Octopi (as I learnt at an IMAX cinema) can’t pass down knowledge generationally. They’re smart – you’ve seen videos of them unscrewing jars, devising long-term escape plans, disguised as sea junk, trundling around in coconuts, predicting World Cups, inspiring Netflix series, giving TED Talks. But they die before their offspring hatch. Baby octopi learn everything from scratch.

In a recent discussion about Mark Fisher for the SRB, writer Rhian E. Jones chides the left for their habitual ‘need to reinvent the wheel’. She describes growing up in a Welsh former mining town that took pride in the ‘civic and material culture of socialism’, in spite of its battering under Thatcher. Jones distanced herself from that culture in the early 00s, fearing snarky internet leftists saw traditions like trade unionism as ‘fusty, uncool and passé’. To her frustration, she later witnessed ‘the sudden elevation of those same ideas in a raw and rudimentary guise’.

Over the last decade or so, in the US and UK, grassroots mobilisation around Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn has played some part in this elevation. They have no Australian equivalent, at least not in the Labour Party. (The likelihood of one emerging has been examined in an Overland article by Daniel Lopez.) While we’re waiting for their arrival, Beckett-like, what are we to do? If a plucky leftist were to organise a book club session on Australian unionism, what readings would they set? Our histories of radicalism and workers movements are largely undocumented.

There are several reasons for this. One is a lack of financial support for researching and recording these histories. Outside of academia, small networks of older communists, and patronage by left-wing unions, where are all the rich patrons sympathetic to their own downfall?

Another reason is our attitude to activism in general, which – as Anwen Crawford pointed out recently at the Melbourne launch of her new book No Document – is one of kneejerk cynicism, even among fellow activists. Other regions of the world take pride in their radical and trouble-making traditions, so why don’t we, especially since larrikinism is so central to our self-image?

Finally, unions have an image problem. Specifically, they lack an image at all, or at least one that’s coherent. If the importance of workers movements and solidarity isn’t imparted to you in your upbringing, and there isn’t a visible union presence in your workplace, all you’ve got to go on is their occasional portrayal in media and pop culture. This tends to be through a lens of hostility – by outlets run by moguls who’ve incurred workers’ wrath in the past – or cartoon villainy, via mafia flicks cementing unions’ links to organised crime, but not in a cool enough way to make people join their unions. Otherwise, there’s silence. Last year’s general strike in India barely got a look-in from major Western news, despite being the largest in history at roughly 250 million participants. When was the last time you saw an intriguing portrayal of unionism in the media, apart from the Simpsons episode ‘Last Exit to Springfield’ in 1993, and then 25 years later in Sorry to Bother You?

Without Bosses: Radical Unionism in the 1970s by Sam Oldham and Stuff the Accord! Pay Up! by Liz Ross, both published by Interventions in October last year, do crucial work filling the gaps in our collective memory. Without Bosses shows why the 1970s were a high-point, spotlighting figures like Jack Mundey and the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) alongside lesser known but equally intriguing experiments in worker autonomy.

Stuff the Accord takes up chronologically where Without Bosses leaves off. If you don’t know, the Accord was a pact between labour and capital conceived by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and Labour during Bob Hawke’s stint as PM. Conventional wisdom holds that it was a breakthrough for workers, somehow. Liz Humphry dismantled this notion thoroughly in How Labour Built Neoliberalism (2018); acknowledging and building on Humphry’s argument, Ross hones in on the Accord’s debilitating effects on unionism through the 1980s and beyond. Like Oldham, Ross makes her argument by going case-by-case through disputes, victories and defeats (mostly defeats) from the period in question.

Oldham and Ross’ books complement each other in content and style. Without Bosses poses the effectiveness of militant, grassroots, rank-and-file activism against the ALP’s complacency and employers’ hostility in Stuff the Accord. Oldham lets the victories speak for themselves, while Ross takes bolshy swipes at the leading incompetents. Both present hard, homegrown truths for our union movement, which has a habit of learning lessons elsewhere and applying them here, often clumsily.

