Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Unions need to break with Labor

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Time to build a new worker’s party!

The link between the Labor Party and the trade unions is being debated again following an article written by Victorian Electrical Trades Union (ETU) Secretary Dean Mighell. Mighell’s article titled ‘Unions must leave Labor’ was published by several Fairfax papers including ‘The Age’ and the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ in February.

Editorial from the April issue of ‘The Socialist’

The debate has resurfaced in the union movement primarily because of Labor’s failure to wind back the previous Liberal Governments anti-worker laws. In the lead up to the 2007 election the union movement mobilised thousands of members and spent millions of dollars to get the Labor Party elected. The hope was that once in power Rudd would get rid of Howard’s ‘Work Choices’ legislation and scrap the draconian laws that apply to workers in the construction industry.

Nearly three years on ‘Work Choices’ has been replaced by ‘Fair Work’ but the new laws continue to breach many ILO (International Labour Organisation) conventions. The right to strike is still severely restricted as is the content of collective agreements and union right of entry into workplaces. At the same time construction workers still have to deal with a quasi police force in their industry and can face massive fines and up to six months jail simply for refusing to answer questions!

There has been an ‘Award Modernisation’ process which has streamlined thousands of state and federal awards but left many workers worse off. And while Howard never attempted to wind back Occupational Health and Safety legislation, Rudd wants to introduce new national legislation which will result in a reduction of standards in several states.

It is clear that just like the Liberals, the Labor Party is focused on protecting the profits of big business. The trend of Governments attacking the wages and conditions of workers has continued unabated under Rudd. The differences that exist between Labor and the Liberals are purely of style and not of any substance.

While Mighell is correct to call on unions to disaffiliate from Labor, the question is what political strategy should the union movement employ instead? As the old saying goes “no politics in the union means boss’s politics in the union”.

In his article Mighell says: “In the United States, unions largely support the Democrats and their campaigning and finance are critical, though they have no affiliation mechanism. They effectively lobby Republican politicians on many issues and some unions actively support Republican candidates if they believe it is in their members’ interests.”

Mighell goes on to say that: “By remaining affiliated with the ALP, unions are automatically the enemy of the Liberals and National Party and I seriously question if their stance on trade unions would be as severe if unions were not an intrinsic part of their political rival.”

To put the argument like this suggests that it is the ‘affiliation mechanism’ and not the pro-big business politics of the major parties that is the main issue. In both the US and Australia all the major parties act as representatives for the bosses while workers are left without a mass party that unashamedly represents their interests.

Disaffiliating from the Labor Party in order to lobby the Liberals and Nationals will only result in more disappointments for workers. The solution is instead for unions to break with Labor but to join with progressive community organisations, environment groups and the existing small left parties to set up a new workers party.

Such a formation would attract thousands of disaffected Labor supporters and, if it was a campaigning organisation that clearly stood against the big business policies of Labor and the Liberals it, could make spectacular gains.

The Socialist Party welcomes the renewed debate about Labor and the unions. We encourage all activists to use the opportunity to put the issue of political representation on the agenda in their union. Both industrial and political representation is going to become more important in the coming years as both bosses and governments push for working people to pay the price of the economic crisis.


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