From Corporate Bureaucratic Unionism to Grass Roots Controlled Direct Action Unionism: Activity & Perspectives for Australia Today

Submitted by asn on January 17, 2024

From Rebel Worker Paper of the Australian Anarcho-Syndicalist Network
Vol.41 No.3 (235) Dec. 2023 – Jan. 2024

From Bureaucratic Corporate Unionism to Grass Roots Controlled Direct Action Unionism: Activity & Perspectives for Australia Today

Firstly I will sketch out the development of corporate unionism which was particularly associated with certain initiatives during the ALP-ACTU (Australian Labor Party and Australian Council of Trade Unions) Prices & Incomes Accord years of the ALP Hawke/Keating Federal Governments. One very important such initiative which academic books and articles suspiciously ignore is the AEC (Australian Electoral Commission) which was established by the Hawke Government in 1984. It was supposedly established to prevent union officials from rigging elections and other union ballots. However subsequently it has become involved allegedly in rigging union elections and likely other union ballots in association with ALP networks and the Deep State such as ASIO. (1)
Another important initiative of the Hawke/Keating Governments was the introduction of Industry Super Funds. As a result union bureaucracies have become involved in the direct management of Australian Capitalism in some cases on a massive scale. In the case of the Building Industry Super Fund CBUS, the CFMMEU officials with seats on the board are involved with massive investments in the building and construction sector in Australia. Apart from fees for union officials on Super Boards, other funds are supplied to the corporate unions to finance their bureaucracies using various pretexts such as co-sponsorships in the case of the MUA (Maritime Union of Australia now Maritime Division of the CFMMEU) despite Maritime Super being one of the worst performing industry super funds. (2) Other sources of major corporate funding for the corporate unions is employers providing funding using such pretexts as so called “training.” Meanwhile plundering of members' funds held by the so called unions on a massive scale for slush funds for the union bosses. (3)
So effectively the corporate unions are very much part of the corporate set up associated with a vast spiders web of rorts, corruption and alleged union ballot rigging. All covered up by the corporate media, employers, the Government Departments with the aid of tentacles of the ALP Octopus and the Deep State.
An important initiative of the Keating Government in the early 1990's was enterprise bargaining which is interwoven with the development of corporate unionism, the corporate media, Deep State and the alleged union ballot rigging by the AEC and the tentacles of the ALP Octopus. A key technique of the corporate union officials assisted by the corporate media and many leftist groups and the deep state associated with enterprise and union ballot rigging is the “smoke and mirrors” technique. An important back drop is the predominance of the corporate media today.

1998 Patricks Lockout & “Smoke & Mirrors” Performance

I first became aware of this technique during the Patricks Lockout Maritime Dispute of 1998. The corporate media, fringe and most of the Trot media conjured up the illusion of mass community pickets at Port Botany and other ports in NSW heroically helping the wharfies stop strike breakers from performing the locked out wharfies' jobs. However I witnessed at Port Botany, that when the scabs' bus turned up at the so called picket line, they were admitted through it! In reality there was no picket line just a media stunt to camouflage the treacherous sell out back room negotiations of the MUA (Maritime Union of Australia) officials. According to contacts, similar media stunts were held in other ports in NSW during the lockout. Meanwhile at the other stevedore new DP World MUA members continued working despite, the negative outcome for their jobs and conditions of the big sell out stemming from the MUA's back room negotiations. Flowing on to them and throughout the Maritime industries and other industries. Weakening decisively the militancy of wharfies. An important back drop to this defeat was the isolation of the wharfies at Patricks. The hierarchy of the other corporate unions were able to head off any pushes by militants to provide industrial solidarity with direct action. Similar to their tactics during the Melbourne Trammie Lockout in 1990. The outcome of the Patricks lockout was falsely presented by the MUA officials as a so called “victory”. However in reality Patricks achieved many cut backs and job losses which flowed on throughout the maritime sector, severely weakening the militancy of wharfies and flowing on to other industries.

