By Tristan Ewins
Left-wing State Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (Victorian branch), Dean Mighell, dropped something of a political bombshell recently, arguing in an essay that appeared in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald for unions to disaffiliate from the Australian Labor Party.
This stand has developed against a backdrop where Mighell had been condemned as a maverick by powerful figures within the Australian Labor Party: a figure whose militancy threatened to “spook” swinging voters. The cynical might suppose the expulsion of Mighell from the ALP in 2007 was really about setting to rest the “bogey” of militant unionism. Unfortunately, few in the ALP leadership seem to recognise that the real problem is that union militancy is considered a “bogey” at all: this in a context where the rights of labour have been severely curtailed in violation of International Labor Organisation (ILO) conventions to which Australia is a signatory. Mighell himself has referred to provisions against pattern bargaining - among other areas.
Dean Mighell’s call for a more independent Australian labour movement will have upset many powerbrokers within the Australian Labor Party. And there will be ordinary members who also feel Rudd Labor’s spirit of compromise - including accommodation of corporate interests when it comes to Industrial Relations - is the only way to achieve anything.
Even though the ACTU represents almost two million workers, the power of capital is hardwired into the political and economic systems. It is the “elephant in the room” that no one dares acknowledge openly: both because of the dominance of capitalist ideology, and for fear of antagonising corporate interests, including monopoly media, who have the power to make or break any government. Although liberal democratic ideology permeates Australian society, democratic practice is fatally compromised by this state of affairs.
But workers have power as well, as the ACTU showed in the run-up to the 2007 Federal election in Australia, when its campaign against the conservative Howard government’s repressive WorkChoices industrial relations legislation helped bring that government down.
Given the importance of the ACTU campaign in bringing about the demise of the Howard government, one would have thought unions would enjoy more influence under Rudd Labor than has turned out to be the case. Instead there has been one disappointment after another.
Most glaringly, before its election, Rudd Labor committed itself to an “Award modernisation” process through which (supposedly) no worker would be worse off. For those who are not familiar with “Awards”, they comprise minimum standards for wages and conditions under Australian industrial relations law. In the process of “simplifying” the Award system it is now clear that many workers may be worse off, in both their wages and in their working conditions.
For example, in September 2009, Melbourne newspaper The Age revealed that some airline industry employees would “lose between $70 and $300 a week from their base pay”.
And in January 2010 the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) warned that, “thousands of aged-care nurses working in age care homes in Queensland and NSW will be forced out of the industry due to a wage decision that could see them $300 a week worse off.” Importantly here, undermining the position of skilled aged care nurses in the sector could also lead to a reduction in quality of care for vulnerable and elderly residents of aged care facilities.
Many varied and complex Awards may be more difficult to administer. But it can be reasonably argued that this is an acceptable price to pay for fairness. And arguments about complexity can comprise a “fig leaf of legitimacy” behind which lurks an agenda of undermining the rights of workers.
Which brings us to Mighell’s call for unions to disaffiliate from Labor.
Mighell is right to call for strategic thinking from unions when it comes to relations with the ALP. Too often ALP strategists and power-brokers take union and grassroots support for granted. The conference process is often abused, stage-managed and manipulated in a fashion which silences grassroots voices, leaving many disillusioned, and threatening to demobilise Labor’s organisational and support base over the long term.
What should unions do?
The worth of direct organisational affiliation of unions to the ALP in Australia has been called into question because, with the abuse of the Conference process, old channels of policy influence for unions are effectively annulled.
For many it seems that all that is left is a “carving up of the spoils” of safe Labor seats and other related career paths. Some figures genuinely try to work within these channels for what is right, but often the interests of ordinary workers and union members seem to be forgotten in this process.
Mighell posits, as an alternative to the labourist tradition in Australia which involves direct organisational affiliation of unions with the ALP, the example of unions in the United States. He notes the attempts by organised labour in the US to influence the position of both Democratic and Republican candidates: backing those who are ultimately more sympathetic to their interests. The conditions prevalent in the US are, however, are radically at variance with Australian conditions.
With the exception of minor centrist and left-of-centre parties such as the Australian Democrats and the Australian Greens, the prevalent Australian political conditions have been those of a two-party system. For much of the modern history of Australia, thus, the political milieu has taken the form of polarisation between conservative parties, and the Australian Labor Party as the “political wing” of the Australian labour movement.
In recent decades this polarisation has further exacerbated deeply ingrained prejudices in Australia’s Conservative parties against organised labour.
While sometimes paying lip-service to the idea that organised labour in Australia rightly deserves some minimal regime of rights, the real outlook from the hard-right leadership of Australia’s Conservative parties today is one of pursuing the destruction of the organisational and social base of their main political rival. This takes the form not only of attempts to defeat the ALP and the broader Left electorally, but to forever “break the back” of organised labour and create a “free for all” when it comes to the wages and conditions of Australian workers - a move which could create a “downward spiral” in this regard.
That said, can this state of affairs be altered?
