Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

The sorry state of the Australian union movement

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Unions need to organise political opposition to the NT Intervention

The real attitudes of the pro-Labor Party trade union officialdom were on show last night as they clapped and cheered their “comrade” Jenny Macklin at an International Women’s Day event at the Victorian Trades Hall.

International Women’s Day started as a socialist political event and has historically been marked by mass demonstrations to win important reforms, but the best the current batch of trade union leaders could come up with in Melbourne was a “cocktail party” hosted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

By Socialist Party reporters Melbourne

To add insult to injury Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin was invited as a “keynote” speaker. Macklin currently oversees the Northern Territory Intervention of which one component is the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP). This program super-exploits Aboriginal workers – particularly Aboriginal women.

According to one union petition “Aboriginal workers in the Northern Territory are working at least 16 hours a week under the scheme, but only being paid their Newstart allowance through Centrelink. In many cases, workers are subject to Income Management and have 50 per cent of these payments ‘quarantined’ onto a BasicsCard.”

CDEP labour is currently being used on the Federal Labor Government’s $672 million Indigenous housing program where Aboriginal workers are working for less than Award wages.

While Macklin apparently waxed lyrical about equal pay for women she failed to mention that she is responsible for overseeing perhaps the most unequal pay regime in Australia. The Age newspaper has reported that some Aboriginal workers are receiving as little as $4.80 an hour – not even enough to buy one cocktail at the Trades Hall Bar!

When this was pointed out by a Socialist Party member to one trade union official she responded by saying “what do you care, your not even black”. This comment encapsulates the current sorry state of the Australian union movement and the conservative nature of the majority of trade union officials.

Thankfully at least some people let Macklin know that her actions are an affront to genuine trade unionism. Socialist Party members along with other activists protested at the event, hindering the Minister’s entry and exit.

Macklin used a police escort to enter the building and was forced to stay in the building for several hours after her speech while the police came up with an escape plan. Eventually she snuck out a back door leaving in a police car. Her own Ministerial car was forced to stay in the Trades Hall car park all night.

At the same time as the Trades Hall event an International Women’s Day rally, organised by the Freedom Socialist Party, was being held down the road at the State Library. When the Socialist Party heard that Macklin was due to speak at Trades Hall we approached the organisers and encouraged them to divert the march to Trades Hall so we could all protest against Macklin and the treatment of Aboriginal women.

Disappointingly the organisers refused, preferring instead to yell at empty city office buildings while Macklin hypocritically spoke about women’s rights. A member of Solidarity spoke at the State Library about the effects the Northern Territory Intervention is having on women but refused to mention or encourage the action that was planned against Macklin.

Apparently heated discussions were had all day within the Melbourne Anti-Intervention Collective (MAIC) about Macklin’s visit to Trades Hall. In the past MAIC have organised opposition and the shutting down of events Macklin has spoken at. However, on this occasion MAIC did not agree to take action against Macklin.

Socialist Party members were told by several sources within MAIC that they did not want to upset the trade union leaders. Socialist Alternative went so far as to have their own meeting in Trades Hall while Macklin was still in the building and a protest was being held outside their front door! When surrounded by actual political action, some prefer to simply sit around and talk about struggles being waged by others!

Obviously trade union involvement will be key to ending the Northern Territory Intervention. While the trade union visits, house building projects and petitions have been important, the trade union movement also needs to organise political opposition to the Intervention. The current batch of union leaders have proven themselves incapable of this and totally intertwined with the right wing Labor Government that is driving down wages in the NT and beyond.

The Socialist Party makes no apologies for highlighting the hypocrisy of these pro-Labor Party trade union leaders. We will not be deterred in our effort to reclaim the genuine traditions of International Women’s Day and of fighting trade unionism. This will be the only way to achieve pay justice for women, Aboriginal people and all workers.


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