7. Where To Now For Our Unions?

The underlying decay in the Australian economy and the impact of the world economic crisis forces employers and governments into fresh attacks on workers, and the re-election of the Howard Government has given them the confidence to press ahead. Even during the election Peter Reith reassured a business lunch "Never forget which side we're on. We're on the side of making profits. We're on the side of people owning private capital". And immediately after the election, Graham Kraehe, managing director of Southcorp, called on Reith and Howard to make good their promises, demanding that the Government be more "action oriented" in its second term in office than it had been in its first – "They've got a chance now to show their true colours. They have a chance now to put their foot on the accelerator and implement some of the things that they've been talking about and thinking about for the last couple of years". And so Peter Reith soon began talking about further award stripping, individual contracts, compulsory strike ballots and exempting small business from unfair dismissal provisions.

If workers are to defend their jobs and conditions in the next battle, however, they will have to fight to overcome the obstacles that held them back in the campaign to defend the MUA - the belief that they need to sacrifice jobs and conditions on the altar of international competition, and that they can defend themselves by looking to the courts and the ALP. To the extent that the labour movement can claim victory in this dispute, it is important to emphasise that this was a victory won by the workers, not by the union leaders. Or, as Bob Carnegie, elected MUA organiser in Brisbane, concluded after the dispute:

It was not the Federal, Supreme or High Court of Australia that held firm on the picket lines, night and day, in bad weather and fair. It was working people of principle. It is my belief that this nation's union movement, supported internationally, could have defeated Corrigan and Reith. But in the end, the minimalist line (which so typifies the Kelty years of dispute handling) was followed – to contain at all costs workers fighting together for a better future, and to prevent at all costs workers believing in each other.1

The hard fact facing rank and file union activists is that the behaviour of the ACTU and MUA leaderships in this dispute is not exceptional. We only have to review the failure of the ACTU to lead a challenge to the 1996 Workplace Relations Act itself to see why the revival of the union movement requires a new set of politics and new strategies.

The ACTU leadership huffed and puffed about the Government's Workplace Relations Bill being "the most malicious and vindictive piece of legislation that the country has ever seen", but took no serious action to kill it off. Instead, it sought negotiations not confrontation; deals with the Democrats not a general strike; a public information campaign not stopworks; lobbying Coalition MPs not occupying their offices; and constitutional challenges through the High Court, not major strike action. Jennie George looked to right-wing Independent Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine to support the ACTU's court challenge to the Government's claim of a "mandate" to carve up the Industrial Relations Commission. And George even wrote to female Coalition MPs asking them to "raise their voices" on issues affecting women's rights in the Workplace Relations Bill. Presumably she included Jocelyn Newman and Amanda Vanstone, at the time responsible for savage cuts to social security and higher education respectively!

Relying on the Democrats got the ACTU nowhere. The Democrats voted in favour of stripping back unfair dismissal protections, the removal of limits to part-time work in awards, "freedom of association" for scabs, and the punitive legislation against solidarity industrial action which went on to cripple the ACTU in the waterfront dispute two years later. Even after the Bill was tabled, the ACTU told the Government that it had "no plans" for co-ordinated strike action. Rather, the Financial Review explained, "it was leaving it up to employees in individual workplaces depending on their employer's reaction to the Bill".

Two years later, in July 1998, when all awards were compulsorily stripped back to 20 minimum conditions, only the CFMEU took any protest action against this savage attack on the whole award system and basic employment conditions. And in the run-up to the election on 3 October, the Victorian Trades Hall Council was alone in organising a mass demonstration against the Coalition Government. This was a far cry from 1993 when unions around the country pulled out all stops to flatten Hewson's election challenge.

As capitalism ages and the prospects for significant improvements in workers' living standards become even more remote, the role of union officials is likely to become even more conservative. Sticking within a decaying system means that the union officials become industrial police officers who will defend their own role when under attack, but not the material conditions of union members. The only thing that can counteract this trend is the revival of lively industrial activism at the grassroots.

Such a revival of rank and file organisation and self activity is not about to happen overnight. The MUA dispute is just one step in what may be a prolonged and bitter campaign to drive back the employers' relentless offensive. There are likely to be many setbacks and defeats before the tide definitely turns.

But rebuilding a fighting labour movement is possible. The defeats workers are suffering today are not inevitable. What holds workers back in many cases is the failure of political will of our leaders and our own lack of confidence to fight when our leaders are unwilling to give a lead.

To rebuild a fighting union movement will mean breaking with all the ideas of consensus and class collaboration that have dominated the past 15 years. It will mean reviving a socialist current within the labour movement that recognises that there is no room for co-operation with employers and their governments (of whatever political description), one that champions the interests of ordinary workers over those of profit, and that understands that only militant and determined struggle can deliver results.

  • 1. 'A few thoughts on the waterfront dispute', West End Neighbourhood News (Brisbane), June 1998, p.21.