Jobs, Justice And A Liveable World: For A Job Guarantee

Jobs, Justice And A Liveable World: For A Job Guarantee

On August 29, 2019 the UQ Greens, alongside QLD Greens MP Michael Berkman hosted the forum ‘Jobs, Justice & a Liveable World: A Green New Deal for Australia’. Looking at the leadership being provided around the world on the issue, this panel asked the question what might a Green New Deal look like in Australia? With permission from the organisers Green Agenda, over the next few weeks, is going to publish the transcripts of the talks at this forum.

In this piece we start with the introduction from Greens MP Michael Berkman then move to the first presentation from campaigner at the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU) Jeremy Poxon who argues that a Green New Deal must include a national job guarantee.

Michael Berkman

We’re all systems go. It’s on. It’s a happening thing. It’s so good to have so many people here. Thanks, to start with, for everyone making time in your evenings to come and along and participate in what’s a really important conversation. I’m going to begin, as we always must, by acknowledging that we’re here on solemn land, that we all live and work, and meet every day on land that has a shocking history. We need to be mindful in everything we do as a party, and as a community, that the ongoing colonisation and dispossession of First Nations People in Australia requires all of our effort to resolve. In particular, in the context of this conversation tonight, the questions around land rights sovereignty and truth telling really do need to be central to these discussions we’re having about bold planning for the future. It simply can’t be an afterthought because, the history of this country, we are quite literally founded on the theft of land. 

There’s plenty of climate grief floating around at the moment. I feel it. I know you’re all feeling it. It’s difficult in the current political context in Queensland, and in Australia, and around the world, to not feel a little glum about where things are at. But I guess discussions like we’re going to have tonight are a really important opportunity to start envisaging a more positive future. It’s an important reminder that things don’t have to be this way. We can actually collectively set our minds on what a better future looks like — both the big picture, and the detail.

Housekeeping. Always a fun bit. Thank you so much to Eva and Shawn for organising tonight. This has been a big undertaking so thank you so much to the two of you in particular, but the UQ Greens more generally for setting it up.

The plan tonight? We’ll hear from each of our panellists for about 10 minutes after I finish my blab and then we’ll open it up to a more open Q&A type discussion.

Before we go any further, I do want to touch explicitly on the fact that one of our speakers, Andrew, hasn’t been able to make it tonight to participate as a panellist. We’re very lucky to have TJ joining us instead, but what this means is that we don’t have an Aboriginal Torres or Strait Islander panellist, which truly sucks and, I just want to name that and put it out there at the start of this evening’s discussion. This is the first time that the Queensland Greens have engaged in this kind of forum and we’re going to have plenty more of these conversations and it is integral, and it will be an integral part of our planning, that we make space for mob right at the centre of these conversations. The persistent trend to sideline First Nation’s voices is kind of rampant across the country. The struggle of the Wangan & Jagalingou people around Adani is really emblematic of the way that indigenous concerns that the sacredness of this country and this land for First Nations is a peripheral issue for most people, certainly for governments and the way that they address governance overall, not just a particular project, like Adani. As I said before already, their dispossession and addressing that must be fundamental to our fight for climate justice. It’s really not good enough that we don’t have a First Nations person as a part of this discussion, but just to make it clear, if there are any Aboriginals or Torres Strait Islander people here, speak up at any point. The floor is yours if you have anything to contribute at all. 

Everyone here, I guess, has been following along what’s emerging in the US. The Green New Deal is hard to miss at the moment. It involves a genuinely transformative plan that really re-imagines climate justice and what that means, particularly the future for workers centring around decarbonisation, jobs, and justice. There are specific components of it. So it proposes net zero global emissions by 2050, a federal green jobs guarantee, massive public investment in affordable housing and public transport, clean air, clean water and healthy food as basic human rights, and a just transition that tackles poverty income equality, and racial discrimination.

Jobs, Justice And A Liveable World: For A Job Guarantee

A Green New Deal for Australia is obviously not going to look just like what’s proposed in the US. Whatever similarities there are between the two countries, there are so many differences that are naturally going to shift what our focus and what the outcomes of any kind of Green New Deal type transformation looks like. Central to the discussion in the States and here is that the current system and the status quo that’s driving us to climate catastrophe is, in fact, the same system that prioritises the wealth of a few corporations. It’s the same system that treats housing as a commodity rather than a human right, and completely fails to design an economy and workforce that benefits people rather than their corporate overlords. And I say that without a word of cynicism. No sarcasm, either.

