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Russian Revolution – book reviews

This week saw not only International Women's Day on March 8th, but also its connection to the Russian Revolution of 1917, which celebrates its 100th anniversary. One hundred years ago, women in the cold on the bread lines began protests and riots that led to the overthrow of the 300 year Romanov monarchy. Now, before history-phobia sets in, remember that the events that those women initiated, along with the larger revolution which was initiated, affected hundreds of millions of people and have huge lessons for revolutionaries of today. Those events show as much about what shouldn't be done as what could be done to live on this planet in a peaceful, creative, fulfilling, sustainable way.

Here are some short reviews of books that are relevant to exploring those events which still resonate today. The first is by an overt marxist (Murphy), the second by an academic who is more critical and presents a more realistic view (Pirani). The next group of authors are anarchists, the first a participant in the revolution (Makhno), the other an historian with a cultural background in the area he writes about (Skirda) and the third by an anarchist/libertarian-socialist/councilist and neurologist, (Brinton), should have been read and adsorbed by Murphy, and even Pirani.

Kevin Murphy's Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class struggle in a Moscow metal factory has many fine features, including using recently opened Russian archival material, and attempting to bring women into the revolutionary story. One of the strongest features of the book is in bringing the reader into many of the struggles and arguments on the factory floor during the revolutionary period and the 1920s to early 1930s. Like the next book reviewed, by Pirani, this is a marvelous window into the past, and includes aspects of the social life of the workers and bureaucrats as well as into the factory floor meetings. However, Murphy's main theme is to show how the life of workers was so much better during the era when Trotsky was around as compared to Stalin's rule. What he does not do is recognise how the repression of the Russian people started with the beginning of Bolshevik rule, and certainly may have accelerated under Stalin, but Trotsky, Lenin and the rest were just as complicit in the silencing dissent. Stalin merely built his machine on the foundations of the previous rulers. Much of evidence that the author presents is based on the Bolshevik/Communist Party's meeting minutes, thus a biased account is inevitable. Murhpy just seems sour that Stalin gained the crown instead of Trotsky: there is no evidence to say that Trotsky would have behaved any better, and much to say the opposite. On a positive note, the attempt to look at what was happening 'on the factory floor' is a bonus. Just keep your eyes open as you walk with the author, or you may trip over a litter of 'the party directed' and the 'the party committee expelled x' – accepting the party records as an almost solely valid account of worker reality leaves me with wanting a fuller, more accurate account.

Simon Pirani's The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-1924: Soviet workers and the new communist elite is along similar lines as Kevin Murphy's book, reviewed above, however it is a vast improvement. The main strength is in not having a seemingly ulterior motive, an inherent bias that clouds the narrative. Pirani does take us onto the factory floor, but uses a wider range of evidence and has a far more refined analytical capacity. Here we read an honest attempt to examine the relationship between the Bolshevik/Communist Party and the working class in the factories, not merely examine the arguments between one set of authoritarians within the Party and other sets of would-be bosses, each set wanting to take over the reigns of power via that very same Party. While Pirani uses similar archival material from Party and Secret Police records, his aim is to find out why and how the growing bureaucratic machine succeeded in destroying worker's power, democratic worker decision-making structures, and the increasing terror used to maintain control over the population, although focusing on this process in the working class factories and districts. Given the focus on the period 1920-1924, the author misses analysing the previous period, 1917-1920, when the foundations for the revolutionary retreat began and the tactics used to repress dissent within the Party were formulated to repress those revolutionaries outside the Party. Good book, though.

Nestor Makhno wrote an autobiography, now published in English in three volumes by Black Cat Press in Canada, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, Under the Blows of the Counterrevolution (April-June 1918), and The Ukrainian Revolution. These books tell the story of Makhno, a peasant/proletarian's role in building a huge voluntary army in 1917 to fight the invading armies after Lenin ceded the Ukraine to the German & Austro Hungarians in order to end Russia's involvement in World War One. The Ukrainians didn't like the deal and Makhno, the former factory worker, with a small band of supporters, took up a guerilla campaign to free the predominantly agricultural region from the new oppressors. Not only was it a struggle against invaders, but also a fight to establish a revolutionary society that was based on anarchist principles. Within a few months a large area was liberated and new social systems developed by the peasants on the land and the workers in the towns. This is an exciting account of the ups and downs of four years of struggle, not only against foreign invaders, but also against local would-be rulers who wanted to crush the Ukrainian Revolution. Well worth reading this original history.

