Sunday, February 21, 2010

ALP and the Unions – Where to from here?

above: the author, Dean Mighell

What follows is a controversial discussion concerning the future of the relationship between unions and the Australian Labor Party.  Respectful discussion is welcome here from both sides of the debate - and I will be publishing my own reply here next week.  If anyone would like to submit a piece of their own on these issues, pls feel welcome to approach me with proposals...  

article by Dean Mighell; Electrical Trades Union Victoria Branch State Secretary

In 1972 Gough Whitlam changed Australian politics forever with the mantra "It's time". Today the same slogan should apply to Australia's unions because it is time for them to break away from the Australian Labor Party and stand independently for what they believe is right. There's a great unspoken truth in Australia's labor movement at the moment and if it is not addressed soon the future of this country's unions as the effective political voice of the workers is in serious jeopardy

Everyone will remember Tracey, the highly stressed working Mum who featured on the ACTU Your “Rights at Work” TV ads. Well Tracey, if you still work in a workplace with less that fifteen employees you can still be sacked unfairly and worse, Gillard has reduced your basic Award conditions under their “modernisation” program. Despite Rudds election promises many thousands of Australian workers now face a reduction in their working conditions.

A new relationship between the ALP and unions that is based on mutual respect is desperately needed. In Scandinavia unions and the Social Democrats have an alliance, not affiliation. In the United States, unions largely support the Democrats and their campaigning and finance is 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. Our system differs but the principle remains. The union/Labor relationship has its history in the British model and if that’s utopia for workers, I’ll give it a miss.

Today, both Labor and the Liberals now look to the polls rather than the party Conference for policy making despite the theatre. There can be no more glowing example than that of industrial relations policy. Labor has effectively adopted most of the Howard governments IR policy and rebadged it and refers to it as “Fair Work” but in reality, big business and their representatives have had unprecedented access to Labor and are delighted with the results. Even Howard’s Building Industry Taskforce has been retained to the delight of multi-millionaire builders and developers.

I well remember when John Howard ushered in the 1996 Workplace Relations Act. Peter Reith was Industrial Relations Minister and the ACTU denounced the legislation as the ultimate, anti-worker evil. Union anger was at boiling point and Reith was demonised at every turn. Now there is a deafening silence from the ACTU as Labor governs and workers rights and conditions are attacked.

The truth is that Howard’s laws at the time - as bad as they were - gave workers and their unions a much better go than Rudd and Gillard’s Fair Work Act. When Howard controlled the Senate he then took it too far and paid the ultimate political price

In the lead up to the last Federal election workers rights were the main game and the unions went on a full frontal assault with the “Your Rights at Work Campaign” led by the then ACTU Secretary Greg Combet.

Interestingly, the ACTU sacked the public relations firm that crafted this campaign after Labor won office choosing an ALP friendly and un-unionised organisation in its place. Clearly, campaigning like the YRAW campaign is off the agenda at the ACTU and it’s now about ‘”branding” and spin. Combet is in federal parliament and the ALP ensured the decent yet ultra conservative Jeff Lawrence would replace him at the ACTU.

During the recent Senate enquiry into the Fair Work Bill, the ACTU refused to buy into the debate that the Bill contained many breaches of human rights as defined by Australia’s international obligations under International Labour Organisation conventions. If the ACTU is so severely compromised by the ALP relationship that it can’t stand up and fight for basic workers rights then something is seriously wrong.

Only after my union laid a complaint to the ILO and the Victorian Trades Hall Council agitated at the ACTU Executive level, did the ACTU decide to examine the Act against ILO standards and then only after the Fair Work Bill had become legislation. Damage done, deal done. Belatedly, they have identified 15 serious breaches of human rights. The ACTU’s statement that “on balance”, the Fair Work Act met Australia’s ILO obligations looks a little sad. Australian workers have every right to feel let down.

