Bill Shorten’s Labor Party voted to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal through the Senate in October. Thumbing their nose at working class people and the union movement, Labor U-turned on its opposition to the deal and once again proved its deep loyalty to big business.
Many around the world including environmentalists, trade unionists and socialists have campaigned against the deal since negotiations began in 2008. The deal aims to break down existing laws and regulations, and prevent new ones being passed that protect the environment and ordinary people, but hinder profit making.
Trump opportunistically withdrew the US from the deal when elected because the opposition of US workers made it politically toxic. The deal looked dead. But it was revived and renegotiated in efforts led by Japan and Australia.
Since the beginning, the TPP has been part of the framework designed to counter China’s strategic rise in the region and glue together a bloc of opposition countries as capitalist competition intensifies. It contains an “accession” clause to encourage other countries to join. At least five others are strongly interested.
Labor first promised the trade unions it would oppose the TPP deal, especially because of two issues. First, it allows companies to continue playing workers from different countries off against each other to drive down wages and conditions.
Second, it contains “Investor State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) clauses, which allow companies to overturn or be compensated for laws that diminish their profits. Laws like health regulations, renewable energy policies or protections of workers’ rights.
Now Labor has justified passing the TPP through parliament by saying it would “boost national income”. Never mind the fact that the majority of that wealth is going to the already-rich, or the negative effects on job conditions and living standards. Moreover, a report from big business organisations and pro-capitalist academics showed the increase to national income would be a miniscule 0.4% by 2030.
Multiple trade unions demanded Labor stick to their promise to oppose the TPP in September and October. In typical mealy-mouthed fashion, Shorten said he was “reluctant” in passing it and made a vague promise not to make more deals like this in future. He also said if Labor are elected they will try to scrap ISDS clauses and make changes to rules on bringing in workers from overseas. Why not simply stop this deal now?
Even if Labor do win the election, all the commentators agree that re-negotiating the TPP once it’s in force is highly unlikely. And if Labor feel bold enough to ignore unions, dump promises and disregard their own national policy platform while in opposition, why would they suddenly become trustworthy in government?
We can’t trust Shorten or Labor, a lesson that should already be burnt into the brains of trade unionists and other progressive activists. It was a small positive move that showed potential when the manufacturing workers union boycotted a big Labor fundraiser and threatened to withdraw all support for Labor, financial and otherwise, over the TPP. Other unions need to take this kind of action, and it should be developed into a full-scale break with the Labor Party.
Who can genuinely still believe that Labor are going to “change the rules” in a way that really benefits workers if they are elected? They have not even pretended to agree to the union leaders’ limited campaign demands. The snivelling suits of the Labor Party have no honesty or integrity in their schemes for power. Unions should stop giving them our money and stop taking their orders at election time.
Instead of cowering to Labor, the trade union movement needs to use a high-pressure strategy. We need to stand our own union candidates. We have the money and the organisation to do this.
Polls and election results across the country show the desperate desire for an alternative to the status quo. It’s just a matter of political willpower. If the current union leaders are unwilling or unable to make this decision for the good of working people, they should make way for those who are or be pushed out of the way.
This is the only real strategy to pressure the existing parties to drop their agenda of pro-profit trade deals and anti-worker laws today, and it can begin to build a mass, left-wing alternative that can turn the tide tomorrow.
By Kirk Leonard