The Accord itself is an example of this. As Ross points out, it was an attempt to re-enact an experiment that had already failed in the UK – one which resulted in their Labour Government getting dumped in the 1970s. (Paul Keating’s 1996 defeat by John Howard echoed this loss.)

Another, more recent example of this habit is when the ACTU launched the Your Rights at Work campaign to combat WorkChoices in 2005. In the process, they became fascinated with cognitive linguist George Lakoff and his theories around effective messaging. According to a journal article on the campaign by Kathy Muir and David Peetz, Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant (2004) was apparently ‘used to assist members and community supporters to develop a working understanding of the concept of framing and why it was important.’ Sophisticated as they were then, Lakoff’s ideas proved no match for the Coalition’s recent counter-tactic: recruit zoomers to pump out lobotomised memes every twenty minutes for months leading up to the 2019 election.

Renowned US-based organiser Jane McAlevey, whose book A Collective Bargain was published in America last year and released here in March, is our latest fixation. At least I’ve heard as much from comrades who are more in the loop. It’s certainly the case in my union, but outside of that it’s hard to gauge her popularity – which I’ll chalk up to a breakdown in cross-industry communication.

McAlevey’s previous book No Shortcuts (2016) has been influential as a manual on union organising basics. It gives step-by-step instructions on building workplace union density towards strike-readiness. Dubbed ‘deep organising’, this model continues to inspire both the rank-and-file and union officials. But its wide appeal is also contentious. As Marcus Banks points out in a recent article for Solidarity, a distinction has emerged between ‘our McAlevey’ and ‘theirs’:

her strategy – when applied from below – remains empowering. When bureaucratically rolled out from above…McAlevey’s approach is gutted of its momentum building potential …stripped down to a passive, administrative exercise of filling in spreadsheets.

Luckily, A Collective Bargain is less a how-to than a history, with no new jargon or models to misuse. It gives a bleak overview of the forces lined up against unions in the US, and ground-level tactics that have had success there. Many of its lessons could be relevant here. Like Without Bosses and Stuff the Accord, it illuminates regional and international labour history, and is significant for that alone.

But to what extent do these books make unionism seem appealing? In this regard, how do they stack up against literature created by workers for workers, documenting first-hand experiences with wage labour, how to disrupt it, and the ways in which union officials can help or hinder the disruption?

Without Bosses draws heavily on such literature, frequently citing newsletters made by workplace militants and shop committees operating independently of union higher-ups. One of the book’s big takeaways is that boom times don’t necessarily breed complacency. Oldham shows that while economic optimism discouraged militancy in the 1950s, it had the opposite effect in the early 1970s. This was particularly the case in the construction industry, where greedy developers agitated workers. High wages, easy employment and distance from managers through sub-contracting, along with radical traditions brought by a new migrant workforce, emboldened these workers to hold mass rank-and-file meetings – often in defiance of the ACTU. One of the culminations of this newfound militancy was the Green Bans imposed by the legendary BLF and spearheaded by Mundey, among others.

(As an aside, Mundey was a member of the Communist Party of Australia. But Oldham emphasises that while the CPA exerted influence through Mundey and other key figures, their ‘role should not be exaggerated’, as their membership in the 70s had dropped to an all-time low from previous decades. At the same time, this could be considered a notch on the belt for vanguardism, so take heart, Leninists.)

By the standards of what is considered achievable today, the brazenness of the BLF and other radical unions during this time seems cartoonish. Steelworkers at Harco staged a work-in, sacking their foreman and running the factory for a month before the owners, thoroughly humiliated, called in the cops. Another work-in, at the Nymboida coal mine in NSW, resulted in the bosses packing up and leaving, surrendering the mine to the workers, who ran it successfully for four years until the coal seam ran out.

A motif throughout these struggles is the lifelong, empowering effects they have on the workers involved, even if they fizzle out. A sit-in by women at the James North Glove factory forced the owner to abandon it, allowing the women to turn it into the Whyalla Glove Cooperative. After it fell back into private ownership, the foreman reported a lingering disobedience: ‘they played up […] always going to the toilet, arguing, complaining.’