Alexandre Skirda has written an authoritative account of the Makhnovist movement during the Russian Revolution, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy's Cossack. The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine, 1917-1921. In one book, this historian has used more recently available material, as well as primary sources, such as Makhno's autobiography and those of others in the Makhno Insurrectionary Army. Skirda examines not only the brilliant military tactics of Makhno and the strategists who fought along side him, but the politics and the revolutionary principles they fought for and the revolutionary structures that were put in place, not only among the anarchist troops, but also by the Ukrainian people that had been liberated. Often missed is that the Makhnovists fought some of the greatest and last of the world's cavalry battles – against the invading Austro-Hungarian and German armies, the reactionary White Russian armies, and finally the Bolshevik troops. Stirring stuff, an exciting and fast paced read.

Maurice Brinton (aka Chris Pallis) wrote The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, 1917-1921: The state and counter-revolution in 1970, but don't let that date put you off, as it hasn't really been surpassed for sharp critical analysis of the facts that happened on the factory floor during the Russian Revolution. Importantly, he firstly untangles the notion of 'workers' control' and notes that many political tendencies have trumpeted that as a slogan, from social democrats, Trotskyists, libertarian Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists. But what do they mean, and what does the concept sensibly mean at all. If the Bolsheviks said that they had installed workers control in, say, 1918, when they began dismantling the original Factory Committees that workers themselves build, and replaced them with Party controlled 'factory committees', is that the same idea? Can it be the same beast? Can it lead to the same sort of worker-controlled decision making? And ultimately, the same sort of society? Crucial questions, and ones that we still need to consider, mull over, argue around and come to conclusions about. A must read for any revolutionary, or aspiring change agent in the current times.

The Russian Revolution may have begun 100 years ago, but the challenges that it posed, not only to the monarchy of the time, to the growing capitalism, but to authoritarianism of any sort, and are as relevant today as they were then.

The Egyptians: A Radical Story - the book that Noam Chomsky couldn't stop reading

It's hard for me to find enough superlatives to do justice to this excellent book. So instead, to get an idea of how good it is, it's worth reading what other people have said about it.
 
Take Noam Chomsky for instance. He tends to dish out fairly bland acclaim for lots of left-wing books, and isn't usually given to hyperbole or wildly extravagant statements. Not for The Egyptians: a radical story though. "I started reading this and couldn't stop," he gushes on the back cover of the book. "Remarkable."
 
Another critic seemed equally dazzled, writing that it was "truly astonishing," while someone else rated it as "revolutionary journalism at its finest" which "belongs in the bookshelf next to George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia." The Guardian and the Economist both listed it as one of the top books of 2016. And, to cap it off, the military government in Egypt banned it. So it must be alright.
 
The Egyptians: a radical story is journalist Jack Shenker's attempt to cover Egypt's revolution and counter-revolution from below. Rather than portraying the events of early 2011, which saw the overthrow of one of the Middle East's longest reigning dictators, as some kind of sudden outburst, he traces the roots of the revolution back through decades of struggle. And rather than framing the story as some kind of battle to win free markets and liberal democracy – as much of the media did – Shenker shows that its motive forces were, above all, aspirations for social and economic justice.
 
He knows what he'd talking about. Shenker speaks Arabic and lived in Cairo during 2011 and for years leading up to it. He writes about a country convulsed by rebellion: "the far-flung communities waging war against transnational corporations, the men and women fighting to subvert long-established gender norms, the workers dramatically seizing control of their own factories, and the cultural producers (novelists, graffiti artists and illicit bedroom DJs) appropriating public space in defiance of their repressive and violent western-backed regime." And he so obviously sympathises with and shares the aspirations of the people he describes. The book is beautifully written – at times almost poetic – and overflows with humanity.
 
Like Chomsky, I found The Egyptians: a radical story almost addictive. It was completely thrilling and exciting to witness millions of people struggling on such a massive scale against nearly unbelievable levels of repression. It’s so moving that at the end I was quite shell-shocked. And above all it gave me a much-needed shot of confidence that the great mass of people really can overturn the existing order and create a new society – not just in some past era, like 1936 or 1968, but right now.