Union membership numbers for many unions has declined and so too has the influence of the ACTU. In recent decades the ACTU has absolutely refused to adopt a policy that is at odds with the ALP and this strategy simply hasn’t delivered. A better strategy is required.

The challenge for unions is simple, create unions that workers want to join. The financial membership of the Victorian Branch of the Electrical Trades Union has grown every year since 1995 despite the massive job losses through electricity privatisation, manufacturing decline and bad IR laws. Unions like the Nurses Federation and Police Association have had large growth too. Neither are affiliated to the ALP in Victoria. We have close to two thousand apprentices as members under the age of 25. So much for young workers not wanting to join unions. Our members like us to be outspoken on political issues that effect them but have little respect for party politics.

Many workers are skeptical that ALP affiliation is too often a mechanism to ensure pre-selection to a safe Labor seat for a few union leaders and they rightly ask, ‘to what end?’ I’ve seen too many union leaders that think the ALP is the “main game” and spend most of their time wheeling and dealing in the ugly factional process. Make no mistake - I’ve done my bit too. However, I’ve always known that a union’s mission is looking after workers and growing our unions and not pre-selection.

Unions must get politically smarter and more strategic. Collectively, we represent close to two million Australian’s directly as members. We act to protect millions more. We proved with the “Your Rights at Work” campaign that we can be Australia’s most powerful lobby group. 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.

I’m not anti Labor - far from it. It is my hope that unions and the ALP always have a good working relationship in the continued interests of Australia and working people. However - relationships change, evolve, collapse and rearrange. It’s part of life and so too must the relationship change between Labor and Unions for the betterment of both.

When Steve Bracks was elected Victorian Premier in 1999 a procession of senior union officials got few moments alone with the new Premier to “kiss the ring” so to speak. I like Steve Bracks and he’s a decent bloke but I ain’t no ring kisser. I congratulated Steve and said, “All the best mate. I know you’ll never put the interests of the ETU ahead of your Government and I’ll never put the interests of your Government ahead of those of my members. However, I look forward to working with you”. It was a frank conversation said without offence and sums up the way I think the relationship between unions and the ALP should be.

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  1. Dear readers:

    Pls note the point I make at the top of this post - "Respectful discussion is welcome from both sides of the debate".

    I've never followed internal ALP divisions involving Dean Mighell very closely. Therefore I'm not making judgments there.

    For a long time now I've been more interested in broader arguments about policy, re-energising the party for grassroots members, and providing forums to empower these same people. (ie: the grassroots)

    That said: Mighell makes some points that seem worthy of discussion.

    I understand things go down in politics which leaves people embittered against each other. But the discussion I'm trying to promote here is a genuine one about what is best for the future of the broader labour movement.

    To that end I continue to encourage critical, respectful and honest debate.

    This means your comments and opinions are wanted: but in the context of respectful debate - ie: without personal abuse.

    And pls note - as I say at the top of this post - I'm willing to consider other contributions on these issues - given that such material is presented in good faith - and with the objective of pursuing what is best for the Left and the broader labour movement.



  2. The party machine HAS stopped listening to the concern of workers, feeling unions are a secure revenue source, and concentrates on wooing other revenue sources that want policies far different from the original principles of the ALP.

    Well-place redirection of funding to non-ALP candidates will have the greatest effect on the ALP. The threat in some inner city sites that could well go to the Greens (or left-leaning independents) means that not only does the ALP lose the union dollars, but needs to spend extra dollars to fight the Green (or independent) candidate. In other words, the threat of redirection will play more unpon the faceless men in the backroom than the threat of merely unions not giving the money to the ALP.

    If used the term "faceless men" specifically, referring to Whitlam's cleanup of the ALP in the late 1960s. The ALP of today, especially with the likes of "Progressive Business" set up by Joh Brumby in Victoria to pander to big business, desperately needs cleaning up, particular as preselection rorting makes almost any safe seat a "rotten borough" - the few faceless men being in effect the only electors.

  3. (moderator: this post has been edited and reposted to remain within the guidelines for this forum.)