This audacity contrasts starkly with the labour movement’s restraint throughout the preceding two decades. Here, there’s another big takeaway, to do with the power of visibility. Oldham explains how a combination of Labour incompetency and Liberal opportunism, from the 1940s on, led to strikes becoming subject to fines, which was more effective than jailing union leaders because it bled unions financially and left them no martyrs for propaganda.

This changed with the arrest of Clarrie O’Shea, a leader in the Tramways Union, in 1969. O’Shea’s very visible arrest triggered a six-day, million-strong national strike, upending the threat of fines and laying the groundwork for militancy in the 70s. A shop steward and organizer from that time witnessed ‘an “enormous” and immediate surge of workplace activity, with employers powerless to confront it.’ Oldham describes a subsequent strike at a BHP plant in which the foreman, dumbfounded, could only repeat: ‘This is madness. This is madness.’

Since then we’ve settled back into Menzies-era stagnation. Union membership has declined steadily since the 1980s. Strikes are more or less outlawed. Outside of periods when Enterprise Bargaining Agreements are negotiated, fines hang over almost anything considered industrial action – the definition of which gets broader all the time. How did we get here?

Ross puts much of the blame squarely on the Accord and other ‘leadership-led compromises and collaboration [that] resulted in defeat after defeat.’ While the Accord was ‘seen by many in the labour movement as promising a better world of cooperation and consensus between labour and capital’, Ross makes clear that in her view it was class collaboration, where ‘an irreconcilable difference between capital and labour is papered over, usually in the interests of capital.’ The definition of the Accord as it was first proposed made no concrete actions, only vague gestures. When put into practice, inequalities that could be fixed by wage claims were diffused. Supposedly, they were compensated for in adjacent social policies including tax cuts, more funds for education, welfare and health – and of course, superannuation.

In an era where widespread precarity and system collapse looms, the rewards of superannuation get ever more distant. Yet as Ross points out, ‘superannuation has been touted as one stand-out gain of the Accord,’ and it continues to be held in high esteem – even by our enemies. (This was demonstrated in an encounter I had at the weeklong IMARC protest in October 2019. On the first day, the main entrance to the conference was successfully blockaded. This left several billionaires stranded outside, lost, childlike. One rounded on a friend and me. He yelled that we should be grateful to people like him because he pays our superannuation.)

Superannuation was a significant win, but at what cost? Ross recounts, in harrowing detail, the most significant disputes in which the Accord’s structural faults proved fatal. In amongst the gloom of these defeats, there are some glimmers. The 1984 strike by the Electrical Trades Union in Queensland is staggering in scope: ‘at the height of the dispute, over one million workers were either on strike or stood down’. The following year, confectionary workers refuse to abide by the Accord and maintain a picket for 143 days against Dollar Sweets – a company whose slogan, by the way, is ‘not all sweets are created equal.’

What stings most about the defeats of these campaigns is that the rich demonstrate class solidarity where it lacked between the workers, union leaders and Labour government. As in Without Bosses, the antagonists in Stuff the Accord are just as often the ACTU and ALP as the Libs, capitalists and union-busting lawyers.

Bob Hawke in particular makes for an unlikely trickster figure. If you’re used to his sentimental bloke image, it’s weird to keep finding him scuppering strikes, scolding workers for their audacity and giving bosses the thumbs-up. (When Frank Sinatra toured Australia in 1974 and stoked union anger by referring to the media as hookers, Hawke turned up at his hotel room with a bottle of whiskey.)

Ultimately, writes Ross, the Accord allowed for an insidious ‘new realism’ to set in, characterised by aversion to militancy, visibility and imagination. Can McAlevey offer a way out of this?

The deep organising model in No Shortcuts relies heavily on ‘mapping’. This involves charting the make-up of workplaces, listing potential recruits and their political sympathies, blockages, whether so-and-so’s an ‘activist’ or more of an ‘organic leader’. These strategies are complemented by ‘structure tests’: actions such as strikes that put the union’s power into practice.

While this may be common sense for experienced unionists, it’s good to have in writing, particularly for navigating a union landscape that is complex and ever-shifting. But aspects of McAlevey’s model are daunting. For example, the standard she sets for strike-readiness in a workplace is 90 per cent union density.

