PASSWORD RESET

Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

What way forward for the unions under Howard?

We won’t surrender to Howard! Even if the ACTU leaders put up the white flag!
The taking of the Senate by the Coalition has a shattering blow to the perspectives of the Australian Congress of Trade Union (ACTU) leaders. The union movement pumped massive amounts of money and personnel into the election campaign of Labor in the hope that such a government would better protect the wages and conditions of workers.

The Socialist Party (SP) pointed out that the experience of the last Labor government from 1983-96, and the current State Labor governments, showed that all the major parties share neo-liberal policies. The Hawke-Keating government oversaw the smashing of the Pilots Union and the Builders Labourers Federation and their Accord with union leaders led to a 20%+ drop in real wages during their 13 years in office.
The difference between the Coalition and Labor on industrial relations is that Labor supports using the Arbitration system and the union bureaucracy to sell cuts to wages and conditions (cuts with a velvet glove), while the Federal government is more openly anti-union.
Unfortunately even militant unions such as the construction division of the CFMEU also sowed illusions that a Latham Labor government would protect workers (see article on this on page 4).
The lack of leadership from the ACTU is amazing even by their low standards. They have been reduced to pleading with Howard to see the need for unions in a ?democratic society? and have even sent Bob Hawke to beg on their behalf.
Interestingly the Federal Government, while openly promising to push through their industrial relations counter-revolution (previously blocked by the Senate), has not been using aggressive language against the ACTU and other union leaders. The experience of the Maritime dispute in 1998 has not been lost on the Howard government.
Then they used the SAS, private security and scabs to try and destroy the pro-Labor Maritime Union of Australia and push through new attacks on working conditions. The working class responded magnificently with tens of thousands of workers and youth and retired people, some spontaneously and some organized by more militant unions, fronting up to the wharves of Australia and beating back the police and the Governments? agenda. Only then did the ACTU step in, not to organize a General Strike to finish off the Government, but to broker a negotiated settlement that kept the MUA alive on the wharves but agreeing to the vast majority of the cuts demanded by the bosses. No wonder at the next MUA election a new more militant leadership was elected into office, but the damage had already been done.
Howard will now push through his agenda to take away unfair dismissal rights for all workers in firms employing less than 20 workers (the mass casualisation of these workers) and further limit industrial action and right of entry. He will move to ban pattern bargaining which is how strong unions get the same decent wages and conditions for all workers in their industry. Enterprise Bargaining Agreement?s will be extended to five years and ?simplified? (ie limited in the issues they can cover). The Government also wants the Commission to take ?the needs of unemployed into account? when making decisions. This humbug is code for not increasing the minimum wage. The ruling class wants a US-style situation, with poverty-wage jobs and the unemployed forced to take these jobs or lose their entitlements. This drags down the wages for better-organized layers of workers.
However after the experience of the MUA dispute, the Government is not opposed to using the good services of the ACTU and their allies in the moderate unions if they are willing to play along. The union bureaucracy will do anything to maintain their power, prestige and privilege ? even if it means being even more openly the industrial police of the ruling class.
The SP points out to workers that the vast majority of union leaders are unwilling or incapable to defending our interests. The top of the union movement is tied by a thousand strings to the capitalist state through the unique arbitration system in Australia. The rank and file, however, understand that all the gains made since unionism began in the 1850s have come through struggle.
The new situation opening up now means class struggle will intensify, as workers will be forced to move into defensive industrial action to defend their interests. The Socialist Party will call on the militant unions to lead not follow, by defying anti-union laws and organizing one-day General Strikes and more, involve families in the upcoming battles, and breaking with Labor. We need a new mass workers? party resting on the militant unions to represent our political interests. We need fighting, democratic and open unions to defend us in the workplace. Despite the fact that most workers are not organized in unions (mainly due to deindustrialisation and casualisation), a strong fighting stand from unions will rally all workers including the unorganized in the impending fight.