Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-4-1349 7828

May 2008 # 1

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Back to Editorials 2008

Bare Chested and Beautiful: Cabbies and Viral Unionism

Blokes with bare chests beat the big end of town! Perhaps that should have been the headline that celebrated the cabbies victory last week. It seems that not only are Melbourne’s cabbies the proudest and loudest in the country, they are also on the road to becoming the BLF of the 21st century.

But it seems that for some of the nice, quiet people, fighting for your rights as a worker is still something akin to terrorism. This is what is implied by Melissa Fyfe in her article in last Sunday’s Age. She argues that we have to “put aside” all the concerns about driver’s safety and focus on the real issue which is taxi services being run as a “business run by investors”. Quite right she is.

Ms Fyfe reveals her true concern early in the article when she points not to the wages and conditions in which the drivers earn their graft but to their direct and peaceful protest that for “22 hours [ground] the city to a halt, [frustrated] commuters and [crippled] public transport.” Perhaps she should try this instead.

Five hundred construction workers decide to turn up at the corner of Flinders Street station and hold a sit in for 24 hours, smack bang in the middle of the working week! How long do you think it would take for the state and federal governments to call out the storm troopers, tear gas, attack dogs, horses, batons and helicopters and turn on the workers? How long do you think it would take for a state of emergency to be called and these wage slaves beaten, detained, locked up and prosecuted with the full force of the law? I reckon it would all be over by lunchtime.

Unfortunately for the nice, quiet Ms. Fyfe the inconvenience of having to change her routine was far too big a sacrifice. For her and those like her, if individual workers have a complaint they can either take it up with their boss or find another job. Not content with bagging the drivers, Ms. Fyfe turns her guns towards the government and starts blazing away.

I agree with her on one point. That is that Lyn Kosky is about as trustworthy and effective as Bronwyn Pike and both are failures as ministers and servants of their constituents. Ms. Fyfe’s harshest complaint against Kosky ‘buckling’ to the demands of the drivers is nothing to do with the safety of the drivers or the service they provide. No! Her complaint is that by allowing the drivers to get their way Kosky admits that “liveable Melbourne, especially at night, is a dangerous place”.

Two issues emerge from Fyfe’s article. The first is that she is worried that direct, non-violent action might become a more frequently occurring activity and thus disrupt the nice, quiet lives of “ordinary” Melbournians. The second is that Melbourne is fast becoming a crime ridden, dirty and dangerous place for nice, quiet people. Shock, horror. Can this be true?

I suggest that Melissa gets a life and a reality check. Melbourne has always been a dangerous place for those who do jobs that offer little pay for long hours in unsafe conditions. It is also a dangerous place for those who do risky jobs in dangerous workplaces where bosses are more concerned about returns than worker safety.

If the protective screens cabbies want are valued at less than $2000 then that is a small percentage of the investment in a taxi licence worth up to half a million dollars. It seems, though, that the owners of the cabs are just as penny pinching as the high rollers at the big end of town. Oh! That’s right. Its many of them who own the licences isn’t it?

Most cabbies are not union members, they can’t afford the subs given that most of them do the job part time. The Victorian Taxi Drivers Association led the charge last week and through what I can only describe as ‘viral unionism’ won concessions from the government and perhaps more importantly, the taxi owners.

However, for those like Ms. Fyfe, these types of un-organised and spontaneous responses to unfair and unsafe work places “sets [a] bad example”. Quite the opposite I reckon. It is the future of industrial relations and it would seem a much more effective means by which workers can get their gripes into the public domain un-mediated by union spin-doctored concessions. The danger is, for the workers, that the state will respond by utilising force and violence more often in order to ensure profits for the owners are protected. These heavy handed tactics will be endorsed by the bosses both union and controllers of capital, and regretfully, many within the community.

The Melbourne cabbies demonstrated that concessions can be won if enough of those who are affected come together and peacefully demand their rights, in this case to a safe workplace. Far from setting a “bad example” the cabbies demonstrated that the workers united cannot be defeated. While their bare chests may not have been the nicest sight to greet early morning commuters exiting Flinders Street station, they were certainly much better than the gory alternative.

Ms. Fyfe writes that “the 5000 Indian students who drive cabs part-time … are being treated like an underclass”. My dear Ms. Fyfe, they are the underclass or part thereof. So long as the demands of capital rule with an iron fist over the right to safety and fairness, the underclasses will continue to be exploited so nice, quiet people can go about their lives unhindered by the reality that make those nice, quiet lives possible.

Good on the cabbies I say. Their will prevailed and sets a great example for the rest of the working and growing underclasses. If enough of us peacefully demand our rights, then something has to give. Like that famous illustration shows, there are more small fish in the ocean than big ones. All we have to do to overwhelm the big fish is to come together and disrupt their nice, quiet lives. I would however, as a concession to good taste, suggest that we keep our shirts on.

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