I guess I don’t need to tell you all tonight that when it comes to the major parties in Australia, and what they offer to this kind of discussion, it’s pretty bleak. It’s really thin on the ground. Any kind of bold transformative vision for the future of politics is all so fundamentally reactive rather than planned and actually interested in the wellbeing of future generations. We’re looking at the next election time and time again. Even here in Queensland with a so called progressive Labor government we’re seeing effectively nothing in terms of just transition.

I’ve been quite actively pursuing the government for information they can give us about their transition for coal communities and in estimates just recently I had to go through four different ministers to come to the conclusion that there is quite literally nothing. They’ve got this just transitions group that set up, that is only…it was set up in parallel with a clean energy target so there’s been no consideration within that group of what happens to coal communities as we see an inevitable transition unfold. It’s just going to be left to the market to decide how quickly these communities feel the crash and the outcomes of that. If they have their way, that’ll be the case, but I’m hoping that we can step in and get a narrative happening. Through force of the community get the government engaged with these communities and these realities. 

The last federal election, I guess, was another quite distressing case in point. It was an opportunity for Labor as a government in waiting to present something to offer these regional communities. Instead we saw them walk both the sides of the line and were really transparent and just weak. We really shouldn’t be surprised that they were abandoned by so many who were expected to vote for them.

Anyway, that is plenty from me. I’ll shut up and get out of the way so that we can hear from our outstanding panellists. Our first speaker tonight is Jeremy Poxon. Jeremy’s a welfare rights advocate and campaigner with the Australian Unemployed Workers Union. The AUWU is an Australian union representing unemployed, underemployed, and unwaged workers as well as all recipients of social security in Australia so please make Jeremy welcome.

Jeremy Poxon

Thank you all for coming and to reiterate something Michael said, yes, we’re stuck with this government for another three years. Yes, we’re stuck with an opposition that is continuing to dispose itself of any kind of spine and giving very little hope beyond sucking up to billionaires and mining magnates. It’s really up to us in the end. We don’t have a Sanders right now, we don’t have a Corbyn or an AOC to sort of save us from above. It’s really up to campaigners on the ground to start thinking big. We have three years to get a positive radical agenda on the table, not just one that can help us unscrew the environment, but one that, which is what I’m going to talk about today, actually helps us connect, engage, and eventually mobilise the kind of Australians who are feeling unreached, who are starving on the vine, or on Newstart, who have seen their livelihoods and job security basically stripped away by 40 years of dud, bipartisan neo-liberal policy. So that’s going to be my focus in my 10 minutes.

I’m with the Unemployed Workers Union who currently represent about 12 thousand unemployed, underemployed workers and social security recipients who, sadly, are suffering some of the worst conditions in the OECD. So I wouldn’t be a good leftist campaigner if I didn’t depress the hell out of everybody. Two really sad slides and then I’m going to end with a hopeful note, I promise. But if we’re going to reach out to these people and try and build the kind of populous movement that we need in this country, we need to stare these facts directly in the face. That’s something that both parties and very few people in Canberra do. They still do a ‘see no evil’, or ‘see no poverty here’ kind of approach and (in the last election) gave no real clear plan to people who are locked out of work and starving on Newstart. 

So, as people here might now, our labour market’s cooked. For the first time in our statistical history, less than half of us now work in secure, full time jobs. In some areas in Queensland, since the Labor government took power, unemployment has risen three fold in certain areas. So it’s going to be interesting to see how well they do in the state election with that kind of record.

It’s shitty for young people right now. Youth underemployment just hit its highest levels in 40 years. Young people coming up in the economy have rarely found it harder than it is now to get a proper toe hold. This is a little ABS data by the way, I’m not just inventing this out of thin air. This is stuff the government knows very clearly so if you’d like to get angry about that, I encourage it. 2.8 million Aussies currently aren’t getting enough hours of work. So we currently have a bit over 700 thousand unemployed people. These are people who aren’t getting a single hour of work, a fortnight. We also have a little over 1.1 million underemployed Australians. These are people telling the ABS that they are working, but they aren’t working enough hours that they want to be. And then we have another one million Australians that the ABS call the hidden unemployed or the hidden poor. These are people who have completely given up looking for work at all and are basically just now resigned to a life of poverty. 

