Dean Mighell, the long-standing Victorian State Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), resigned from his leadership position last month.
If measured in terms of a record of improving the wages and conditions of members, Mighell has been the most successful union leader in recent times. This is particularly impressive when compared to the backsliding and rottenness pervading so much of the trade union movement today.
Even the Melbourne Age newspaper was forced to admit: “(Dean Mighell) has built the ETU in Victoria into a significant political and industrial player while much of the union movement has languished.
“Since (he) took over (the ETU in 1995) its number of members has grown from about 8500 to close to 20,000 while assets have swelled from $8 million to $52 million. It is probably the richest union in the country. Wages for workers in electrical contracting have nearly tripled during his reign and on the desal plant electricians were able to earn in excess of $150,000 a year.
“There are also lasting industrial achievements such as winning the first 36 hour week in construction or schemes on income protection. More recently he has kept thousands of contractors connected to the ETU, the type of worker often lost to unions, through a body called ETREC.”
Mighell built up the strength of the ETU using traditional class struggle methods. He told the Age that the tactics his opponents feared were learnt from communist unionists.
“The basics of what our union does is quite old school,’’ he said. ‘‘A reliance on strong stewards, involved membership and you organise them and educate them and aim to have control in your industries.”
However while his industrial tactics were communist-influenced, Mighell is not a socialist. He describes himself as “an economic nationalist”.
He pragmatically and ruthlessly used the industrial power of electricians to leverage better wages and conditions than previous ETU leaderships. Non-socialist trade union leaders have managed this before but the fact that Mighell was able to do this under more difficult circumstances underlines his flair and strength of leadership.
But being an economic nationalist, the aim was always to leverage a few extra crumbs off the capitalist table, not challenge the system. There are clearly limits as to how much capitalists could cede to workers, limits that will become all to clear as we head into a world-wide slump. Socialists don’t support the economic nationalist premise that the only alternative to neo-liberalism is to support weak Australian capitalism against its competitors via tariffs and subsidies.
The alternative to neo-liberalism must rather be a militant defence of jobs and conditions linked to a fight for an alternative socialist reorganisation of society here and worldwide. The first political step must be to create a new working class mass political party – separate and in opposition to all the current pro-capitalist parties.
At one stage, in 2002, Dean Mighell came close to this conclusion. He held a media conference with the Victorian United Firefighters Union leader, Peter Marshall, announcing plans to disaffiliate from the ALP and he suggested that he might set up a new workers’ party. At the time, the Socialist Party fully supported this call. Unfortunately, Mighell retreated from this outlook and instead briefly joined the Greens.
Mighell ended up rejoining the ALP only to be driven out by Kevin Rudd in 2007. Subsequently, in 2010, Victorian ETU members voted overwhelmingly to disaffiliate from the ALP. Over the years, the Victorian ETU has supported Green and even Socialist Party election campaigns.
For most of his time in office, Mighell zigzagged between supporting the ALP, Greens and more recently the right-wing economic nationalist Katter’s Australian Party. Only a few weeks after stepping down from the ETU leadership he announced that he would become the industrial relations spokesperson for Katter’s party.
In the view of the Socialist Party this move is a huge mistake. Katter’s party is a mixture of right-wing economic nationalism and social conservatism. It has attracted all sorts of misfits including homophobes and climate change deniers. The broader politics of the party are fundamentally anti-working class.
Even if the party is able to develop a progressive industrial relations policy under Mighell’s watch it will be at odds with the rest of the party’s program. Katter’s party supports Australian capitalism first and foremost – a system that necessarily exploits workers, small farmers and the environment for profit. No amount of window dressing can change this basic fact.
It is true that Mighell’s motivation has always been to get the best deal for his members but the reality is that ETU members are still no closer to getting the political representation they deserve. We see the way forward as fighting for militant trade unionism to be married, not to capitalist politics, but to a genuinely socialist new workers’ party.
In the next period, it is likely that the new ETU Secretary Troy Gray will continue the industrial line of the past 20 years. However unless a clear political alternative is developed it is possible that the union will drift back into the orbit of the ALP. This may not necessarily mean re-affiliation but in practise they could be drawn back into supporting ALP campaigns.
The Socialist Party acknowledges the role played by Dean Mighell in the trade union movement for over 20 years. While we have definitely not always seen eye to eye we think his achievements should be duly noted. Every Victorian electrician only need look at their pay slip and conditions to see what the ETU led by Dean has achieved.
By Stephen Jolly