The Egyptians: A Radical Story is available at Jura for $20.

The Case for Anarchism or why Hierarchy should be Abolished

This short work outlines the current state of society, the structure of that state, and the dialectic of hierarchy and anti-hierarchy and the conclusion of said dialectic.

 

When you look at society today, what do you see? You see workers and business owners, citizens and policepeople, policepeople and commanders, citizens and government, soldiers and officers, agents and agencies, renters and property owners, users and intellectual property owners, and so on. How did these relationships materialise? Quite simply, "primitive communism" led to warring tribes, with territories expanding, and stronger members of tribes oppressing others. Following the invention of farming and stronger weaponry, these tribes had a revolution, with the creation of the hierarchy of feudalism. The king ruled supreme, with the knights and lords and peasants all in hierarchical subordination. After a while, the bourgeoisie toppled the feudal hierarchies of the world creating their own hierarchy - haute bourgeoisie, state, petty bourgeoisie, proletarian. This bourgeois hierarchy has been in effect for roughly 200 years and continues in this class subordination.

Book reviews: Durruti, Utopia, Workers' Control, and The Death Ship

 

The Man Who Killed Durruti, by Pedro de Paz

Why worry about an man who died in November 1936, or about the man who killed him? Perhaps the more important question is 'who is Durruti and why be concerned about him?'. In this intriguing book both of the questions are addressed in two parts. The first is an investigative historical novel about the death of Buenaventura Durruti, in the form of a detective novel that leads to a conclusion about his killer. This section of the book won the 2003 Spanish Jose Saramago International Short Novel Award. The second part is a more straight historical account of Durruti, his actions and ideas, during the Spanish Revolution, and is by Stuart Christie. This second part covers more about Durruti as a person, a militant anarchist worker, an anarchist militia leader, and, overall, a partisan of the Spanish people with an internationalist vision. His death was a turning point in the Spanish Revolution and one of the events that lead to the defeat of the revolution. Half a million people turned out for his funeral in Barcelona, a tribute to the place he held in people's hearts.

 

The Anthropology of Utiopia: Essays on Social Ecology and Community Development, by Dan Chodorkoff

This is an interesting book which is a collection of essays that have been printed in various places over the years. What brings them together is a series of important themes: an exposition of the work and ideas of Murray Bookchin, examples of how some of Bookchin's ideas have already (and can be now and in the future) be put into practice, the importance of action to (re-) build community as part of the long term revolutionary project and a defense of Bookchin against the poorly thought-out ideological assaults of his post-modern/'post-anarchist' attackers. All this is wrapped in a major theme of looking at ourselves anthropologically. The parts that I liked the most were about Chodorkoff's and a participant and activist in the Lower East Side of New York, in helping to build community among poor Puerto Ricans in what was then a desolate part of New York. Also, how an academic can support and be a part of change, although admittedly he did this when in the Institute for Social Ecology - a radical/anarchist institute if ever there was one. So many lessons to learn, both positive and challenging, that I've got notes scribbled all over the copy that I read. Well worth getting into.

 

Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present, Edited by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini

This book is so inspiring and so annoying in so many ways! The various authors come from widely different backgrounds in terms of work, geographic and  cultural location, and ideology. The best aspect is that many examples of attempts at workers' control are covered, from all over the world, although with a less than needed entries from non-European (and its offshoots) areas. So it's a rollikin' read going from workers' revolt to insurrectionary event to factory takeover, and is enjoyable if you don't look too closely into the ideological limitations and biases of many of the authors. So many are just stuck in the nonsense of marxist apologia, here is one example from a look at Russia, 1917-1920: "Some anarchist called for the takeover of factories, but a Bolshevik delegate replied: "control is not yet socialism, nor even taking of production into our hands....Having taken power into our hands, we should direct capitalism along a path such that it will outlive itself..." But no where, in this chapter, in a book about Workers' Control, is there the obvious critique of this marxist nonsense: if marxism is about 'directing capitalism' then it is not revolutionary, and certainly not about workers' control. One look at Simon Pirani's book The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-1924: Soviet Workers and the new Communist Elite, should dispel the illusions that some of these authors have. So, if a reader can keep the rose coloured glasses off, and look critically at its limitations, then the book is a good read.

