The Morrison federal government was shocked and humiliated when their union-busting ‘Ensuring Integrity’ bill was defeated in late November.
The bill would have made it easier to deregister unions, to ban union officials, and to appoint powerful administrators to run unions that dared to challenge unjust laws.
The Labor opposition and the Greens were as surprised as anyone when Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts from One Nation, along with Jacqui Lambie, crossed the floor to vote against the bill.
This led to a tied vote in the senate of 34-34, meaning the law failed to pass. It was a major setback for the government, and a temporary reprieve for workers across Australia. The inability of the government to control the numbers in the parliament highlights how fragile Morrison’s grip on power is.
It was widely expected that both One Nation and Lambie would support the bill, but at the last minute they decided to use the balance of power they hold to double cross the government.
The government considered that One Nation’s two votes in particular were locked in. They had held negations with the small right-wing populist party for months. One Nation had voted with the government several times on the day, including for the 11 amendments to the bill they had proposed.
In the end One Nation leader Pauline Hanson said that she never intended to vote for the bill. Posturing as a tribune of the people, she indicated that the law was unbalanced in light of the latest banking scandal at Westpac.
She said she thought more needed to be done to crack down on white collar crime if the government was going to attack unions.
No doubt One Nation felt that the timing of the vote was inconvenient coming in the same week that Westpac was being exposed for breaching anti-money laundering laws 23 million times and assisting child exploitation in the Philippines.
The party would have also felt some heat from the union movement who arranged for 45,000 emails to be sent to all the crossbench senators.
But most likely One Nation wanted to assert some authority and send the government a message. Hanson understands that she is a kingmaker of sorts, and is probably holding out for something more in the trades and deals that Morrison is forced to do because of his lack of majority.
Bill set to return
The government has already indicated that this vote will not be the end of the matter. They plan to bring the bill back for another vote in early 2020. Hanson has already said that she is open to changing her mind, especially if the few unions who do resist existing anti-worker laws continue doing so.
The government is also banking on the idea that Lambie can be convinced to vote for the bill if minor amendments are made.
While the defeat of the bill this time around gives the union movement some breathing space, it’s far from a full-blown victory. The way the vote was won is also problematic.
Some union leaders have heaped praise on Hanson and Lambie, thanking them for standing up for workers and union members. This is a dangerous approach and a rewriting of history.
One Nation in particular have a long record of voting for anti-union laws. They have welcomed attacks on workers’ pay, like cuts to penalty rates, and have made clear that they have no truck with unions that challenge the repressive industrial laws that are in place.
In addition to all this, One Nation’s entire outlook is based on a racist and divisive set of right-wing ideas. These ideas are designed to divide working class people for the party’s own political gain.
While it’s not wrong for the union movement to play on the contradiction that exists between One Nation’s anti-worker politics and the layer of workers who have voted for them, it is wrong to sow illusions in them as a number of union leaders have done.
Union leaders’ wrong approach
It’s the wrong political approach of the current batch of union leaders that leads them to the position where they find themselves heaping praise on a bunch of right-wing bigots.
That neither the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), or any single union, called even a protest against the Ensuring Integrity bill explains a lot about the outlook of the union officialdom today.
After almost 30 years of continuous economic growth in Australia you would have thought that the main representatives of working people would have taken advantage of that situation and pressed for increased wages and improved conditions.
But instead their lack of perspective, their abandonment of class struggle, and their tail-ending of the Labor Party has seen them squander this historic opportunity. The past 30 years has seen a huge transfer of wealth from wages to profits.
For the most part, the current union leaders have given up on the struggle over the wealth workers create for the bosses and have pinned their hopes to the idea that one day Labor will return to power and carve out a place for them in the management of the capitalist system.
With this being the case, they look to all other avenues rather than mobilising millions of workers in a struggle against the bosses and the government.
That lobbying efforts thwarted a vote on this occasion is an accident of history. The tied vote was a combination of government blunders and opportunist manoeuvring from the crossbenchers.
The ACTU has learnt nothing from their failed campaign to get Labor elected in May 2019, and have continued unabated with their narrow focus on electoral politics. All the talk about keeping the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign going has gone out the window.
Why attack a weak movement?
Some may ask, if the unions are so weak and ineffective why does the government even need laws to damage them further?
The Ensuring Integrity bill is ostensibly aimed to unions that dare to break the current anti-democratic laws, but if the law is eventually passed it will set back the ability of the entire working class to resist attacks on their living standards.
The government knows that the economic situation is fragile and that there is a high chance that Australia will soon slide into recession. The government and big business will deal with any economic slowdown through budget cuts, pay cuts and sacking workers.
This will provoke some sort of push back from ordinary people and it would likely drive more people to join unions as a defence against attacks on their living standards.
As we see in places like the United States at the moment the unions can grow despite the terrible role played by the current union leaders.
In the midst of renewed struggle, the ranks of the unions can be replenished and new more militant leaders can come to the fore. This would present problems for the government and the bosses and it’s this sort of scenario they hope to head off with the Ensuring Integrity bill.
New strategy urgently needed
It’s not just the Ensuring Integrity bill that’s a problem. A raft of other anti-worker laws are already on the books and are being used every day. The ACTU are right when they say that the rules are broken, but their idea that that a Labor government would fix the situation is deeply mistaken.
The laws that are in place were designed and implemented by previous Labor governments. Labor, like the Liberals, are on the payroll of big business and they see their role as defenders of corporate interests and the profit system.
If anything under Anthony Albanese the party is moving further in this direction.
Rather than relying on right-wing crossbench senators, or big business parties, workers need to rely on their own collective strength. By organising together in workplaces, and mobilising together on the streets, workers can show how much power they really have. This system cannot run without our cooperation.
We need to recognise our potential strength and use it to push back the bosses and government’s profit-driven agenda. The union movement needs to boldly demand the right to organise, to protest and to strike for a bigger share of the wealth we produce.
Unions should make no apologies for breaking the bad laws that are in place, and before the parliament. Far from accepting unfettered corporate rule, we need a trade union movement that really says ‘no’ to inequality, exploitation and the domination of the market.
We need a trade union movement that both talks and acts to change, not only the rules, but the entire profit-driven system. We should take inspiration from people like Bernie Sanders in the United States who is winning over tens of millions of people with this type of message.
This is the type of defiant approach the Australian trade union movement needs to adopt, especially given that the Ensuring Integrity bill could be passed into law in early 2020.
By Anthony Main