This may be one reason why white-collar union officials are drawn to McAlevey’s model. It permits them to hunker down and focus on squirrelly tasks, leaving militancy perpetually on the horizon. (There’s a parallel here with the electoral, long-game mindset of the ALP and ACTU throughout Without Bosses and Stuff the Accord.)

But smaller actions with less-than-majority support, despite being more vulnerable, can make solidarity visible, tangible and heroic-looking to other workers, potentially recruiting them to the cause. If bosses react angrily to these actions, as they do, it’s just as likely to make workers resentful as it is to scare them off.

In an article for Spectre, Kim Moody criticises McAlevey’s ‘mostly good and useful’ advice for being too soft on union leadership, particularly when explaining the decline in membership. Instead, Moody argues, McAlevey lionises the figure of the professional organiser, sweeping under the rug ‘the initiative of countless “untrained” organizers and the part played by experience in their development.’

This is truer of No Shortcuts than A Collective Bargain. In the latter, McAlevey paints a flattering picture of rank-and-file activism by recounting many instances where unions seem to materialise from the ground up – sometimes without even realising they’re a union. (On one hand, this points reassuringly to solidarity as a human reflex; on the other hand, it’s another wheel-reinvention.)

McAlevey generally takes a backseat to these encounters. This is partly because she’s saving the best for late in the book, when she intervenes in a climactic struggle between rapidly mobilising nurses and hospital management. The latter hires a top-shelf union-busting firm, and the nurses respond in kind: ‘They needed even more reinforcements. They needed someone who had handled hard-boss fights, and could help lead the overall city-wide negotiations campaign…that someone was me.’

McAlevey may be soft on officials. But she makes up for it, to some extent, in her outright contempt for the US Democratic Party, whom she outs for cosying up to Wall Street and playing ‘progressive’ while crushing unions in the background. She gives credit where it’s due, whenever sympathetic politicians intervene in a dispute on the workers’ behalf. But these tend to be local, smaller scale figures. If No Shortcuts plots a slow road to militancy, A Collective Bargain offers a corrective by showing, as Ross and Oldham do, the consequences of putting too much truck in election cycles.

Since A Collective Bargain is tailored to an American context, the focus is often on winning things that we in Australia take for granted, such as enterprise bargaining. McAlevey also combs through many finer points of US legislature, which, at times, can make you feel pudding-brained. But it means that the exciting things, when they do happen, stand out. As in Stuff the Accord, direct action and occasional victories light up an otherwise bleak backdrop of malevolent string-pulling by think-tanks and lobbyists.

These backroom dealings are deeply sinister in a goofy, Eyes Wide Shut sort of way, especially where professional anti-unionism is concerned. McAlevey relates how modern union-busting was pioneered by the Sears department store chain, who turned their HR department into a military-grade anti-union psych lab. To this day, union-busting consultants and their conferences are clouded in secrecy, with only an occasional leak – a pamphlet titled “Total Victory”, or that they call one of their tactics ‘futility’ – giving a glimpse into their banally evil world.

Throughout Without Bosses, Stuff the Accord and A Collective Bargain, unionism is at its most appealing when it demonstrates two things. One is cross-industry solidarity, when a struggle in one workforce sets off a chain reaction across society, like a Rube Goldberg machine. The other is trouble-making on a smaller but equally thrilling scale.

Oldham writes of how the Nymboida miners instructed a journalist: ‘Take a few pictures of us working here with a happy look on our faces; then send the pictures to the old Nymboida company, and ask them if they’ve got any other mines which the Miners Federation can take over.’

Builders on the Sydney Opera House get a fired comrade reinstated simply by keeping him around:

for three days the sacked man was smuggled on and off the job – not actually working…but in hiding, turning up for meal breaks, participating in meetings with the fitters and being seen but unreachable by management and site security police during this time.

McAlevey relates in her book how membership cards for a nurses’ union were made to look identical to hospital staff cards, giving the union a clandestine air. Soon a supermajority had amassed under management’s noses.