 

The Death Ship, by B. Traven

Traven, not his real name (which was possibly Ret Marut) was a mystery man who shunned fame and notoriety. He always insisted that his work should stand alone and be judged for what it was worth. This novel, his first after escape from his activities during the post WW1 Bavarian German Revolution of 1919, was probably a part biography of his experiences in the deep and dark holds of cargo ships. While the story itself is a great read, like all his other novels, the politics underlying the narrative is not hidden, but not always explicit. He attacked rampant authoritarianism in the form of the state, the boss, the military, religion, and any other of its manifestations that came across his path, or the paths that developed in his stories. Having read it 30 years ago and again recently, I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style and the pace of the action, while giving cause and pause for thinking of the meanings within. An easy read, but a provocative and stimulating one. Am now looking forward to re-reading The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which was made into a great film with Humphrey Bogart.

 

Don't vote your life away!

The electoral commission's been sending me letters for a while now, demanding I pay a $160 fine for not voting. They've cancelled my driver's licence and sicced their debt collectors Dun & Bradstreet onto me, threatened to steal money from my bank account, or steal my belongings and sell them to pay their debt. Still I haven't given in to this criminal gang, these terrorists known as 'the government.'

I've lost count of how many letters I've received, threatening me, trying to intimidate me, but I've ignored them all, as I've done for more than 20 years. I stopped voting in the early '90s after I realised that it's pointless. How will they actually get the money out of me?

It seems the State's repressive apparatus isn't really all that efficient. If they steal the money from my bank account I won't be able to stop them. But my friend said they'll have to get a court order to do that.

They keep reminding us that voting's compulsory. A lot of people say they vote, or at least get their name ticked off at the polling booth so that they don't get fined. But how well do they actually enforce this law?

Past generations fought for the right to vote. But not for the State's right to compel us to vote! Voting was made compulsory in Australia in 1924 because of falling voter turnouts. That's nearly a century ago now. Logically the right to vote implies the right not to vote. So it's no longer a right but a duty.

I suspect there are thousands upon thousands of people in Australia who don't vote, many of whom aren't even on the electoral roll, even though both these things are compulsory. The number's probably rising too, as more and more get pissed off with the system.

The media tries to whip up enthusiasm for the election by broadcasting the words of politicians. They try to make it seem exciting. Your vote counts! Isn't democracy wonderful? Anything could happen on the day! The most important election since World War II! (Did they say that one again this time?) We have so much freedom! Aren't we grateful to our masters for giving us the right to vote?

We all know that the promises and words of politicians are worthless. Because unless we're rich enough to give them big donations, we can't hold them accountable. Before the election they pretend to be interested in community issues, but afterwards they don't want to know you.

Some say to get off the electoral roll. But how do you do that? I've moved 3 or 4 times but they always manage to track me down. Others say to tell them you have a religious objection to voting. But why should I lie? I haven't done anything wrong.

Each time I voted I felt like a mug after. For getting sucked in to the bullshit. "Come on, you've got to support our friend so-and-so! She's standing for the Greens and you know they do a lot of good work! They're not anarchist but it's a step in the right direction!" Yeah right. Candidates I voted for didn't win, and even if they had, they wouldn't have been able to achieve anything worthwhile.

Recently the Australian Electoral Commission sent me a warning letter, saying that I may be prosecuted if I don't vote in the 2 July election, and fined up to $180. Well, again I didn't vote in your election on Saturday, 2 July, so suck shit, you pathetic authoritarian bastards!

I went past Petersham TAFE college on the way to the Jura monthly collective meeting and there seemed to be a polling booth there. I was accosted outside on the footpath by party workers trying to give me their how-to-vote cards. I declined them all and asked whether there was a sausage sizzle. (I'm a vegetarian most of the time but when it comes to sausage sizzles I'm afraid I can't help myself!) Some polling booths have sausage sizzles but, no, this one apparently didn't.

Seems a polling booth up the road had one. Too bad! Nope, they missed their chance at seducing me with a sausage sizzle. Glad I didn't get sucked into supporting the stupid system of selecting slavedrivers.

I look forward to a new series of intimidating letters from the AEC.