    This [man has] been at odds] with labor since he committed political treason within his own FEA.

    He is mad that he has no power other than a [place] on ultra right wing radio 3AW.

    He has no loyalty to the labour movement and only cares about his own power, his own pocket and hearing his name in the media.

    So how about we stop talking about him and get onto more important things.

  4. Dear readers:

    re: the post above attacking Dean Mighell.

    I do not support the post - but I have tried to walk a fine line - balancing free speech with my intention not to allow abuse - and especially defamatory material - in the forum. To this end I've retained the susbtance - but have removed instances of what I felt to be personal abuse.

    For future posters who'd like to comment in those issues - pls do no go as far as personal abuse; and definately do not go so far as to be legally defamatory. Thanks.


    Tristan Ewins (Moderator)

  5. In essence, Dean is criticising the corrupt and incestuous relationship between unions and the ALP via the ACTU. He is quite right; to do so is entirely proper.

    Any claim that “We can’t go over, under or around but must go through the Labor Party on the road to the Australian revolution” has long been laughably absurd. Rudd, for instance, has declared that he wasn’t, isn’t, and wouldn’t become a socialist.

    It may be recalled that in 2008 during the electricity privatisation issue, it was suggested that “NSW Premier Morris Iemma may face suspension from the Labor Party after being formally charged with disloyal conduct.” Those opposing the flog-off could only have gained from a firm stand from the beginning that they, on behalf of what the ALP should be, would if necessary require the departure of Messrs Iemma and Costa. It came to that anyway - as it obviously would - but not having made such a call at the time, it was much harder to press later with any sincerity.

    As the edited (anonymous) contribution showed, Hard Labor / Decadent Union survives partly because it has a strong network of collaborators who are certainly aware of and very willingly support any opportunity to advance that clique’s determination to suppress dissent.

    One difficulty is that many people – not just ALP members – are strangers to principle, and worse, are have a community of interest with other unprincipled people in silencing principled critics. Note the ruthlessness and selective and self-serving messages of the anti-global-warming apparatchiki.

    A look at Australian politics produces plenty to challenge any progressive.

    While very good in many respects, the Greens seem at heart to be a petty-bourgeois grouping that will ultimately oppose action that challenges any moderately significant aspect of the existing social order.

    Possibly the divisions caused within the Democrats by the pro-GST vote of Senators Lees and Murray were the main factor in its collapse. The party voted Lees out as leader, so Murray and his supporters revenged themselves through a vindictive campaign against the next elected leader, Senator Stott-Despoja. Most of the Democrats politicians seemed to have spouses and friends in charge of their electorate offices, maximising that strata’s control over information and resources.

    On the formally Left left, we have the Socialist Alliance (the degenerated DSP), and a few fringe groups.

    Locally, the degenerated DSP has used some deeply anti-democratic measures to attain exactly what would justify exclusion from the Fifth International that some rather desperately seek – disowning revolutionary Marxism and any form of practical socialist action in favour of the frequent but obviously self-promotional and ineffectual “calls” for international action and solidarity on various topics. It always expelled members of tendencies, expelled a substantial portion of its membership, abandoned its ideology, successfully received rigid obedience from the remainder at every meeting/function, then took over Socialist Alliance.

    Influencing the media and public opinion on many progressive issues needs independent genuinely leftist organisations.

    Lack of resources may limit the number of fields of activity of leftist groups, but it does not limit coordination, planning, and good organisation. While unnecessary discipline should be avoided, leaders and the people in leftist organisations do need to strive to do as well as we can. Activism is difficult and challenging, cowardice and passivity is easy. Progressive people are supposed to want their medals from their own side, not their enemy.

    Indeed, history provides a strong argument that progressive unions and related groups should focus more on a culture that supports and mutually reinforces progressive positions. Without the former, we would seem unlikely to have the latter.

    Dean certainly has my support.