This kind of communal, DIY agitation needs to be a bigger part of unions’ public image. Historically, it’s relegated to oral storytelling and the kind of scrappy pamphlets, newsletters, journals and zines made by workers for each other in their own time, on a shoestring budget.

Last year, London-based activist and educational collective MayDay Rooms launched leftove.rs, a treasure trove of this literature. An ‘online archive of radical, anti-oppressive and working-class movements, and the material traces they have left’, leftove.rs collects heaps of beautiful, scruffy ephemera, searchable by country, movement and tactics. It’s a cascade of gorgeous Xeroxed covers with magical names like Radical Hedgehog, The Whinger, Midnight Notes, Abolish Restaurants, Hackney Gutter Press, Lizard Talk, Lemming Notes, Spare Rib, Communist Headache and Miserable Worker.

Trade unionism is the second most-represented movement in this literature, after anarchism. As you might expect, anarchists get extra-frustrated with union bureaucracy. Older publications show that these frustrations aren’t new. A pamphlet from 1940 titled Trade Unionism or Syndicalism reprimands unions for having swapped their fighting spirit for ‘friendly society character’, turning them into ‘coffin clubs’. It offers an alternative in imaginative anarchist tactics like the good work strike and work-to-rule, in which workers do their job too well or too literally: ‘One French law demands the driver to make sure of the safety of the train before crossing a bridge. So express engine drivers stopped their trains at every bridge to consult the guard. The expresses were late.’

Absurdism like this is one of leftove.rs’ main draws, and makes the union wonkery more palatable. UK communist journal Subversion’s final issue, for example, includes a fictional correspondence between Karl Marx and Charles Dickens. Marx chews out Dickens for his inability to grasp surplus value, and for blaming workers’ misfortunes on a ‘certain kind of moss which exudes a mild intoxicant’. Dickens doubles down, declaring he’ll set up an International Moss-Gathering Men’s Association.

Unsurprisingly, much of the humour is spent on sectarianism and inter-union squabbles. This can be as childish as referring to Trotskyists as ‘icepick heads’, but when it has a puffed-up, theatrical quality, it can be quite funny. A good example is the Situationist journals, which feature takedowns of other prominent left figures like Murray Bookchin (‘a theoretical Smokey the Bear [who] laughs when tickled’) or dismissing someone named J.J. as ‘historically ridiculous; has no last name.’

Jokes aside, the real meat in leftove.rs is ground-level reportage on strikes, tactics and other militant actions – the sort of thing that people complain (rightly) there isn’t enough of in most union meetings.

Some of the best UK examples of this come out of the Wapping dispute, a prolonged stand-off between London printworkers and Rupert Murdoch in 1986. Picket,a near-daily newsletter covering the dispute, captures the slapstick quality of the scuffles between strikers, scabs and cops. In one report, picketers infiltrate, ambush and eject scabs from a bus. Another reads:

With regards to Saturday night. Bet some of the pickets felt like Pickets again, didn’t you, marching here, marching there, dodging Ploddy everywhere. Brick them here, brick the bastards anywhere.

One more:

When the police tried to clear the road they were snowballed, and when the pickets started singing the Hokey Cokey in unison during the push-and-shove, the police became confused and eventually fell back without clearing the street or arresting anyone.

A letter from a reader vouches for Picket’s popularity, and offers advice: ‘The Picket is always read. The ones that are accounts are better than those with boring political generalisations.’

Another Wapping artefact: Paper Boys, a zine written by a picket about the colourful characters he meets. There’s the ‘Dab Hand’, whose speciality is un-arresting fellow pickets: ‘he moves in very quickly when the scuffles start, pulling and pushing until he has a grip on the arrested man, then pulls him away into the crowd…He has lost untold pairs of glasses and hats in these scuffles.’ Then there’s ‘The Bomber’: ‘the sort of person you avoided if you could, he was so dull and boring’, but who transforms, werewolf-like, in the thick of skirmishes with the cops, ‘scratching, punching, kicking, spitting, biting, every muscle in his slight frame springs into action.’

