Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Baiada strike: An exchange with a NUW official

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Below is a letter written by Socialist Party National Organiser Anthony Main in response to a letter sent to us by National Union of Workers (NUW) official Sam Salvidge.

Since it was published the NUW has attempted to put pressure on us to remove it from our site. The main reason given was that Sam had admitted to encouraging other unions and groups to assemble outside the Baiada plant. The NUW are concerned that this could be construed as a breach of the Supreme Court injunction that was in place.

The injunction stated that no NUW official could block access to the plant or encourage any one else to block access. This was fully adhered to by the NUW at all times.

It must be said that encouraging people to assemble outside a factory does not equate to encouraging people to block access to the site. Even in this case, with a Supreme Court injunction in place, it was not illegal to ask people to assemble at the front of the plant. It was only illegal to block access.

We think it would be impossible for anyone to claim the injunction was breached on this basis. The reality is that the NUW is attempting to use technical reasons to stifle a political discussion about the dispute. Regardless, in order to remove any doubt the Socialist Party has decided to remove, not the entire article, but the text of Sam’s original letter. We do this to ensure that the real political issues are not pushed aside by a bogus legal argument.

The other argument put by the NUW leaders is that having these debates in the public realm divides and weakens the movement. This is an argument that the Right have used against the Left for decades. The main reason the movement is weak is because of the weak pro-ALP politics that dominate our movement.

There is absolutely nothing to stop people from all tendencies working together around a concrete issue like a picket line. That does not mean we should hide our political differences while doing so. What weakens the movement is keeping discussion and debate behind closed doors. Unlike the NUW leaders we believe that workers have the right to know the views of all the different political trends in the movement.

For the benefit of our readers the main points made by Sam in her original letter were that in her view the NUW had done as much as possible to raise money for the strikers and that the “NUW put in a massive effort to mobilise the trade union movement” to support the strike.

Dear Sam,

Thanks for your email and the opportunity to discuss some of the political issues surrounding the Baiada strike. I would like to make a few comments in response.

Firstly the main theme of our article is that we have a totally different political perspective to the right wing leaders of the NUW. It’s a bit concerning that the NUW leaders understand this but a layer of unelected organisers like yourself seem to take offence when we criticise your employer.

Politically the NUW leaders are aligned with the most right wing and corrupt elements in the ALP. Under the Keating government their party brought in ‘enterprise bargaining’ which has paved the way for the most anti-democratic IR laws in the western world. The current ruling party, and all the anti-worker legislation that goes along with it, is their own making.

The current NUW leaders will go down in history as presiding over the union at a time when profits soared, wages declined and strike levels were at an all time low. They have also overseen the wholesale decimation of the manufacturing industry without even putting up a fight.

This sorry state of the union movement today is a direct result of the pro-ALP and class collaborationist politics that they push. The Socialist Party on the other hand is fighting for a totally different type of trade unionism. We stand for progressive class struggle unionism that is free of corruption and ALP factional games. On this basis we see it as our job to highlight both the positive and negative aspects of any dispute.

Regardless of whether you agree with us on that point or not, you incorrectly state that our article has “a couple of glaring factual errors”. In fact what you have noted only serves to back up the main political points we have made.

Our allegation is that the NUW, an organisation with 90,000 members, millions of dollars in the bank and 140 full time officials, did not do all within its power to strengthen, build support for and seriously raise money for the strike. What we say exactly is “The NUW leaders did very little to raise money from their members or from the broader labour movement”.

The figure of $20 per day in strike pay was reported to us by a number of NUW members. If the union made other small payments as well that’s good but it does not contradict the main point that we are making.

One of your colleagues, Tim Nelthorpe, told me on the phone that all up $20,000 was raised from other NUW shops, the community and from other unions. This works out to around $7.70 per member per day. You would have to agree that this is a tiny amount compared to what was possible.

We are not disputing that some money was raised or that other unions threw in small amounts, but $20,000 is nothing considering the potential for the NUW to fundraise or to indeed tap into its own bank account. Say for example the NUW held back their ALP affiliation fees and election donations, how much more could have been raised?

Secondly, it’s simply not true in our opinion that “the NUW put in a massive effort to mobilise the trade union movement”. The fact is that they relied more on small left groups and on networks like WSN rather than their own membership base. Even in recent history unions have done much more to mobilse their own members and members from other unions.