Hutchison Ports Lockout & Stalinist Union Boss Orchestrated Circus

In the case of the Hutchison Ports lockout of 2015, its work was outsourced to the other stevedores. So just like the Patricks dispute the wharfies were divided and isolated by the other corporate union hierarchies which headed off any grass roots moves for industry solidarity and direct action. Like the Patricks lockout there were also the smoke and mirrors of the fake community picket lines contributed by the rightward moving Trot groups and others attracted to red and black colour schemes. However this new “performance” by the MUA union bosses had a nasty new twist. They cunningly took advantage of members of a more “orthodox” Trot group opposed to Corporate Unions which attended the so called picket line at Port Botany in Sydney. They were subjected to much Stalinist style thuggery and intimidation by the MUA officials and their stooges amongst their union reps and others. This old time Stalinist technique was used to create a climate of intimidation to coerce the Hutchison Ports wharfies on the picker line to cave-in to the new Enterprise Agreement. It comprised various cut backs to jobs and conditions which would flow on throughout the Maritime industry and other sectors. Paul Mcateer Sydney MUA Secretary used “weasel talk” in an interview in Green Left Weekly, stating that with the new EBA the Hutchison Ports workers conditions were reduced to an “industry standard”. Providing tacky camouflage for another maritime workers' defeat orchestrated by the MUA officials. Subsequently the Stalinist MUA officials often members of the CPA (Communist Party of Australia) initiated a goon squad called the “First of May Movement” to police their future fake community picket lines and “useful idiots” leftist activoid circuses. Another aspect of the Hutchison Ports Lockout highlights how the MUA officials' smoke and mirrors performance is interwoven with the alleged ballot rigging by the AEC and associated ALP networks. In Qld a certain Bob McCarthy, a long time militant wharfie was elected to the Brisbane MUA Secretary position. However once elected he immediately rolled over to the ways of the Stalinist MUA officials. On being elected he threw his militancy out the window and became a ringmaster for the MUA hierarchy's Hutchison Ports fake community picket lines smoke and mirrors performance to an outrageous extent. Seems likely behind the scenes he cut a deal with the MUA hierarchy and the ALP so he was “allowed” by the AEC to be elected to the position. However later on he had a falling out with the union bosses in the CFMMEU over mining on the Great Barrier Reef and lost an election for his position. Presumably allegedly would be rigged by ALP networks in the AEC if required to get rid of him.

The Grass Roots Controlled Direct Action Unionism Alternative

Anarcho-Syndicalist unionism is of course quite different. Its based on ultra democratic processes such as decision making based on stop work mass meetings of members, meetings of strictly mandated delegates, and limited tenure of office for all officials. Another important aspect is industrial unionism – seeking to unite all workers in the same industry and establishing a confederation of such unions. Locals of the union confederation would be centres for workers self education and link up employed members with the unemployed in common struggles and actions and community associations in working class areas. An important task of the union locals and their pursuit of direct action and workers' control actions is to prepare workers for the takeover of the running of industry particularly in the context of revolutionary developments. On the international scale anarcho-syndicalist union confederations would link up and facilitate co-ordinated direct action to tackle the employer offensive, environmental crisis and the war drive. In sharp contrast to today's corporate unions which facilitate all this mayhem.

The role of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network Today.

The role of anarcho-syndicalist networks like the ASN is to act as a catalyst to get these processes going. In particular the way to achieve transitional steps and then a new anarcho-syndicalist oriented union centre would be via encouraging a strike/direct action wave movement across industry. In this context syndicalist oriented major splits from the corporate unions would occur. One key sector such as transport would play the key role initiating the process. A Syndicalist transport workers union would play a critical role in assisting at busy times with blockades, bans, etc, the organising and recognition campaigns of these break away unions. Avoiding long drawn out picketing which normally ends in disaster. In the case of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist CNT (National Confederation of Labour) during its heydays in the 1920's and 1930's in Barcelona, the CNT's transport union played a critical role in assisting its organising campaigns in that city's catering industry. This sector became the largest and strong hold of the CNT in the city.