 

 

Book Review: Wages So Low You'll Freak

Wages So Low You'll Freak, by Mike Pudd'nhead

Book Review by Chris

Wages So Low You'll Freak

I gave this book to a friend as a late Christmas present. “Just read the first chapter,” I said, “then see if you can stop.” By 3am the next day he’d read the whole thing cover to cover in one marathon all-night session.

Wages So Low You’ll Freak deserves to be a small classic. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in ages. It covers radical politics and workplace organising in a way that’s honest, often extremely funny, and is totally relatable for young, early 21st century workers bouncing from one precarious, poorly paid job to the next.

The book is a sprawling, four-year-long, first-person narrative of Mike Wilklow’s attempts to organise a union at Jimmy John’s – a chain sandwich store with about 1,000 outlets throughout the US. At 22, fresh out of college and a recent signup to the Industrial Workers of the World, Wilklow joins his best friend in getting a minimum wage job at Jimmy John’s and sets to work.

Unlike most conventional unions, the Industrial Workers of the World preaches an ethic of “solidarity unionism.” Rather than aiming exclusively for formal membership and legal bargaining rights, the IWW emphasises collective direct action on the shop floor to build workers’ confidence and win small, concrete improvements, followed by progressively larger actions over more ambitious goals.

Thus within a few months, despite representing only a miniscule fraction of the workforce, Wilklow and his co-workers are already taking action. When someone is arbitrarily fired for phoning in sick, dozens of IWW members call up the store to complain, jamming its phone lines and causing chaos while a handful of workers confront the boss together. When a new store manager takes over and begins sexually harassing staff, workers start a petition and get him fired. And when a supervisor in one shop punches out a union supporter for cutting a sandwich diagonally rather than straight across, every single person in the store stops work and gets that supervisor fired as well. Between 2007-2010, the battle on the shop floor rages back and forth until each of the ten Jimmy John’s stores in Minneapolis – where Wilklow is living and working – have a large number of union supporters in them ready to publicly declare their IWW membership and take on the company on a much larger scale.

There’s so much that I liked about Wages So Low You’ll Freak. For one thing, it’s just a great story. While the emphasis is on Wilklow’s attempts to organise a union, it also reads as something of an autobiography of four years of his life, bouncing around between demeaning minimum wage work, basement punk gigs, hook-ups, breakups, protests, parties, binge drinking, gambling and bike culture. The writing is really sharp and accessible, and the book is consistently entertaining and funny.
Wilklow is also pretty honest about himself and his own flaws. The book opens with a bizarre piece called “Why Happiness?” which he wrote as a 23-year-old, and each chapter includes a short entry from the diary he kept during the campaign. He also does a good job of depicting himself as an inexperienced, often immature early-twentysomething: he stuffs up repeatedly, says the wrong things, does the wrong things, can’t hold relationships together, is stubborn, talks too much, and is constantly hung over. But he has no trouble admitting all of this and is relentlessly self-deprecating.

Probably the most valuable thing about this book, though, is that it’s one of the only accounts of a union organising campaign that I know of which has been written not by an academic or a labour scholar or a paid union organiser, but by an actual participant who was there every day on the shopfloor. Union membership in Australia has plummeted from 56% of the workforce in the mid-1970s to less than 15% today, and the experience and cultural memory of rank-and-file workplace organisation has been almost totally lost. For that reason alone, Wages So Low You’ll Freak is incredibly useful and important: you can learn a lot about how to organise your own workplace just from reading it, not mention gain a lot of confidence about what it’s possible to achieve.  In this light, the book’s setting in the unorganised, minimum wage service industry is pretty perfect, and the author solidly emphasises workplace organising that is under the control of workers themselves, without the interference of paid union organisers or bureaucrats.

For all these reasons I think Wages So Low You’ll Freak is a really enjoyable and valuable read. You can order it online from Microcosm Press and copies are also sold here at Jura Books in Sydney.

 

Sydney Solidarity Network victory in Leichhardt

Solidarity and direct action win the day!

 

The back story

Sydney Solidarity Network was contacted by CJ, a worker who was exploited and sexually harassed. She is a traveler on a working holiday visa who started working at a café in Leichhardt in early March. There were problems from the beginning. The boss would continually try to touch her and other women against their will. She was paid only $17 per hour, which is below the Restaurant Award wage ($22.24 on weekdays and $26.69 on weekends, for casuals).

