Sunday, February 28, 2010

Unions and Labor: is Dean Mighell right?

above: A union protest against the draconian industrial laws of the former Australian Howard Conservative government.

nb: what follows is a response to a call from unionist Dean Mighell for unions to disaffiliate 'en masse' from the Australian Labor Party.  Also considered is the future of parties of the relative right in Australia, and the need to contest the 'common sense' of Australian politics...

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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  1. Dean is of course far from the first person to criticise the political incestuousness, corruption, and nepotism of Labor and its associated unions, though he is one of the latest.

    Unfortunately, many nominally progressive organisations, not just those nominally leftist, or unions, in fact look to ensuring a comfortable life for their senior management rather than carry out any serious advocacy for whatever cause they represent. They are happy to go through the motions, walk the walk, and talk the talk, as long as it doesn’t make any waves or rock any boats.

    As a whole, the social NGO sector is noted for useless meetings, useless conferences, with leftover time spent on typically useless submissions. For instance, despite the enormous stresses on tenants created by housing unaffordability, and the systematic dishonesty of the private housing sector, the WA Tenants Advisory Service has not issued a single paper or press release in three years, or undertaken any political activity that I am aware of.

    Such arteriosclerosis has become notable in the case of Hard Labor and its associated unions. Union and ACTU staff and secretaries who put all their members’ eggs into the ALP basket will be rewarded with a senior union position, then a safe Labor seat.

    Those unions, many Labor supporters as well as members, and those many nominally progressive organisations, will all attack any critic far more fiercely than they will attack any attack on working people or changes that damage the interest of ordinary people. Such criticism, after all, directly threatens to expose their self-service and their inaction.

    After all, a leader’s successful abuse of his position to expel a member for no better reason than conflict with the leader’s narrow standards is itself a mark of a deeply corrupt organisation.

    In that context, the ACTU is more properly seen as an active and informed collaborator in Labor’s long-standing disregard of the interests of labour.

    That collective opposition to criticism, and to progressive change, provides a powerful and very serious barrier to dealing with many pressing issues. It receives far too little attention.

    Prices and Incomes Accords MkI to MkVIII were all about two things: firstly, getting Labor re-elected by diverting worker’s future income to business, secondly, stopping strikes (or helping bosses break those which occurred). Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) were first introduced by Accord Mark VII (1991). They became central in Accord Mark VIII (1993). In fairness, they were forced on unions by Bill Hayden.

    In the 1980s centralised wage fixing under the Accord enabled a marked decline in both unemployment and inflation and laid the basis for the very low levels of inflation in the early 1990s. When nothing more could be squeezed from workers through that mechanism, EBAs became the focus, allowing the removal of centralised constraints (e.g. involving the marginalisation of awards).

    Stopping strikes appears to have been an aim at least in part because left-dominated unions used them for political purposes as well as economic ones. But while all things can be misused, strikes are a legitimate means of achieving industrial and social justice.

    It may be that EBAs allowed a much looser monetary policy, thereby facilitating higher rates of economic growth. It seems that relatively low interests rates in the 1990s were capitalized into higher house prices, which naturally means an apparent increase in national wealth. That has since meant exponentially increasing household debt.

  2. A couple of quickpoints

    While the problem to which Mighell points is real, there really is no way around it within the current structure. Ultimately, what anyone wants to do to acheive politcal power is to assemble a sufficiently coherent and disciplined constituency to make it there. Since no single consitutency is large enough on its own to do this every ruling group is a coalition of distinct and overlapping interests. Any coalition large enough to achieve office and stay there long enough to implement policy will necessarily be one in which the sine qua non members hate the alternatives to the coalition they are in more than the inevitable compromises that come with staying unified.

    One may argue that the ruling group in one's coalition is giving too much ground to those outside the coaltion -- this occurred in December last year over the ETS within the conservative coalition -- and now here with Mighell, but unless one's proposal can secure a new and adequately large coalition to effect a new policy, then one has little alternative but to attempt to correct the course of the coaltion one is in.

    The fact of the matter is that organised labour is not able to play off the two sides because the rival coalition knows that it would shatter if it gave the kind of accommodation to the labour movement that the ALP is unwilling to yield -- and nowhere near enough electoral compensation for them would follow because whatver leftists think of the ALP, hardly any of us will ever preference the coalition.

    So in practice the unions and their allies are hostage voters. We can withdraw our support and threaten to damage the ALP's fortunes, but electoral enfeeblement of the ALP tends to make them want voters to their right rather than their left, because going the other way opens up much larger non-captive constituencies in the "middle".

    The ALP knows that the left and the labour movement know this and so their threats to disaffiliate/withdraw support are moot. Of course, a move on the part of the labour movement to ally with the Greens would be a lot more worrying for the ALP, because conceivably, at least part of the labour movement could live better with them, but it is doubtful if this would change the basic dynamic. You'd get more "product differentiation" but again, a winning coalition is going to rely on the ALP getting enough rightwing voters to get the coalition of ALP-Greens over the line. We might feel better, but would the policy on labour issues be greatly better? Probably not, and for the same reasons. If the ALP-Greens looks like a rabble, then the rightwing and mainstream voters drift away.

