Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

The lessons of the Craig Johnston trial

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On Friday the 21st of May, former Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) Victorian State Secretary, Craig Johnston was sentenced to jail for 12 months, (the sentence was suspended for three years). Whilst he will not have to serve jail time he was fined $10 000 and ordered to pay $44 560 in damages.

This was after Craig pleaded guilty to charges arising from an industrial dispute at Johnson Tiles in 2001. Johnson Tiles decided to sack 29 maintenance workers and replace them with scab labour from a body hire firm called Skilled Engineering. The courts had already dealt with sixteen other unionists who were also involved in the dispute; they had pleading guilty to unlawful assembly and were issued with relatively small fines ranging up to $3000. However Craig was singled out as being the key organiser and was dealt with separately. It was alleged that ?run throughs? occurred at the offices of both Johnson Tiles and Skilled Engineering.

Whist the outcome of the trial was a good one for workers the tactics used by Craig?s legal team during the trial needs to be examined. Craig pleaded guilty on the first day of the trial in order to have some of the charges down graded. Some rank and file supporters have been confused by this tactic, maintaining that if a deal could not have been made with the prosecution early on in the piece perhaps Craig should have gone to the wire.

This would have put it back on the bosses and their representatives in the courts to either let him off or jail him and face industrial mayhem. Given the fact that almost 8000 workers demonstrated outside the court on the first day of the trial, it was clear that Craig had a good amount of support amongst the organised workforce. It seems that there will be a political price to be paid for this tactic and a lot of work will be required to regain the confidence of the members, especially those who are on the fringes and have not been privileged to hearing the entire debate.

There is also a question facing some of the more militant unions. Currently the Australian Labor Party receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the union movement. Why is the Victorian ALP state government dictating that their Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), lay trumped up charges against an ex-union leader? It is time for these unions to break the final link with the ALP and work in partnership with community groups and other progressive forces to form a new workers party. If a deal was to be done the progressive unions should have used their backing for Labor as a bargaining chip for Craig.

To understand this complicated story fully however, we need to go back and look at the context of the political situation at the time. It was in 1998 that rank and file group called Workers First took control of the Victorian branch of the AMWU. This group had very much a different approach compared to many of the other union leaderships of the time. It was a militant team that returned the union to the membership and adhered to the idea of class struggle.

In 2000 the Workers First team led a very successful pattern bargaining campaign that delivered good wages and conditions to members. Both the bosses and the tame cat national leadership were starting to see militancy in action and were getting worried. The national leadership because they saw a threat to their style of unionism, and bosses because they saw a threat to their profit margin. So it was in 2001 that both Doug Cameron (AMWU National Secretary) and the bosses stepped up their offensive against the Workers First team and Craig Johnston in particular.

Whilst many other union leaderships waxed lyrical about the problems of casualisation and job losses, Workers First decided to stand firm and fight every redundancy with militant industrial action.

This was unfortunately happening at a time when the majority of the union movement was still adhering to the ideas of corporate unionism. Ideas that were taken to a new level during the years of the Accord.

The years of 1983-96 (The Accord years) saw a marriage between the federal ALP government and the national union leadership (ACTU). The two parties basically agreed to keep wages in check. The setting of wage outcomes via an annual national deal between a handful of Labor politicians and union bureaucrats bred a culture of corporate unionism, the leaderships no longer had to fight for anything and clearly got lazy.

The culture of corporate unionism still exists in most unions today however Workers First and other militant groups that were emerging at the time were a clear reaction to these ideas. These groups however were in a minority and were largely isolated within the broader union movement.

It has been seen many times before in the labour movement that when a person or a group is isolated in this fashion they can often shift their politics to either the left or the right. In this case of Workers First a frustrating period in dispute led to the ultra left actions of the ‘run throughs’. Actions of this type clearly play into the hand of the bosses, as has been seen in this case, with genuine class fighters being portrayed as thugs and criminals.

Some have described Workers First as being ?too far in advance of the working class?. However it would be much more correct to say that the majority of union leaderships are holding the working class back. In the Australian trade union movement at the moment workers are like lions led by lambs.

The victory for the Workers First team in Victoria in 1998 boosted the confidence of many AMWU members throughout the country. The thought of having an industrially militant leadership at the helm of one of Victoria?s largest unions sent shivers down the spines of the bosses.

In 2004 however Worker First still faces several major challenges. The need to spread this style of unionism is as important today as it was when they first came to power. It is vital that the group spreads the ideas of militancy and branches out nationally. Whilst Workers First currently has control of the Victorian Branch it is still isolated at a national level within the union.

Doug Cameron has written many documents putting his view of the world forward. It is Cameron’s global outlook that directly leads to his soft approach on the bosses. His economic views include a form of protectionism for world trade and the implementation of tariffs, in reality it is economic nationalism for Australia not to far removed from the ideas of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. He is also still clinging on to the ideas of the Accord years and thinks that unions should work closely with both governments and bosses.

He is guilty as charged of disgracefully working with the bosses. It was reported in Melbourne?s Age newspaper that Cameron had been in discussions with the Australian Industry Group (The main bosses union for the manufacturing industry) to develop a strategy to get rid of Craig Johnston and Workers First.

The idea of having close ties with right wing governments is also ludicrous. Why should workers pretend that Liberal and Labor governments that are attacking them by implementing privitisation programs and cutting back healthcare and education are friends of the working class.

Therefore the militant industrial strategy of Workers First also needs to be complemented with an economic and political strategy for the union. A genuine alternative to Cameron?s reformist approach needs to be developed and explained to the members.

The Socialist Party has warned in the past that Cameron?s strategy is an extremely dangerous one for the AMWU and the working class as a whole. Despite Cameron?s rhetoric we will continue to remind workers that under capitalism there is a struggle going on between the working class and the bosses. To take the working class forward in this battle we need to confine Cameron?s style of unionism to the dustbin of history and build strong militant unions that are controlled by the rank and file.

By Anthony Main


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