The pay was cash-in-hand, and the boss would always pay late. No contracts were signed and the boss never asked for their tax file numbers. There were other workers who were fired on the spot, with no notice, for no reason. When CJ spoke up, she was taken off the shift roster, with no notice. She decided to quit. She asked the boss to pay her outstanding wages (at $17 per hour): $433.50. He refused, and one of the supervisors slapped the face of CJ’s friend who was there to support her. The cops were called but they didn’t help CJ, but instead told her to come back a few days later as the boss requested. When she came back the boss only paid her $200 and withheld the rest ‘for damages to property’ – a completely fictitious claim.

So CJ contacted SydSol and asked for help to get back her stolen wages. Together, CJ and SydSol demanded that the boss pay CJ the full $1,108.70 she was owed – which would bring her wages up to the award minimum for the hours she worked.

Exploitative, violent, disrespectful, and sexist behaviour by bosses, supervisors and cops is all too common – in the hospitality industry and elsewhere. But in this case, the workers decided to stand up and say “NO!”

 

Sydney Solidarity Network takes action

Over a two week period, SydSol organised 3 actions at the café. The actions were lively and energetic, with chanting, singing, banners, placards and leaflets. Between 20 and 40 SydSol supporters came to each action. During the actions they gave out almost 1,000 leaflets to passersby, telling CJ’s story. They had lots of conversations and caused much discussion on the busy Leichhardt street! Most passersby were very supportive. Each action lasted for around 2 hours, during which time almost no customers went to the café.

At first the boss refused to pay. He started off trying to ignore the actions, but soon found that didn’t work. He then became more antagonistic, publishing defamatory messages about the ex-worker, throwing buckets of water at the protestors and threatening to break someone’s arm! The boss called the police a number of times, but no arrests were made. He even hired musicians to try to drown out the chanting! But SydSol kept going!

 

Victory!

After the third action the boss paid the full amount owed to CJ. Victory! As part of the settlement, SydSol participants agreed to remove the name of the café from their website and social media posts.

CJ was overjoyed and even decided to donate part of the money she was paid to Grandmothers Against Removals, and an activist legal fund, to spread the solidarity!

Another worker from the same café also quit during the period SydSol was taking action, because of similar issues with her employment. However that worker told SydSol that, to her surprise, the boss paid her what she was owed – almost certainly because of the actions!

This was a great campaign, which resulted in a real victory for workers. SydSol came together as a solidarity network and strengthened their organisation and their ability to take action. They showed the power of direct action – action taken by oppressed people ourselves, on our own terms, and in our own interests.

 

What next?

Sydney Solidarity Network continues – but they need you!

Sign up to their supporters email list, to get updates and action alerts: http://eepurl.com/UGQev and get your friends to sign up too!

Head along to their meeting/picnic at 3pm on Saturday 14th May in Camperdown Park, followed by celebratory drinks from 5pm at the Courthouse Hotel in Newtown. (In case of poor weather, they'll be in the Courthouse Hotel from 3pm.) They need more people to get involved in the SydSol organising group!

Share this story on social media and tell your friends about it!

SydSol also asks you to think about any issues in your own life, and the lives of your friends and families, to identify the problems in your workplace and your community. Problems which can be changed through direct action – like underpayments, bullying, landlords refusing to do repairs, or real estate agents evicting you without reason. And get in touch about taking action together to fix these problems!

 

Work for a bowl of rice a day

I did work for the dole at various places around Darwin a few years back: Vinnies, Larrakia Nation office (the Larrakia are the traditional owners of the Darwin area), and at the Aviation Heritage Centre. I had arranged to work at some other place I can't remember the name of (I think it was a housing co-op) but that fell through. I was angry about being made to do slave labour. I wanted to protest and resist it but I was on a good behaviour bond with a suspended jail sentence for political activity hanging over me at the time. I was luckier than other people, even though I certainly didn't feel lucky! I only ever had to do 1 day a week. Others were made to do more: 2 days, or maybe even 4! They sure seemed to come down harder on the young, and on those who complained about having to do it. At Vinnies I knew the person in charge from activist circles I'd worked in. Gave us breakfast with the long grassers (homeless people). This person was pretty cool and had us painting a pergola. I think she let us go home early and ticked off our names as if we'd worked the whole day.