    As I've said previously on this blog, I think the answer lies in new forms of representational politics -- inclusive governance. As long as we get two basically solid blocs we are going to have this problem. What we need is a far more nuanced and fluid form of governance in which there are no permanent targets for populist posturing and in which the focus is policy driven.

  3. A leftist political culture is one thing that we can build, once we are aware of what it should be – and also what it should not be.

    Contemporary trade unions are typically ideologically empty fragments the main role of which is to provide a base for political advancement for Hard Labor apparatchiki. As in Lenin’s time, but for more understandable reasons, working people do not consider themselves to be “working” in the class sense. It follows that a truly socialist party cannot realistically expect mainstream working class or “workers” party support here.

    No survey of the motley collections of leftist fragments amongst non-mainstream political groups looks any better.

    All clearly lack the “meaningful strategy of the left that has the potential to change radically the organisational and political face of anti-capitalist politics and struggle “referred to by Dale McKinley in “The crisis of the left in contemporary South Africa”. Such ideas as they have are usually irrelevant, useless, or obviously self-promotional. Better, it allows them to self-promote and self-aggrandise without the need to be in the least effective.

    Worse, there are groups like the Healyites or the Etomerites and suchlike hypocrites and class traitors that might seek to delude others that they’re “leftist”.

    Rather than the debates on which leftist group is biggest and which is least bad, individual leftists should combine an insistence on high standards with a willingness to move away from ineffective groups to those that do seem to know what they are doing. Once that becomes the practice, the groups and individuals that are non-performers and under-performers will soon become obvious. Obviously they will ferociously oppose such a culture.

    Many on the left seem to see a "Fifth International" (a misleading term, since it is not even intended to be the successor to the Fourth) as a sort of ideological and psychological saviour of organisations and causes that have lost their way. But such an event can't possibly do that. But, whether it became a tragedy, a comedy, or a farce, it would be a good laugh. Goodness knows we could do with some entertainment.

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

    Marxism has essentially been abandoned. That is, however, a formality, since the intellectual rigour of dialectic materialism has long gone.

    So, to put it briefly, the left has completely lost its way. That can really only be resolved by being honest that such has occurred, then by groups of like-minded people who recognise the importance of historical perspective, sound and sturdy philosophy, discipline, coordination, genuine commitment, and honest leadership together building organisations to work towards making the world a better place.

    So a big problem is internal – a culture that promotes self-promotion far above competence or achievement. That, we can do something about.

  4. Dear Tristan,

    First there was the home insulation scheme, which was a waste of money and caused 4 deaths and nearly 90 house fires.

    Now the 'education revolution' is shown to be replete with rorts also:

    Perhaps its time that you considered that government might be the problem, rather than the solution comrade.

  5. Yet more rorts, this time with trade unions having their snouts in the trough:

  6. AJFA is obviously keen to avoid principles and truth, except perhaps by unfortunate accident. The home insulation scheme was implemented by the profit-seeking sector, not by government. Garrett was repeatedly warned of the problems, but thought that he could use spin and denial to avoid doing his job.

    Before all these things were flogged-off. they were often done by government, and were better for it. Main Roads crews built better and cheaper roads than profit-seeking contractors. Breaking up the government-owned Western Power into five bits according to the current economic ideology increased costs and reduced reliability.

    AJFA’s enthusiasm for smear is matched only by AJFA’s desire to misrepresent the article to the readers of this column – it was the union-dominated workforce that received the higher site allowances. Unions didn’t and don’t get any commission. Not only was there an arguable case for the claim, but also the Victorian Building Industry Disputes Panel accepted them.

    Given the viciousness of the ABCC, and the dishonesty of too many profit-seeking insulation contractors, a Master Builder’s Association is not the most impressive advocate for justice, integrity, and workmanship.

  7. AJFA,

    The insulation scheme should have had more rigorous safeguards - including re: accreditation of those responsible for instalation. But this in itself does not refute the need for stimulus: and the idea to promote at once a boost to the economy, and progress for environmental sustainability at the same time. I dare say there are always some 'shonky operators' who escape through the cracks... I'd be interested in seeing what safeguards there were before the implementation of the insulation program.... That way we could more clearly discern what else Labor could realistically have done...

    re: Education infrastructure - It appears also that opportunists have 'slipped through the cracks' to exploit spending programs.. But I very much think this has been blown out of proportion... Perhaps a greater proportion of funding should have gone to schools who were more clearly in need... More rigour would have been good here... But the aim was to provide stimulus - and quickly!! Thus errors have been made... But to have a couple of errors here - alongside the boost to employment and confidence that accompanied this... I still belief the infrastructure expediture programs were effective and justified...


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