The long held labour movement tradition when there is a strike is for the union to get its organisers to go around to all of its sites and hold mass meetings to talk about the dispute. Aside from asking people to attend the picket it is common for workplaces to organise levies (eg $20 per week) to support the strike. This act helps politicise the membership, it spreads the strike support base and has the potential to raise much more than $20,000. This is the type of approach that we think needs to be adopted, rather than asking people to use their retirement money.

I have no doubt that the Victorian Trades Hall Campaigns Officer “coordinated a roster of union officials”. In fact what we say is that “While a thin layer of officials from other unions and a layer of left wing activists did attend the picket there was no real attempt to get rank and file workers from the NUW or other unions along.”

A search on the Trades Hall website today for ‘Baiada’ “returned 0 records” at the same time Trades Hall did not organise any action when the police violently attacked the picket. The NUW should have called upon Trades Hall to organise a mass protest in response to the attack but rather the only protests that took place were organised by the Occupy movement. In contrast to you we don’t really think this equates to a “massive effort”.

I think the point you finish on really gets to the heart of the matter. I accept that the Baiada dispute was “the most inspiring and exciting picket line that you have ever been involved in”. It is clear that there is a layer of young people who have come into the movement in recent years when strike levels have been at all time lows. Unfortunately many seem to think that the defensive strategy of ‘community unionism’ is the best that can be done and the main tactic we should base ourselves on.

For the pro-ALP union leaders ‘community unionism’ means not bothering to mobilise union members to staff pickets, instead just relying on the ‘community’ (usually made up primarily of the hard Left). They think it is their role to decide how and when “solidarity and unity” is conducted. They refuse to challenge their own anti-worker laws in any meaningful way and politics is only to be discussed within the confines of the ALP. Anyone who dares talk politics or outline an alternative strategy is labelled ‘divisive’.

If and when the pro-ALP union leaders decide that ‘community unionism’ is hampering their work in the ALP they will shut it down, just as they did with Union Solidarity a few years back.

It seems that in the case of the NUW leaders, they have had an epiphany in recent months (probably because they have been shafted inside the ALP) and decided that ‘community unionism’ is now back on the agenda. I would suggest that that farce that was the Swift dispute in January this year also pushed them in this direction.

That dispute had been going on for weeks with no discernable industrial strategy and the ‘community’ was told to stay away. When we refused to stay away, went down their and began hindering production (to the horror of the NUW leaders initially!), the workers were re-enthused and the NUW leadership sought to use this situation to their benefit.

What they realised there was that when they are forced into defensive battles, the ‘community unionism’ model can help to maintain their position while they retain full control. To this end the NUW have also employed a layer of unelected organisers to give them a ‘left’ cover and help them carry this strategy out.

In our view this strategy has not helped rebuild the labour movement in recent years. In fact it has often had the opposite effect of mistraining a new layer of young labour movement activists.

Far from basing ourselves on the weakest form of unionism, the Socialist Party is fighting for a political alternative to the current state of the union movement. Our aim is to build support for militant unionism among rank and file workers and raise the level of political discussion within the movement – hence the purpose of our article.

We firmly believe it is possible to fully support workers in struggle without giving any political support to right wing union leaders. It seems that the unelected officer core of the NUW doesn’t agree. Instead you and your colleagues seem to consider yourselves part and parcel of the pro-ALP leadership and are the first to jump to their defence.

We do not think you can effect real change in the union movement by taking an appointed position in a right wing union and becoming an apologist for a rotten leadership. Inevitably when people take on these jobs they have to carry out the politics of the leadership. This happens whether they are conscious of it or not.

It is possible that an unelected organiser can do something progressive here or there but at the end of the day if you do not carry out the wishes of the leadership you will quickly find yourself out the door. Generally we find that unelected organisers either come into conflict with their leadership quite quickly or they adapt to the dominant politics in the union. In the case of the NUW that will ultimately mean becoming a slavish supporter of right wing ALP politics.

Given the staunch defence of the NUW leaders in your letter it seems that you have already started to head down the latter path. This means that we are bound to have many more political debates and disagreements in the future as we have no plans to water down our criticisms of your employer any time soon.

As stated in the article we think that workers need to wrestle their unions back off the pro-ALP leaders and bring them under democratic rank and file control. On the basis of rank and file groups developing an alternative political strategy we could then begin the process of rejuvenating the labour movement, relearning past militancy and stopping the trend towards higher profits and lower wages across the board. This needs to be the approach of genuine unionists who do not want to see the labour movement suffer a long and painful demise.


Anthony Main
Socialist Party


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