Who are the workers now?

Andrew Hunter is a former speechwriter to South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill and past National Chair of the Australian Fabians

For a decade between 1944 and 1954, some of the most decorated priests in France worked as manual labourers. I wrote a piece recently in The Adelaide Review about worker-priests, and argued that those who represent the working class in parliament would benefit from such close and ongoing connection with workers. The obvious question took little time in coming: who are the workers now?

The article was inspired by chronicles of worker-priests which I had recently read and found both fascinating and moving. A worker-priest wrote to a bishop of Limoges in the early 1950s that he had to live the aspirations of the proletariat “so as to make them truly our own, along with its fatigues, its humiliations, its struggles, its oppressions, its splendours.” Another described how, little by little, the “slow, mounting indignation of weary bodies, air-starved lungs, unquiet nights…” penetrated the souls of the worker-priests.

These passages reflect circumstances that has historically moved Labor’s Left. With change one of life’s few guarantees, it is important to continually realign our timeless values to the evolving social contexts. It is important to identify those Australian workers who are today forced to endure the fatigues, humiliations, struggles and oppressions.

Who do we exist, first and foremost, to serve? Each of our unions would rightly argue that the people they represent are part of a modern Australian working class – but who else would benefit from the modern fulfilment of our historic mission? The answer to this question should shape our strategy to attract more workers to the union movement, and to the Party.

Clearly, someone whose value is produced from the sweat off their brow is a worker. Builders, tradies, factory workers and labourers continue to the roads, buildings, bridges, plumbing that we see around us every day. Due to a hollowed industrial base, these workers are now fewer in number than in the time of the worker-priests - though their work is no less valuable. What, then, are the other constituent elements of a modern Australian working class?

A modern-day worker is someone whose wages reflect the market value, rather than the social value, of their labour. We put our trust in aged care workers, early childhood workers and teachers  to care for vulnerable members of our communities – but the market value of their work does not reflect its value to our community.

A modern-day worker is someone who does an honest day’s work but still struggles to pay for food, rent and electricity. Examples, there are many. The pool of working-poor has become deeper since penalty rates have been reduced  adding to a significant number of full-time working poor.

A modern-day worker is someone whose salary is inferior with their market value of their work as a result of their gender, ethnicity or background. This group of workers ranges from female executives who earn less than their male colleagues, to student-workers who are condemned by the predatory attitude of their bosses.

Someone employed in the private sector, but earns a small fraction of the executives who run their businesses, is a modern-day worker. Those clerks and tellers, receptionists and accountants whose labour increases a company’s wealth but whose salary is the crumbs of the million-dollar loaves earnt by their CEOs, are examples.

The working-class in modern Australia is therefore a large but broad constituency. It includes the traditional proletariat as well as a growing group described by British economist Guy Standing as the precariat.  Members of the precariat are defined by insecure working conditions, debt, and an absence of non-wage benefits such as superannuation. It is for this group that the union movement is currently campaigning to reverse the casualisation of work – a modern blight that condemns swathes of Australians to life-long precarity.

The indignation of “weary bodies, air-starved lungs, unquiet nights…” observed by the worker-priests of the 1950s has been replaced by the indignation of those asked to endure working life on the precipice, with weary minds and sleepless nights born of perpetually insecure circumstances. These workers may not be in jobs traditionally associated with the proletariat, but are nonetheless well-represented by strong unions such as United Voice. Their emancipation will be made possible by a prolonged campaign led by the union movement and ALP, abetted by the moral and intellectual support of academics, writers and artists.

One worker-priest expressed his desire to give the world “a beauty that matched the hard work.” Our goal is to protect the rights of all these workers, emphasise the value of their work and fight for their safety on the job, and bring a beauty to the world that reflects their hard work. And only secure working conditions provide a foundation from which a beautiful life is possible.

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