The Liberal Party in Australia was not always so dominated by factions of the “hard right” as is the case today. Figures such as Ian MacPhee, who were purged from the parliamentary party in the period from the 1980s to 1990, represented a kind of progressive social liberalism for which there was a real and legitimate role for unions, as well as a preference for a mixed economy. Added to this was some genuine support for the principles of social justice, and the rights of refugees. Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has also since emerged as a consistent and powerful critic of the dominant hard right of the party he once led.
But if this state of affairs is to be challenged, it will be a long, hard struggle. The challenge is not merely one of organisational and cultural reform inside the Liberal Party. There is a struggle at the level of popular and academic culture: a struggle for the “common sense” of Australian politics. This is the struggle to define those “invisible boundaries” of the contested “relative centre”: those boundaries which most political players are compelled to observe in mainstream debate for fear of electoral backlash.
Against this backdrop, Australia needs decent and progressively minded activists not only within the Labor Party, the Australian Greens and various progressive movements, but also fighting for the soul of the Liberal Party - for that strain of social liberalism which that party’s hard right has sought so ruthlessly to marginalise, uproot and destroy.
That said, organised labour in Australia needs to take note of these conditions, and what this implies for the interests of their members, and for the social democratic and democratic socialist values which they espouse.
Influencing Labor Party policy should remain an important focus of organised labour in Australia. But unless unions are willing to “play hard ball”, Labor power brokers will continue to take their support for granted, resulting in a further decline in union influence.
Unions must remain independent of parliamentary Labor as much as is necessary to retain a genuine, strong and independent voice and power, beyond that accommodated by purely electoral politics, and the opportunism this involves. By providing a genuinely independent voice in this context, unions could contribute to a shift of the relative centre in favour of social justice and the rights of labour.
By the same token - if unions merely echo the positions of parliamentary Labor this will create a political “vicious circle” by which right-wing “opinion makers” in the mainstream media, and consistently opportunistic power-brokers set the terms of debate: ultimately shifting the “relative centre” deeper into the confines of an economically neo-liberal, and socially illiberal ideology.
That is not to deny that politicians need to compromise in the pursuit of electoral success. It is to insist that this can only be justified as a means to a greater and more principled end.
Looking beyond purely electoral politics, there is also the prospect of organised labour again realising its true and independent social power. A labour movement which systematically educates, involves and mobilises its members; and which applies its power and militancy effectively in strategic sectors; is more likely to achieve leverage, and secure a more favourable compromise at the policy table.
Over the long term, hopefully, such conditions would progressively “feed into” the prospects of a rejuvenated and emboldened Australian social democracy.
By contrast, a purely defensive labour movement, afraid to take a stand and staging a constant “rear guard action”, may continue to decline in the face of an aggressive employer lobby. This has already been the case over recent decades - with employer demands for ever greater “flexibility” in wages and conditions, and brutal sanctions meant to destroy the legal rights of workers to withdraw their labour.
In this context: there are some individual unions which have already “broken away” from Labor Party affiliation. But a more co-ordinated response could perhaps yield better results.
There has been talk, recently, of financial worries for the ALP’s organisational wing. This being the case, in the short-term, the ACTU could do well to realise the strategic worth of its affiliated member organisations. Unions must demand that Rudd Labor deliver on its promise that no worker would be worse off under a “modernised” Award system. And unions must also collectively and in unison demand legislation - or whatever other moves are necessary - to restore and improve the relative wages and conditions of the most low paid and vulnerable workers. These were frozen, and so declined in real terms, in the last decision of Howard-era Fair Pay Commission in 2009.
Finally, unions must secure an iron-clad commitment from Labor that obstacles to pattern bargaining will be removed should Labor win the next Federal election.
Federal Labor’s capitulation on the rights of labour has obviously gone too far. And it is reasonable that unions now seek redress. At the same time, the ACTU might, from a position of strength, wish to negotiate as a bloc for a limited but meaningful reduction in ALP affiliation fees. This could free the resources of organised labour in Australia to run its own independent campaigns: and also shift resources to those political forces in a position to make a less compromised defence of the rights and interests of workers. Specifically, this could involve strategic support for candidates from the Australian Greens, and other candidates who have real prospect of success - with an established record of support for working people.
Increased public funding for all significant political parties in Australia could, in this context, ensure that all players still retain the means to get their message across. The hope is that organised labour in Australia could make progress - instead of being taken for granted - if unions collectively stopped “putting all their eggs” in the ALP (Australian Labor Party) basket.
Perhaps the most telling of Mighell’s observations in his recent essay was his condemnation of the sentiment of so many union leaders that the ALP is the “main game”, with the broader labour movement relegated to a secondary role.
Having Labor in power matters, but it must be viewed in the context of a broader movement, and a genuine and realisable agenda for social change.
Mobilised, educated, and organised workers have real power. It is time labour movement leaders helped working people realise this power - rather than compromising everything to satiate the demands of an aggressive employer lobby, and for the sake of the parliamentary Labor Party’s short term standing in the polls.
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