  6. Roger, kindly leave aside your highly inaccurate, gross mischaracterisation (some would say slur, others defamation) of the Socialist Alliance (something which you seem bizarrely keen to pollute discussions on a thousand forums with), and focus on the issue at hand.

    The link I've posted below is to an interesting contribution to the discussion from Tim Gooden - Geelong and Regional Trades Hall Secretary and a member of the Socialist Alliance:

  7. I would regard "red" "wombat's" comments as being highly defamatory. "red" "wombat" is obviously ignorant of the fact that one generally cannot defame an organisation.

    I referred above to the "Hard Labor / Decadent Union [having] a strong network of collaborators who are certainly aware of and very willingly support any opportunity to advance that clique’s determination to suppress dissent." and to the "the ruthlessness and selective and self-serving messages of the anti-global-warming apparatchiki." This sort of abuse from an anonymous member or supporter of an organisation though of much lesser significance is nevertheless of exactly the same type.

    Obviously a Democrat could take equally strong issue with my views on the Democrats, while a strong Green could be equally offended on their own party's behalf.

    Perhaps Tim Gooden could post on his own behalf if he feels that he has a relevant contribution to this issue?

    Surely this sort of personal, abusive, attack vindicates my argument that progressive unions and related groups should focus more on a culture that supports and mutually reinforces progressive positions!

    Any serious effort to support activist independents like Dean will certainly receive plenty of such attacks. Welcome to politics.

    To return to the prime subject of this article, which in my opinion deserves some attention, Dean Mighell was deeply unpopular with Rudd. Indeed, Rudd had him expelled him from the ALP. It was no wonder that the ETU offered the Greens up to $50,000 to help the party at the 2007 federal election (though I’m not clear whether the Greens in fact accepted and received it).

  8. "Rrogr", enough with the straw men, already. The question of union disaffiliation is a political matter, and one that posits the question: "what - if any - alternative political vehicle?". It's not a free ticket to red-bait and abuse people disagree with you.

    Clearly you have your problems with and criticisms of the Socialist Alliance. Fair play to you. I was simply suggesting that you keep these within the limits of reality, instead of making up spurious arguments and slurs. There is a difference between having a "view" on one or another political outfit, and launching a tirade of unsupported accusations. Especially when that tirade is off-topic.

    More on topic, why should Gooden feel compelled to post here just because you demand he turn up in person? He has made his view public in the article I linked to above. I'll post it here again so you can read it this time, instead of simply yelling at it:

    Given Gooden's role in Geelong and surrounds, his opinion is worth at least the time to consider it.

    As for the $50,000, the Greens did in fact accept the donation (as far as I'm aware, and there was a similar donation at I think the last Vic state elections), and the Socialist Alliance accepted the donations from a number of unions in 2007 as well. However, the total donations from the SA/ Greens is still pitiful compared to the financial umbilical cord from the unions to the ALP. (Although clearly the ALP doesn't need to rely on that cash - it gets large amounts of money from other sources).

    And I think Gooden's criticism of Mighell is on the money, so to speak - a mere "union lobby group" is not enough.

    The real questions that all of this actually leads to are:

    1) sufficient independence of working class organisations (ie unions) to act in defence and furtherance of workers' rights ( - that is, being able and willing to stand up to *any* government, Labor or otherwise), and

    2) working class political representation. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the call for disaffilitation is the argument that the ALP no longer constitutes a genuine vehicle for workers' to exercise power through the legislature.

    This then raises the question of alternatives, of which the only existing one of any clout is the Greens. However, many unions, unionists and workers draw the line at the Greens (and I note that Dean hasn't re-joined either, despite being expelled form the ALP), and there are plenty of Greens members who are ambivalent or even slightly hostile to the unions (and there are those, of course, who are incredibly friendly towards them too).

    The other alternative at the moment - lacking a new or genuine "Labour Party", which I for one feel is needed - is for unions to stand their own candidates. This has it's own problems, of course, but it is worth considering.


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