A taxing time for cleaners

There has been some media comment about the United Voice (UV) sponsored report http://www.unitedvoice.org.au/news/who-pays-our-common-wealth and we welcome attempts to rectify an unjust situation. I would however ask you to reflect on how United Voice as a Union for low-paid workers came to be involved in tax advocacy.

As you may be aware United Voice has been running the Clean Start campaign for almost a decade. Clean Start is part of a worldwide initiative by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the US to develop an organising response to multi-national employers.

When launching Clean Start, the Union had already undertaken steps to sign an agreement with the Property Council of Australia, that they announced to members at the pre-launch. This in itself is a fatal flaw for community-building and rank-and-file organising, the disengagement of workers from empowerment processes. This is a strategy of a servicing union rather than an organising union. It perpetuates a mendicant client-based relationship between workers and organisers that relies on political solutions (to be delivered by organisers and ex-organisers) rather than community-based decision-making (which relies on engaged and active rank-and-file membership).

This is not to say that initially that the strategy had success. However the strategy relied on giving owners of the means of production instant reward while the workers themselves received no economic benefit. At the beginning of the Clean Start campaign an individual cleaner on average was cleaning over 900 sq. m per shift, the Clean Start guidelines bought this down to a more manageable 300 sq. m per shift. This created a dramatic increase in quality, and reduced capital maintenance expenditure. It was then the fight for decent wages started. With scattered success in the CBD sector, attention was turned to the other sector of maintenance worker density, the retail sector with its proliferation of shopping centres.

The shopping centre sector is a vastly different enterprise, while CBD maintenance is based on a janitorial work production schedule, shopping centre maintenance has a completely different motivation. One that is not recognised by the Union and remains a hidden organising key that is overlooked since the drive for Clean Start is not worker- based and active rank-and-file participation based. Any shopping centre cleaner understands the driving motivation for their employment and the unique problems that this creates for their work schedule.

While many CBD owners are national-based corporations, the shopping centre sector has one large multi-national corporation that resisted the Clean Start program, Westfield’s. A company that has resisted the global maintenance worker organising program. In failing to create real change the International organising campaign has changed tactic. Starting in the US, where the SEIU lead political campaigns against Westfield’s over it’s underestimation of property values for taxation purposes, and now in Australia with the above mentioned report. This is a good thing.

However, lets consider the moral implications and prevailing ideology that drives this type of political action, and the consequences for the cleaners (and other low-paid workers) who fund this research and political action. In the drive for a more secure budgetary line, these type of tax benefits for corporations would have been recognised. While the research itself has an Utilitarian benefit, it fails the Utilitarian morality test. When those who have the least pay for the greater good this is an immoral action, this form of action is a bastardisation of morality, and is nothing more than parasitical preying by society on its low-paid, vulnerable work-force. Everyone benefits from this research, the Union organising class (current organisers and former employees furthering the political agenda of the professionalised Union – as opposed to the rank-and-file) is distracted from core tasks (and values), the costs are one-sided and rewards not evenly distributed.

I will discuss at another time the problems, firstly of the professional organising class, and secondly the inherent structural deficiency of the Union that produces a mendicant relationship between member and organiser. However, these two key factors are the reasons for the lack of Clean Start success in the retail sector and the shifting of burden, by middle class organisers onto rank-and -file workers, the cost of change to society. Only by real community-based organising strategies and listening to the voices of the rank-and-file can effective political and economic emancipation occur.


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