So there’s being locked out of the labour market, which so many of us are now. Then there’s the reality of trying to live in our social security system while being locked out of work. There’s been a lot of stuff about the Raise the Rate campaign, so you’re probably familiar with how much it sucks being a Newstart recipient. It sucks worse than anywhere else in the developed world. It sucks worse being unemployed in Australia than even America or the UK right now. One thing we did during budget week, we got our members to complete a survey, which during budget week we stuck on treasurer Frydenberg’s office walls. This survey asked them what it was like to live on Newstart, and even we were blown away by just how bad it actually is. So over 50 percent of our members are skipping meals every single day, literally starving themselves to survive on Newstart. Crushingly, we got some insight into what it’s actually like emotionally to be unemployed. 98 percent of our members said they experience social isolation.

These are the people that aren’t being reached by Canberra, aren’t being reached by the left broadly as well. There was a lot of rhetoric floating around that it was poor workers or it was the working class, especially here in Queensland, that cost the election. But it’s really our politicians and a failure of the left really, over the last couple of decades, to properly reach out to these people and offer them a vision and a campaign that speaks to the reality of their lives and centres them in a struggle. 

Depressing stuff over.

What would a campaign look like that could actually centre these people in a movement and fight for them and build the kind of change that we so desperately need. We can’t just do this because it is the right thing to do, which it absolutely is. We also just can’t win on the left if we don’t mobilise these people, get their support, actually get their votes in three years time by concretely offering them a decent life. 

Best way to do that, in my honest opinion is basically taking Bernie’s federal job guarantee and applying it and putting that on the agenda. This is starting to get talked about, I know, in green circles, and some Labor MPs have come out in support. It’s a very simple idea. When the private sector isn’t employing millions and millions of people it should be government responsibility to offer those people decent, secure, unionised, ongoing and meaningful work. That’s essentially what a job guarantee is. It’s an employer of last resort. They’re public sector jobs. Anyone who wants one can get one so they’re not coercive if you cannot work because you have experienced disability or even if you don’t want to work. It’s not coercive in that sense, because we don’t want to create that kind of full, protestant workerist society that we live in where it’s basically a ‘work or starve’ mentality. We want to offer decent jobs to people who want them, but if people don’t want them or can’t do them, no one deserves to starve in a country that’s had 28 years of consecutive growth.

So to break down a job guarantee and why I think it’s the best immediate tool, or best immediate way to build this kind of movement of low income workers to help lift them out of poverty, is because that’s exactly what is does. Imagine those 2.8 million Australians I just mentioned earlier. This is essentially a silver bullet to be able to lift all of those people out of poverty, which should be our very first goal. Obviously, you can see how that will address regional inequality and there’s lots to talk about, but I won’t, about just transitions, especially in rural Queensland.

Another thing here, and God bless crazy right wing American cartoonists, because they’ve actually nailed what’s so good about the job guarantee with a very fearful cartoon of Bernie giving people the hammer and sickle, because that’s what it does. It builds worker power. It goes out to communities in consultation to talk with them about the kind of work that workers want to do out there. It puts them (workers) back on the side of production. It vastly would increase people’s bargaining power at work. Once you take away the whole reserve army of unemployed people, once the fear of the sack is out of the question, once corporations don’t have millions of unemployed people that they can just hire and fire at will, that gives us so much ability to work together, to unionise and not put up with corporations’ crap and actually fight for decent standards of living, higher wages, better conditions. 

Obviously, it tackles climate change and Bernie has said a lot about that last week, so I won’t cover his turf but. A job guarantee should prioritise jobs that transition away from the fossil fuel industry, jobs that protect the environment, green jobs.

