The Australian labor movement is hampered by draconian restrictions on strikes and union organizing. But solidarity bargaining — which times industrial action to coincide across many industries — could enable the breakthrough workers need.

A May Day march on May 1, 2023, in Sydney, Australia. (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

In late August, over two hundred workers at Prysmian Cables in Sydney went on indefinite strike. In addition to demanding job security, they were taking a stand to ensure hard-won union conditions would apply to any new plant their employer opened up. After only two days, the strike won. Then, in September, over one thousand workers across two Inghams Chicken plants — one in Adelaide and the other in Perth — walked out for five days in solidarity with each other. As a result of their action, they won an average additional pay raise of $100 per week.

Just a month later, Victorian dairy workers pulled off the largest strike in living memory as 1,400 workers across thirteen dairy factories run by four major employers walked off the job for two days. After resolving to organize another walk-off — this time indefinite — the workers won significantly improved wage offers, shift allowances and job security provisions. Perhaps most importantly in a time of ongoing climate disasters, they also won the right to paid emergency services leave, meaning that when bushfires or other disasters occur, they will be able to stop work and volunteer to protect their mainly regional communities.

Taken together, these and other actions signal a growing willingness among many Australian workers to take collective and direct action to secure better lives for themselves and their families.

However, whether this new willingness to fight results in improved rights and stronger organization overall depends on whether unions rise to the occasion. This will require a strategy that uses existing frameworks governing collective bargaining and labor conditions to expand and deepen solidarity across workers within a given political community. Solidarity bargaining — an approach generalized from the experience of US autoworkers — may be the strategy we need.

What Is Solidarity Bargaining?

October 30, 2023, might go down in history both as the day when solidarity bargaining was born and the day it scored its first major victory. Thanks to rolling “stand-up strike” actions, in which cohorts of workers took staggered strike actions at successive plants, members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) working for the Big Three US automotive manufacturers won transformative concessions. These included ambitious wage increases, life-changing provisions for temp workers, and the inclusion of new electric vehicle plants into the master contracts. UAW members also won the right for workers to strike to protect their job security during the life of the contract.

The UAW strike reconfirmed the importance of determined shop-floor militancy and indicated a renewed confidence among workers to strike at a time when capital is ramping up investment in the energy transition and other climate-change related projects.

As impressive as these achievements are, however, there’s another element of the UAW strike that may prove transformative for the Australian — and international — labor movement. In addition to key improvements to their rights and conditions, US autoworkers ensured that new agreements governing Ford, Stellantis (formerly Chrysler), and General Motors workplaces will all expire on April 30, 2028. That is, in five years’ time, on the day before May Day, a new round of struggle will open for US autoworkers. This is a big win that both lays the basis for expanded industrial power and invites workers and unions across the United States to demand similarly aligned contract expiry dates. If other unions and workers take the opportunity, it means that May Day 2028 could see a strike wave of historic significance.

Solidarity bargaining uses collective bargaining rounds at previously disconnected workplaces to prepare for struggles that can draw on the strength of the working class as a whole.

Of course, there is nothing new about workers striking together on May Day. Workers’ struggle is the very genesis of May Day, and there’s a rich history of strikes and protests timed to coincide with it. It’s also not new for unions to line up contracts to expire simultaneously years in advance. But what is new is calling on other unions to follow suit in order to generalize bargaining and industrial action beyond one union, a move pioneered by the UAW. By laying the groundwork for broader and deeper strikes, ideally drawing in new groups of workers organizing, it builds the potential for a class-wide impact.

That’s what solidarity bargaining is. In a nutshell, it’s a strategy that uses collective bargaining rounds at previously disconnected workplaces to prepare for struggles that can draw on the strength of the working class as a whole.

Although Australian labor laws and conditions are different, it’s not just speculation to say that this approach can also work here. In 2022, for example, hundreds of Northern Territory correctional officers — few of whom would describe themselves as radicals — walked off the job and joined the May Day march in Darwin. In addition to waging their own battle for a better enterprise agreement, this meant their strike was timed to coincide with the Northern Territory government’s proposed four-year public sector wage freeze. That’s why it helped to initiate a successful rebellion across the Northen Territory public sector that upended the territory government’s austerity wage policy.

In May 2023, Victorian university workers and their union, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), took a similar approach. Taking advantage of the fact that all the major universities were locked in enterprise agreement (EA) negotiations, the NTEU called a statewide strike on May 3, bringing workers from across the state together to protest neoliberal university administrations. The power built through this action propelled longer and deeper strikes across the sector during the second semester of this year.

Solidarity Is a Two-Way Street

Solidarity is a two-way street. When workers stand up for themselves, they can win improvements and build their own power. But beyond that, their action can strengthen workers’ conditions and power in seemingly unrelated industries and workplaces. Through solidarity, workers are invited to both benefit from the agency of other workers and to stand up themselves — it’s why solidarity goes both ways. Solidarity bargaining, therefore, is a potentially universal invitation to the wider working class to join already organized and militant segments of workers and together build the power to win ambitious and necessary changes to our lives. With broad enough solidarity, workers can again collectively change history.

Through solidarity, workers are invited to both benefit from the agency of other workers and to stand up themselves — it’s why solidarity goes both ways.