The Melbourne Tramway Lockout and Depot Occupations of 1990

One of the most significant activities of anarcho-syndicalists from the 1990's onwards has been involvement in the Melbourne Tramway Lockout of 1990. Anarcho-syndicalists played a significant role in the dispute. Particularly via the Victorian Sparks magazine which influenced its militant aspects. Particularly the workers control action on Jan.1st 1990 and the subsequent depot occupations. However the back drop to these advanced actions must be seen in the context of the militant history of Victorian public transport workers such as the successful 1946 Victorian rail strike and Victorian public transport being the focus of the wildcat strikes and general strikes in 1969 over the gaoling of Clarrie O'Shea associated with the Atlantean Bus Dispute and the penal provisions of the Conciliation and Arbitration Court. However there was no warning in the Vic. Sparks about the likelihood of a lockout of the trammies to achieve the removal of conductors in the business downtime of the January holiday period. Trammies were isolated by the union hierarchy and starved into submission. In particular the national executive of the Tram and Bus union the ATMOEA refused to pay strike funds and the officials refused to pass on money collected from a 3CR Tramathon as well as other money collected for the “official” strike fund until the conclusion of the lockout. The father of one of the trammies was a wharfie and was agitating on the job for direct action and industrial solidarity to help out the trammies. The MUA officials heard about it. They called an “official” union meeting to consider industrial solidarity action. Needless to say no industrial solidarity was forthcoming. Its likely there were other such pushes for industrial solidarity which the union hierarchy was able to head off.

Anarcho-syndicalists were instrumental in establishing “passenger support groups”. However they were unable to provide sufficient strike funds to the locked out trammies. They also played an important role in the trammies “wildcat pickets” to break out of the isolation. In particular participation in the picketing of the Jolimont Rail Yard which stopped one third of Melbourne rail services one morning and the blockades by picket lines of bus depots. These actions occurred much too late and were not able to break the isolation and spread the struggle into other sectors. Melbourne Suburb railway guards where anarcho-syndicalists had influence via the Victorian Sparks also came very close to voting for industrial solidarity action. The outcome of the dispute was that the conductors were gradually removed from the tramways via natural attrition. The removal of the conductors was an important prelude to the privatisation of the Melbourne tramways and part of the Victorian railways i.e. Metro Trains. (4)

Anarcho-Syndicalist Activity in the NSW Railways

In NSW anarcho-syndicalists have been much more successful in fighting privatisation pushes particularly in the railways. In Dec. 1997 there was major industrial action involving station assistants at Central and Signals affecting hundreds of thousands over workers being framed up for the sack. This action was totally covered up by the corporate media to head off any wildcat action by workers around the time of the Sydney Olympics in 2000. It must be seen in the context of raised morale of workers associated with the NSW Sparks activity. NSW Sparks was able to piece the media blackout on this action and so facilitated industrial action in Eastern Suburbs bus depots in March 1998.