Something really important that we need to start thinking about is the way that a job guarantee like this can reinvent the nature of work and start us asking questions and imagine work beyond a market imperative. It give us a scope to be able to start organising the work that we actually want to do, not just the kind of meaningless jobs that capitalists want us to perform. As the cartoon again iterates, a job guarantee is pretty radical as an idea, but it’s also viscerally relevant and could be so relevant to workers in these communities that are suffering. As I’ve ended there at a point, it can catalyse a movement of them.

How the hell does this bloody thing work? 

This is something that I’ve stolen from an economist who’s much smarter than me, Steven Hale, to basically break down how this thing could function. So a job guarantee model like this one costs about 25 billion dollars a year, which isn’t that much when you consider what did we just spend on French submarines? 60 billion? I won’t take you through the whole thing but the bottom part is probably the most interesting and gets at what I was saying before about it, sort of being able to change the nature of work and being able to involve the community in deciding what kind of work is most meaningful to them and their communities and to themselves as human beings. So straight up, we basically abolish private job service providers. I’ve just come from Max Employment, where they just made me sit down in silence while I ticked off my activities. So we fuck them off entirely. Sarina Russo, Therese Rein, and the rest of them have to get their billions somewhere else.

We renationalize employment services, like the old CES, if older people in the room can remember that — a time before businesses made billions in profit from poor people. Even take the buildings if we need to. Kick all the Sarina Russo people out, put public employees in there and they’re basically places to go in those periods where you’re out of work. The kind of work of employment offices would offer would be different in different communities, because they come out of a consultation process that you’d have to have with members of the community, where they are basically surveyed about what kind of jobs they want to do and to be paid for. This could be anything from green jobs, obviously as we’ve spoken about, it can be housing jobs, it could be paying artists to do big outdoor work. Whatever it is, it has to boil down to what the community find the most meaningful. That’s a tiny breakdown of how it could functionally look.

It’s sometimes controversial on the left to say that people want to work, but I feel like once we get out of and once we start thinking beyond this kind of market imperative, there’s so much good work to be done. There’s so much necessary work to be done if we’re going to try and unscrew the planet, build renewable energy, fix infrastructure in rural communities and actually reward people for the work they’re already doing unwaged — the caring work that millions of hours of unpaid labour goes into, particularly from women. Australia also always tops lists for voluntary work, so I think people do find meaning in labour. It’s just a sad state in late capitalism that the work people want to do, they’re not getting paid for. I’m sure some UBI (universal basic income) people will disagree that people actually want to work, but we can have that argument in the Q&A.

So I’m going to end on a little bit of propaganda from my organisation, probably try and recruit some people into it, but to also nail down a point that I think is necessary in that, the job guarantee isn’t the silver bullet that’s going to fix everything, make all of our lives great, yada yada yada. It’s just one tool and it has to, if we’re going to seriously challenge poverty and inequality in our country, it has to basically exist alongside a simultaneous campaign for fairer welfare, whether that involves a basic income, or whether that involves fixing our shoddy social security system, getting rid of robo-debt, raising all payments to the poverty line, that kind of thing. We believe at the union that both things need to function simultaneously to create the kind of society that rewards people who want to do certain jobs, but then also takes care of people, and gives people who don’t want to work or can’t work a decent life simultaneously. This is the easiest statement in the world that we should be making, that everyone is entitled to a liveable income, no matter if they work or not. But somehow the left has found that difficult to articulate in politics at this point.

There is a reason why anti-poverty advocates do prioritise a job guarantee and see it as a way to win big gains and that’s because it creates a new set of power relations and conditions that actually enable people to participate in struggle, in politics. It gets them involved back in the community. It actually gets those 98 percent of our members who feel social isolation, find it hard to get on the bus, can’t leave town, are completely alienated from politics — it actually raises them to a standard of living, gets them involved back in their workplace and other people, and will enable people to join movements for housing rights, indigenous land rights, all sorts of battles and movements that we need to win.

But we can’t win if so many of our people are ending up in poverty. So by addressing the needs of these millions of Australians, actually speaking to them and building their demands into some kind of project, we can start to build a powerful, political future for all of us. We can get to that socialist utopia where people can actually dictate what kind of work they want to do, what kind of life they want to lead, and what kind of future they want for their country. 

I told you I’d end kind of inspiring, right? Thank you.