For union workers already covered by collective agreements, solidarity bargaining represents a concrete strategy to escape from the austerity and restriction on union power characteristic of the neoliberal era. For nonunion workers, when union workers take action elsewhere, it can become an opportunity to build a stronger union at their own workplaces. By widening the scope of such cooperation to its fullest possible extent, solidarity bargaining seeks to maximize workers’ power as a class to win further autonomy within the rule of capital. As a strategy, it helps to develop an understanding that strikes can both win at a local level and unite workers across many workplaces. Solidarity bargaining is an industrial strategy that can be applied to the concrete specifics of individual workplaces, and that can lay the ground for an effective general strike.

Even in a jurisdiction like Australia — whose restrictions on union power and the right to strike have more in common with an authoritarian regime than a liberal democracy — solidarity bargaining is potentially transformative. To understand this, we need to see how two apparently autonomous cycles of bargaining could be bound together to build solidarity.

When workers with an existing enterprise agreements enter a bargaining period, they can improve conditions and pay at their workplace. But their wins are rarely generalized and are vulnerable to bosses who tear up agreements and establish “greenfield” workplaces with no collective agreement.

At the same time, most workplaces do not have EAs. For workers in these workplaces — including most minimum-wage workers — pay and conditions are governed by industrial awards and an annual minimum wage review conducted by the Fair Work Commission. Each year, this technocratic review process leaves little room for militancy. Instead, it sees individual unions and their peak body, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, make submissions to the Fair Work Commission, whose decision is final.

Since this framework was established in the 1980s and ’90s, these two cycles — enterprise bargaining and the annual minimum-wage review — have been disconnected. The result has been falling pay and declining union power. However, if unions demand that enterprise agreements come to an end around a common window timed to coincide with May Day, it’s possible to begin connecting these two cycles of bargaining. Together, this could result in a third cycle of bargaining — solidarity bargaining — that could exercise power over both union and nonunion workplaces, regardless of Fair Work.

To get started, all that’s needed is for some workers covered by enterprise agreements to determine that they will time future action in support of their own claims to take place on May Day, which is itself a critical juncture in the annual wage review cycle. If successful, this can build confidence and militancy, preparing union delegates from those worksites to convince other unionists and delegates to join them in future years.

At this point in the strategy, it is not even necessary to win the fight over when their EA will expire, and indeed, at some workplaces, EA battles will be lost. At the same time, there may be compelling reasons for specific workplaces to demand EA expiry dates that coincide with other factors that boost their power — for example, in horticulture, workers’ power ebbs and flows with the seasons.

Workers’ power is the social equivalent of the physical force of gravity. At a small scale, it is a weak force. At a large scale, it’s what moves the earth.

But workers’ power is the social equivalent of the physical force of gravity. At a small scale, it is a weak force. At a large scale, it’s what moves the earth. So, over time, as more groups of workers win EAs with expiry dates timed to coincide with May Day, it can build effectiveness and attract others to the same strategy. In this sense, solidarity bargaining can be an iterative process — each year, the waves of action could grow, and as they do, they will also grow the next year’s wave.

Meanwhile, there is the annual wage review, a surviving relic of Australia’s social democratic era, when the union movement won a membership, protections, and conditions on par with Nordic countries. In the past, the annual wage review was an opportunity for union hot shops to take action that linked with broader working-class interests.

Today, the annual wage review is a kind of collective bargain with the corporate elite that covers the three million workers under the award system or on the minimum wage. Because it also coincides with May Day, if that date once again becomes an annual high-water mark in union struggle, it could again be an opportunity to link the interests of union workers on EAs with those who are not. And, if workplaces and sectors where the unions are strong take action at that time, it adds crucial pressure on the Fair Work Commission panel as it considers the various wage submissions of employers, governments, and unions.

In short, with solidarity bargaining May Day could again become a day of workers’ power.

Building Class Power

If the Australian union movement takes a collective bargaining approach to the annual wage review, it could draw workers on the minimum wage and awards into collective action. Instead of being passive objects of state regulation, this could help millions of nonunion workers understand their collective interests are the same as those of union members, growing the power of the class as a whole.

And this process is perhaps more straightforward than it appears. Collective bargaining is like an iceberg. What happens in the negotiation room is the tip of the iceberg. What really matters — and what carries the day — is the organizing work that happens outside of the negotiation room. A union organizer can thump the table or make an eloquent speech, but if the workers they represent are not united and clearly prepared to act, it rarely makes a difference.

This could also apply to the annual wage review. There is nothing stopping union activists and workers from organizing open and democratic rank-and-file processes to form, endorse, and submit their union’s annual wage claim. This could then lead to collective action — either by the entire union movement, or by a coalition of a few unions — in support of a claim or direct action to enforce outcomes.

And perhaps most importantly, the process of mass education and organization that would be needed could draw more workers into union organizing, helping them initiate formal bargaining for an EA in their own workplaces. This step would also help to broaden and deepen participation in solidarity bargaining.

The need for a new wave of union militancy is obvious and sorely needed, and given growing discontent over stagnant wages and the cost of living crisis, the coming years represent an opportunity to develop collective struggle. Solidarity bargaining may be the key to this. By training the next generation of unionists to focus on the power of the working class as a whole — that is, by appealing to as broad a cohort of workers as possible — we could renew our movement.

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