In Sept. 1999 anarcho-syndicalists assisted militants to defeat a push to “Restructure the City Rail Station Network”. In reality setting it up for franchises as part of privatisation. There was no mention in the corporate, fringe or Trot media of this hidden agenda. To out manoeuvre militants which had motions passed at a mass meeting at Sydney Trades Hall to fight the privatisation, the now RTBU NSW State Secretary called an NSW wide lightning rail strike next day. This action was also interwoven with a range of other hidden agendas and the “smoke and mirrors” technique. The sophistication of this manipulation points to likely CIA training of this union official. In fact he had attended the notorious CIA recruiting venue, the Harvard School for Trade Union Officials. He had been parachuted into the position by Unions NSW.
This official held a mass meeting on the day of the strike at Parramatta. An area where the right wing ALP unions still had influence and support, but created serious difficulties for militants in organising their supporters attendance due to the transport chaos. The union officials regained control of the campaign, and narrowly defeated a motion by militants to disaffiliate the union from the ALP. For the strike day only station assistants weren't paid as a clever ploy by the officials to demoralise. At Central when train drivers heard there would be a NSW wide lightning strike next day, their morale sky rocketed, but when they learnt they were to be paid for the day, their morale slumped. Another devious ploy to demoralise workers, managers at rail depots acted as “pickets” discouraging bosses stooges and right wing types among train crews from operating their trains. The lightning strike and associated chaos affecting commuters was aimed by the officials to alienate them from the support of commuters and head off public transport workers wild cat action around the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The strike also formed the peak of public sector strike wave also including nurses at RPA Hospital and Sydney Council garbage workers which was used to put pressure on an ALP conference on the weekend to secure union official representation in the NSW ALP Carr Govt. The outcome was the defeat of the structuring for setting up franchises as part of privatisation. However, train cleaning was outsourced but later, this outsourcing of cleaning was reversed.
The defeat of the privatisation push and train drivers' defeat of the closure of a small section in the railways of concern to them for OH&S reasons and exposed in the NSW Sparks in Dec. 2003. were back drops to Drivers for Affirmative Action (DAA) of March 2004. It involved involved 600 train drivers who engaged in a “work to rule” campaign over a list of concerns in the context of a driver shortage. The driver who initiated the movement with a poster was involved in the NSW Sparks network. DAA needs to be seen as the early stages of a strike/direct action wave movement. With similarities to such movements in France during late 1986/early 1987 and Dec. 1995. These French examples were on a much bigger scales spreading throughout the French public sector, but also originating amongst train drivers. (In 1947 there was also a major strike wave spreading across industry. Its epicentre was a strike at Renault Billancourt Paris employing 30,000 workers and possibly the largest factory complex in France, in which a Trot group played an important role. This strike wave led to a series of major splits from the French Communist Party controlled CGT(General Confederation of Labour), a small anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT-F (National Confederation of Labour-France) ballooned to an estimated 100,000 members. However the prospects for a revival of mass anarcho-syndicalist unionism was derailed with a CIA engineered major rightward split from the CGT to form the FO (Force Ouvriere). (4)
In the 1986/87 case, like with DAA, one train driver initiated it but with a petition, with the back drop of major student protests. DAA never led to a strike/direct action wave spreading throughout the public sector. It only lasted 4 days, before the drivers were bought off with $500 bonuses. Unfortunately a log of claims produced by NSW Sparks for the movement came out one day too late and 600 train guards representing two depots influenced by a Sparks log of claims flyer and were also about to take direct action backed off with the drivers return to work and the union officials machine heading off the guards action.
Interestingly a Bureau of Statistics graph for days lost due to strikes shows a very low level for 2004 in comparison to other years. As the action was a “work to rule” DAA didn't rate a mention and has been air brushed out of history by the union bosses and corporate media.
In Sept. 2014 anarcho-syndicalists assisted militants with the production and distribution of a flyer critiquing a Rail EBA document. The flyer caused the flames of revolt to spread in the railways. For years NSW RTBU Secretary Claassens had stated to union reps under pressure from the grass roots over Liberal Govt. cutbacks, that he would never hold a union mass meeting ever again. He was so frightened of the impact of the flyer, that within hours of the flyers distro, he held an immediate mass meeting for train crews at Central. Unfortunately he was able to hose down the push for direct action, that could spark a strike wave movement.
Since the defeat of the privatisation push in 1999, the RTBU officials and rail management and the Govt. have resorted to renewed rail privatisation pushes. Involving the introduction of new trains such the Waratahs and NIF (New Intercity Fleet) under DOO(Driver Only Operation) which anarcho-syndicalists and NSW Sparks has assistant militants to defeat. Like in the case of the Melbourne Tram Lockout which resulted in the removal of conductors to cut costs for private operators and subsequent privatisation, the same is the case with the removal of guards on trains. However only in one case has this agitation against DOO privation led to direct action by train drivers affecting some thousands on 27/11/20. (6)

Anarcho-Syndicalist activity in the Public Service in the 1990's

An important back drop to the alleged ballot rigging by the AEC and anarcho-syndicalists important role in defeating major cutbacks in the first and second EBA's in DSS (Department of Social Security)/Centrelink and partial defeat of key restructuring of Centrelink operations with the third EBA in the 1990's, was the DSS Staffing dispute and an associated 6 week strike in 1988. An important reason for this longest public service strike in Australian history, was the uncovering by the Trevor Deeming NSW State Secretary of the ACOA now CPSU faction of rigging of ACOA/DSS office ballots for industrial action by the ALP Left Faction associated with Wendy Caird. The role of this lengthy industrial action which achieved a major reduction in staff cuts, provides an important reason why the ALP networks involvement in the AEC's alleged role in ballot rigging to ensure ALP control of the unions and foil any serious future major industrial action. The focus of this strike being DSS high lights the militant traditions of this sector which was also the largest Commonwealth Government Department, and its important role in the enterprise bargaining strategy of the Government, management and the union hierarchy. Once big cutbacks associated with EBA's were pushed through in DSS, it would flow on to other Government Departments and even parts of the private sector. Prior to the onset of enterprise bargaining, there had been a tradition of regular mass stop work and lunch time mass meetings over industrial issues and campaigns in the DSS section of the ACOA/PSU/CPSU. Prior to enterprise bargaining, the union officials short circuited this tradition, through the sabotage the 2nd and last mass meetings ever held in DSS. In the case of the former, the officials arranged a so called “solidarity” march by CFMEU building workers through this mass meeting at the Lower Sydney Town Hall which cut off debate. In the latter, the union officials used the ludicrous ploy of having members singing “Happy Birthday” for one of the union officials to cut off debate!