Australia’s contribution to this literature is small but strong. Sparks, a journal for Melbourne transport workers made by the Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation in the late 80s, was widely read, with a circulation of around 5,000 per issue. Its influence culminated in a two-week occupation of depots by the ASF in 1990, during which workers ran transport services for free. (The government eventually cut power to the system.) One issue of Sparks shows what happens to a tram inspector who treats co-workers badly: ‘If he gets on the tram, they ask the passengers to get off and they take the tram back to the depot.’ In another issue, ‘Keyboard Karen’ urges readers to fight back against the bosses’ misuse of new technology: ‘If you want transport with a human face, think of this: video cameras can be “distorted”, ticket machines can be glued up, computers can be hacked. Go for it!!!’

Other periodicals and one-offs of Australian origin deserve inclusion on leftove.rs. The Nymboida victory is immortalised in a zine titled The Mine the Workers Ran. Link was a newsletter made by rank-and-file members of the Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union in the 70s, and is cited frequently in Without Bosses. It contains a heady mix of blow-by-blow dispute reports, earthy humour, hijacked cartoons, and the odd Brecht or Lawson poem. One issue pays tribute to women at a Siemens factory, some of whom were ‘so strong they could start a union all by themselves.’ Another recounts an uprising at a Ford plant over two sacked militants:

When production commenced…they immediately formed human barriers to prevent production from going ahead. They pushed vehicles back onto the production line and jostled with company representatives, bringing the final line to a complete stop…the line workers told the company that if it deducted pay due to this stoppage, they would overturn vehicles, use hammers, use forklifts to push over palettes of engines and so on, before they would leave the plant. The company decided that no stand downs would occur.

Then of course there’s 925, the workers poetry anthology produced in Melbourne in the late 70s and 80s, which at its peak had a circulation of 3000 and was distributed, among other places, on factory floors. As one letter from a reader in their final issue puts it, 925 redefines the criteria for good poetry. It hones in on the minutiae that makes wage labour simultaneously tedious and totally surreal: contradictory instructions from above, the indignity of being unable to master jobs considered ‘unskilled’, the bitter-sweetness of small revolts. Absurdity as resistance is a motif through 925, summed up in a poem by M. Canaider in issue #8:

I worked in a plant nursery.

The supervisor wanted me to wear a blue coat.

I didn’t like the blue coat. He said “I had to wear the blue coat”

“I would look neat” he said.

I thought about it:–

I wear the blue coat and keep my job

I don’t wear the blue coat and lose my job

do plants mind what colour your coat is?

I lost my job.

In the same SRB discussion mentioned earlier, writer Ivor Southwood recalls how leftist blogs like Mark Fisher’s K-Punk functioned as an ‘alternative curriculum’ to higher education and mainstream media in the early 00s. Without Bosses, Stuff the Accord and, for the most part, A Collective Bargain offer a similar alternative to the outdated, top-heavy, ‘new realist’ model burdening workers movements in Australia and elsewhere. McAlevey, for all that she lets union officials off the hook, states that the left needs to eschew politeness in favour of more militant rhetoric. If the ACTU are fans of McAlevey, their PR department should pay attention here. Until recently, their social media strategy prominently featured inspo-porn quotes by Banksy on a letter board; they’ve since discovered meme formats from 2016.

What they really need to do is tap into the deep well of resentment that workers have for most forms of wage labour. This sentiment was enough to drive Processed World, a journal made by San Francisco office workers using stolen office resources, from the 1980s to the 2000s. PW is one the most oddly utopian periodicals on leftove.rs, because of its mix of 70s punk collage and 80s computer aesthetics, and its huge, democratic letters sections. One letter in an early issue reads:

Many people who dislike PW’s “politics” say they like the humor. I agree it’s your strong point. But why? To me it’s because you get to the heart of the barrenness of our working lives and because you convey a vision of a different world…People hate their jobs, and PW conveys a sense of how deep that hatred goes.

It’s this kind of radical literature that the broader union movement should take a leaf from if it wants to fix its image problem. Even when they’re heaping scorn on union bureaucracy, publications like Link, Sparks and 925 make unionism look good, because their uncompromising attitude points to another world where wage labour is sabotaged nonchalantly, day-to-day, with octopus-like cunning.