Larrakia Nation was pretty slack. Once we mowed the grass in the bushtucker garden at the back of Royal Darwin Hospital. Another time wewere clearing infestations of the mimosa pigra weed along the banks of Rapid Creek near the university. I pretended I didn't know how to use the whippersnipper or brushcutter or whatever it was so I ended up just collecting the pieces the other guys cut down. As Larrakia rangers they were getting paid something like a proper wage, I believe. CDEP (Community Development Employment Program) pay plus top up.

I remember doing a bit of work in the garden at the Larrakia Nation office on a couple of days, and shovelling up dirt in the car park at the back another day. But a lot of the time we didn't have to work there as it was badly organised. We'd sit around talking for hours, waiting for someone in authority to tell us to do something. Those in charge never knew how many people who were supposed to be there for WftD would actually turn up. There might be 18 names on the list, but 6 or 7 would turn up. Or maybe 1 or none. A few times I showed up there to find I was the only one. Some guy told me, "You always turn up. But no-one else is here. So I'll just tick your name off and you can go." The Aviation Heritage Centre was a museum featuring a B-52 bomber from the USA, surrounded by many smaller aircraft and artifacts going back to WWII and earlier. I used to enjoy reading the info and learning history while dusting and polishing the planes and things and sweeping the floor.

There were also 2 Aboriginal women and a tall Sudanese man doing WftD there. The woman from WA said the WftD was demeaning. There was nothing much we could do about it though.

One day I wore an old t-shirt a friend had given me. He'd sprayed ANARCHY NOW on the back in red. I thought the writing had faded and was hardly visible any more. Unfortunately it was visible and the boss noticed it even though he couldn't make out what it said. He marched up to me and said, "You're not working inside with that on your shirt! What's it say? Wanker? Go outside and sweep the leaves out of the big carpark out the front!" (I thought, "There's only one wanker around here, mate, and it's not me!") But I didn't say that. I said, "I'm not going back outside unless I get some sunscreen to put on. (Because I'd got a bit sunburnt working out there before.) Boss man storms off in a huff.

One time he made me stay back late and help lift a heavy bbq into a dumpster. I hurt my back doing that. The following week I forked out $27 to see a doctor who thought I was faking back pain. (Good luck getting bulk billing in Darwin! They made you feel like a criminal just for asking.) Just so I didn't have to do slavery that week. I hated it. Had to do it another week instead.

That boss was a prick. He'd sit upstairs bludging in his air-conditioned office while the rest of us, paid staff and slaves alike, soldiered on in the heat and humidity. Once during a break he bragged to us how he'd bought a car, an old bomb, in Darwin for a few hundred bucks, and had it shipped over to East Timor where he sold it to a Timorese guy for $3000.

After I left I heard from my friend who still worked there in the shop and doing the guided tours, that they caught that boss with his hand in the till. The board sacked him but didn't press charges. I think I had to do WftD for 6 months, 1 day a week. Centrelink bureaucrats surprised me at one stage. They told me I didn't have to do any more of it. I thought they were mistaken but I didn't argue! Later they discovered their mistake and I had to go and work the remaining couple of days.

All in all it was a shitty experience being a slave. I'd always thought that if I were ever told to do Work for the Dole I'd refuse, find a way out of it somehow. But when it happened I couldn't get out of it. Not that I had the worst of it. Plenty of people copped it a lot worse than me. Aboriginal people particularly.

I heard of people in remote communities like Kalkaringi being made to do 30 hours a week work for the dole and on top of that getting punished with income management as well. If they refused this slavery they'd get no money. The government wouldn't dare try that on in a place like Sydney. They seem to use the NT as a sort of social laboratory and Aboriginal people as guinea pigs, to see how much abuse of people's human rights they can get away with.

In conclusion I can sum up my limited experience by saying that Work for the Dole is really about more than work. It's about power and control. It's rich bastard governments punishing people who are unemployed. It's class warfare, and race warfare. If people are doing that work they're not unemployed and should at least be paid award wages like anyone else. Anything less is bullshit.

 

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