In the first two EBA's in DSS then Centrelink, the now CPSU officials presented no log of claims and so seemed to the grass roots to be willing to agree to major cutbacks and changes which management was demanding. In the case of the first EBA, a motion was passed by ACOA/CPSU members at Petersham DSS exposing the big attacks such as abolishing penalty rates on over time and opening DSS offices on Thursday nights and Saturdays and proposing a new union be launched if the union officials caved in on the changes. This motion was nationally distributed leading to the union officials backing off helping management impose the changes. When the EBA was finalised there were no cutbacks to conditions. In the case of the second EBA some years later, again the union officials looked to be hell bent on helping management impose similar changes. A motion was passed by ACOA/CPSU members at Leichhardt Centrelink similar to the above previous motion lines. Resulting in the union officials sending an email to members three days later, indicating they had backed off on helping impose the changes. When the EBA was finalised, the only significant condition lost was the Wednesday afternoon closure of Centrelink offices. This initiative had originally started at Petersham DSS/now Leichhardt Centrelink back in 1988 and spread nationally. In the case of the 3rd EBA, due to management tightening up computer/communications use the EBA went through with a new nasty in a seemingly benign clause. This clause allowed so called “micro changes” which in reality were quite macro in their impact. Soon after the EBA was so called approved, management proceeded to centralise certain sections and transfer them to distant locations with the setting up of processing centres. Important objectives of the change would be to shake off many workers who couldn't cope with the extended travelling to work times, impose a new speed up in work in regional offices and outsourcing of sections as part of a privatisation strategy. Anarcho-syndicalists were involved in a campaign which was partially successful in defeating the restructuring. Highlights were a rally outside Redfern Centrelink office which resulted in a riot involving aboriginal youth attacking the office windows with bricks and the breaching of the media blackout on the restructuring of Centrelink operations. (7)
In conclusion, anarcho-syndicalists have been successful since the 1990's in assisting militants particularly in NSW in defeating important spearheads of the employer offensive and the Neo Liberal push. Slowing the tempo of the employer offensive in NSW and nationally. While also helping facilitate the early stages of potential strike/direct action wave movements across industry which can result in major syndicalist oriented splits from the corporate unions. In this way inspiring similar movements internationally and the birth of “genuine” mass anarcho-syndicalist union movement in other countries and the rebirth of the International Workers Association consisting of genuine mass syndicalsit union movements rather than congeries of weird sects, cults and micro versions of the corporate unions with “red and black colour schemes” as exists in many cases today. Providing the basis for coordinated international workers direct action to tackle the challenge of the global employer offensive, corporate media predominance, the environmental crisis and the war drive.
1. See, RW Vol.36 No.2(231) Aug.-Sept. 2018 “RTBU Elections 2018 Were they rigged?” on
2.See, SMH 16/9/21 “Red Flags Maritime Super defends spending on union events.”
3. See, “Spotlight on Rorts in the Union Office” p.4 RW Vol.36 No.2 (231) Aug.- Sept. 2018 on
4. “Anarcho-Syndicalism in Practice: The Melbourne Tramway Dispute & Lockout January-February 1990” Edited by Mark McGuire on
5. See, “France Winter 1986-87: The Railways Strike” by Henri Simon on and The Essay on the French 1947 Strike Wave in New Perspectives on Anarchism. Labour and Syndicalism Edited by David Berry and Constance Bantman.
6. See back issues of Sparks from 1999 to 2023 on
7. Recollections of a Centrelink CPSU delegate and DSS grass roots activist.