakers at a left forum to speak for less than 10 minutes, I welcome those of my comrades from the AMWU who are in the audience, who know it’s impossible to get me to speak for 10 minutes once I get going, but I do also notice in a new innovation for the search foundation and friends there’s a bell here, that speakers can ring for themselves when they hit the two minute mark. It’s a sort of self-regulation.

I have been invited today to make a few remarks about the left response to the two most obvious recent failures of modern capitalism - the collapse at the centre of our financial system and the challenges inherent in our response to the ‘market failure’ of carbon induced climate change. Both are pretty easy cans to kick - they both contain all too easy examples of the contradictions of neo-liberalism and modern capitalism and its unfair impact upon the worlds least powerful. The real challenge for the Left, and I really mean the democratic modern Left, is not to provide effective critiques of the Pythonesque ‘contradictions inherent in the system’, but to chart ways that we can build an intellectually strong, popular and practical pathway through these challenges. The topic really invites you to draw some conclusions, or at least begin a discussion about Left renewal.

I should say something first about the AMWU. I am very proud to be the new NSW Secretary of our largest manufacturing union. We have a very proud past, but an uncertain future. I am determined to build our union and our industry - to deliver a strong union and good jobs in a modern, high-end, smart manufacturing industry. That is why I launched the ‘Build Them Here” campaign last week - an industrial and political campaign on behalf of our public transport manufacturing sector and the thousands of manufacturing workers who earn their living there. The campaign is an organising strategy, designed to ensure that the billions of dollars worth of trains, ferries and buses bought by the NSW Government are built here in a strategy to build jobs, create apprenticeship opportunities for school leavers and ensure we have a manufacturing capacity for our national future.

1. Global financial crisis

The global financial crisis wasn’t just a financial crisis - it reached well beyond the financial system into the lives of billions of workers and their families. It was an economic crisis that centred on the total failure of regulation in the US banking and finance market system. From an Australian manufacturing perspective, I have drawn a few, probably obvious, lessons from what we observed over the course of the last eighteen months.

i. Fiscal policy works!
ii. Finance market regulation matters.
iii. Manufacturing employment held up, but was ‘hollowed out.’
iv. Contrary to the scare campaign, fair industrial laws and collective bargaining supported jobs.
v. Government subsidies must be linked to commitments to employment, skills and collective bargaining.
vi. We must resolve the issues that surround employee entitlement security.

2. Climate change

I do not believe that there is any issue more central to human development and our shared global future than the fundamentally economic challenge of mitigating climate change.

I say this is a fundamentally economic challenge because the costs and benefits of various approaches can be assessed very readily in economic terms, the economic analysis of the origins of the crisis is so persuasive and that the centrality of establishing an effective carbon price to building an international and national response to this ecological catastrophe is so readily accepted. But it is an economic challenge in its broadest sense because the imposition of a carbon price will have profound economic effects - it is economic restructuring pure and simple. A price on carbon that includes its real ecological cost will displace and diminish some industries over time, it will force others to invest in new technology, it will change consumer behaviour and it will create new industries and markets for new technological responses to energy efficiency and clean energy markets created by the carbon price.

But the history of economic restructuring in Australia is a history of very poor outcomes for the people my union represents. Even if you do argue that the waves of economic restructuring in the 1980s and 1990’s delivered growth, productivity increases and raised living standards, you would have to concede that the price for these improvements was paid principally by blue-collar workers and their families in the working class suburbs and regional economies of Australia. I am determined to ensure that this round of economic restructuring delivers better jobs, employment growth, economic and energy security as well as lowering our national and global emissions.

Some of the economic forecasting is very encouraging - it shows trillions of dollars worth of investment dollars looking for a home in clean technology and renewable energy and respectable modelling demonstrates the job creation possibilities of the CPRS, RET and other policy approaches. For example the ACF/ACTU commissioned research that modelled between 800,000 and 1.3 million jobs generated over ten years as a result of the imposition of a carbon price in the economy. I don’t criticise the report, or the rationale for producing and publicising it. But I do say that it underlines the urgency and seriousness of the task ahead. Beyond the banal observations that there is a big difference between 800,000 and 1.3 million (that’s 500,00 for those of you who weren’t paying attention) and that the one fact that unites all modelling is that it is wrong, there are some questions that I think we must answer about these jobs:

• What jobs?
• Are they good quality jobs?
• When will they arrive?
• Where will they arrive?
• Will they be union jobs?
• What can government do to ensure good employment, in regions that have the capability?

To answer these questions requires real intellectual and policy work at the industry, sectoral and regional level. That’s why the AMWU sought the support of the NSW Government for an investigation of these issues in the Hunter Region. The industry Taskforce that oversees this project will issue a set of recommendations in July, and I think they will start to set a benchmark in term of the kind of measures and industrial cooperation that will be required to deliver a fair outcome in this round of economic restructuring.

We polled our members in the Bowen Basin, the Hunter Valley and in the La Trobe Valley, and there were very high levels of support in the 80s and early 90s for dramatic action on climate change. People understand there’s an impact for them, but if they in those communities don’t see the urgent work going into answering those questions support for these issues will evaporate and that is the truth i think we have to confront and if it becomes an elite preoccupation; climate change; it should never be seen as that but if it becomes seen as that, and we lose that contest then I think the consequences for employment and the ecological outcomes are too terrible to contemplate.

3. Left renewal

Child Labour by Rajasekharan Parameswaran
This conference is all about ‘left renewal’. You don’t need to ‘renew’ an ascendant, resurgent movement, so I think the title infers an acceptance that the Left is diminishing in importance and impact. We can’t afford for a diminished Left in this country. The people I represent depend upon it. The broad political and industrial Left has done much to shape the economic and political development of Australia as a nation - it is hard to imagine our 19th and 20th Century history without the proud achievements of our collective movements. But just as a proud past doesn’t guarantee a certain future for my industry or the AMWU, I don’t believe the Left has a certain future in Australia unless we work together to build it. The Left (in the sense of a political movement that effects social and economic change in the interest of working people and a cohesive fair society, not a left commentariat) doesn’t have a right to exist - we must fight for it to exist. And by fight I mean develop and champion the great ideas that will reshape our movement, engage with the modern economic and social challenges and popularise practical campaigns capable of winning new territory in justice for the people we represent.

I feel a keen sense of responsibility as a new leader of a key left union to contribute to the debate in a serious and considered way. I certainly won’t be lecturing comrades about these issues; in fact I am very keen to listen to views about left strategy and to work with all in our movement on good ideas. But I do want to make a few points about where I see the future of our peculiarly Australian democratic Left:

We must recognise that our real capacity to grow is contingent on us building a movement that effects change - serious intellectual debate is vital to a movement with such strong democratic values, but equally we are a change movement, not part of a culture of complaint.

I believe, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the task of building our union movement is the most urgent left renewal task on our ‘to do list’. Our unions are the largest democratic organisations in our society and they arguably have the most potential to create social, economic and industrial change. We have some of the most creative and energetic left activists and ideas around and we must ensure a strong union voice for a fair and just future for our society and economy.

So given that I have my colleague here holding his hands up in a gesture that I think is meant to make me retire to my desk I’ll do that, there’s of course plenty more to say and if I had to say what needs to be said really, about the manufacturing industry and the challenges to it over 10 minutes I think I’d be emitting a dull hum rather than speaking intelligibly, so now I’d like to thank the previous speakers and I look forward to the next contributions in the debate.

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