Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Trade union movement in crisis

How to bring our unions back from the brink
Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Labor Party recently announced that, if they won the next election, they would make some minor changes to the workplace enterprise bargaining process. They said that they would tweak the system to make it more “representative”. The exact changes however are yet to be revealed.

There is no doubt that any moves to shift bargaining power away from the already dominant employing class should be welcomed, but there is no reason to just meekly accept whatever minor changes the Labor Party puts forward. After all, it has been the laws that they have introduced that have brought the union movement to the brink of oblivion.

Labor themselves scrapped centralised wage fixing in the early 1990s and replaced it with the so-called ‘reform’ of enterprise bargaining. This move was a conscious attempt to weaken the collective power of the unions by forcing them to bargain at an enterprise level, rather than at an industry level. It came side by side with a raft of other pro-business measures that where introduced at the behest of the bosses.

Without any doubt the enterprise bargaining system has resulted in the power of the unions being diminished immensely. This is verified by the movements’ plummeting membership levels and lack of authority.

Weakened position

As a result of this weakened position, wages as a percentage of the economy have steadily declined, while profits have soared. Wealth and income inequality are now at record levels, while millions of jobs have either been lost or casualised.

The bosses couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome, and they probably couldn’t have achieved it if the changes were proposed by a conservative government.

The union movement is on its knees and the employers and the government are now preparing to kick us while we are down. A whole raft of anti-worker laws have already been passed by the Turnbull government but even more attacks are on the agenda.

Now that union influence is severely diminished the bosses have moved, almost en masse, to terminate enterprise agreements and push workers back onto the minimum Awards. According to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), “In the last three years over 850 agreements have been terminated impacting approximately 120,000 workers.” Other estimates however show that up to 479,000 workers could have been affected.

There is no doubt that Labor’s enterprise bargaining system has facilitated a huge transfer of wealth from wages to profits, but to secure the deal the employers have taken advantage of provisions in the Fair Work Act – another supposed ‘reform’ that was introduced by Labor in 2009.

With all this being the case it is incredible that the ACTU, and the bulk of trade union leaders, are gearing up to run a de facto ‘vote Labor’ election campaign without putting even a single demand on the party. This is really an example of the deep degeneration of the politics of the trade union movement, and one of the core reasons for the problems we face.

Retreat from class struggle

While some union leaders still use the rhetoric of class struggle – of a fight with the bosses over the wealth produced – almost all have given up on it in practice. They have shifted away from the idea of using industrial action as a means to win a bigger share of the wealth and they are focused purely on the parliamentary arena.

When they do engage in some form of ‘action’ it is usually only a protest or a media stunt. Social media seems to be the sole focus of an increasing amount of unions. While workers have traditionally taken action for themselves we now have union leaders suggesting that consumers take action on workers behalf by participating in boycotts.

In October, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus vowed to “mobilise the whole union movement” against Streets ice cream, another company that is threating to terminate their enterprise agreement. While many were hoping this meant that the ACTU would be calling mass pickets of the Streets plants, what she actually meant was that the movement would be asked to distribute beach balls and balloons at tourist attractions calling on consumers to boycott Streets products.

You can see why the bosses are so confident. After scrapping 850 agreements the best the ACTU can muster is a Paddle Pop boycott! If the situation wasn’t so serious it would be a joke.

Class struggle unionism does not exclude community campaigning, or even parliamentary work, but it sees these methods as an auxiliary to the main game which is industrial action. Workers have the most power at the point of production. If they choose to collectively withdraw their labour they have the potential to hit the bosses where it really hurts – in the profits.


The main focus of most unions today however is not even on boycotts or stunts but on the parliamentary arena. With Labor being so right-wing, many workers are sceptical of them and this makes it difficult for the union leaders to say “vote Labor” openly. Instead they pose it as a matter of “kicking out the Liberals”. Obviously we all want to see the Liberals gone but when you say “kick them out” without proposing a genuine left alternative you are really just saying “vote Labor” in a cowardly way.

Some in the union movement present the Labor Party as if they are just some misguided organisation that will see the light if we ease them into office. But the anti-worker industrial laws that they have supported in the past few decades are just one component of their transformation into an out and out party of big business.

Even if it was the case that Labor were just temporarily mistaken in their approach, the best thing to do would be to expose their mistakes and use the collective weight of the union movement to try and force them to change.

The most basic thing the ACTU could do would be to organise meetings of union members to democratically decide what workers need in terms of wages, conditions and a legislative framework. From there the unions could demand that the Labor Party formally pledge to implement their program in full if elected.

If they genuinely agreed there would be no issue in mobilising the union movement to vote and campaign for Labor. Labor, however, would run a mile from such a process as their big business backers would exert immense pressure on them to resist. Given the lack of democratic structures in the party, and the absence of an active working class membership, there would be very little hope of forcing Labor to change course.

Mass action

An honest and genuine leadership of the trade union movement would not limit demands for proper wages, job security and decent workplace laws to just begging a party that walked away from its interests long ago. It would organise a campaign of industrial action to put pressure on all the political parties and the employers that support them.

While there is no doubt the current industrial laws are repressive, and restrict our ability to take effective action, Australia has always had repressive laws going back to the Masters and Servants Act. In the past, and in the future, these laws could be overcome by mass action. When huge swathes of people defy bad laws they can be made unworkable. That has been the experience of the union movement throughout time.

A mass struggle that broke the laws and threatened profits would have the potential to force change onto the agenda without begging for the rules to be changed. It would highlight the power of the organised working class and as a result the union movement would seem relevant again to millions of people.

In an environment of low wage growth, even modest gains could see hundreds of thousands attracted to our ranks. It would not only highlight the superiority of industrial action and a class struggle approach, but it would also bring out the need for real working class political representation. Labor would either have to fall in line, or the need for a new workers party would be posed.

There is a desperate need for a return to class struggle unionism, in fact the future of our movement depends on it. The timid approach of the current batch of leaders coupled with a blind allegiance to Labor is what is ruining our movement.

Alternative strategy

At the moment there is a sense amongst a certain layer of activists that something needs to be done but there is still much confusion about how to move forward. In a couple of states small groups of people are trying to lobby the ACTU to adopt a somewhat better approach, while in Melbourne some moves are afoot to create a new ‘solidarity network’.

All attempts to create forums for political discussion and debate in our movement should be welcomed. Offering solidarity to workers in struggle is a basic tenant of class struggle unionism but if new formations are to have any chance of helping to turn the situation around then they will need to develop their own independent class struggle approach. They will need to outline a viable alternative to the ACTU’s strategy and fight for it to be supported amongst the ranks.

The trade union movement was historically built on the ideas of class struggle unionism, mostly by activists who had a vision for some sort of socialist society. The task ahead is to re-win working people to these ideas, not just in a theoretical sense, but by showing that struggling gets results.

By Anthony Main


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