Militant unionism can hold off Abbott

“Fair Work Unleashes Mob Rule – And It’s Spreading!” Every day over the past year, some hyperventilating headline writer had the job of proving that the Labor government was controlled by militant unions. Especially in the Murdoch press, claims of “mob rule”, a “staggering” level of strikes and an “unchecked, militant culture” among unions in Australia have been commonplace.

We wish.

In fact, after six years of Labor government, rates of industrial action remain at historic lows – at just a few percent of the all time high, achieved in the wages push of 1974. The rate of unionisation has been steady at 18 percent of the workforce for the past three years.

So Murdoch’s paid propagandists can take a cold bath and calm down: unfortunately, there was no great union revival under Rudd and Gillard.

As Abbott trains his sights on our unions, it’s important to get past the headlines to see how unions have fared under Labor – which helps us assess our prospects under Abbott.

A balance sheet

While the headlines about “militant unions” running the ALP were loony, they did reflect something real about the relationship between the  former Labor government – especially under Gillard – and the unions. A lengthy list of union requests were  met over the past few years.

Gillard committed several billion dollars to fund a measure of equal pay in the community services sector, after a lively and long-running campaign by the Australian Services Union. The Australian Nurses Federation secured $1.2 billion to fund higher wages in aged care, after only a minimal, mainly online campaign. The Transport Workers Union applauded a new “safe rates” tribunal with the power to set pay rates for truck drivers – again, with little active campaigning required to get it across the line. Similarly, United Voice has won $300 million for childcare workers under the Big Steps campaign.

The Maritime Union of Australia, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Australian Workers Union welcomed varieties of industry plans, and some high profile millions to prop up (at least for a while) some key manufacturing plants such as Alcoa’s Point Henry refinery in Geelong. The construction unions have seen the vicious anti-union taskforce, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, folded into the Fair Work Commission, with its penalties reduced by two-thirds.

For the union movement as a whole, Labor’s Fair Work Act loosened the rules about what unions can bargain over. Importantly, unions can fight for legally binding enterprise agreement clauses that cover contracting out and casual employment, which was all but impossible under Howard’s WorkChoices laws.

The Howard-era rules about “greenfields” agreements, covering new or relocated workplaces, allowed the employer to dictate terms entirely, or to pick and choose which unions to make a deal with. After Labor’s reforms, unions are able to bargain with employers, and can pursue industrial action once a site opens if agreement isn’t reached.

At first glance this can look like an impressive checklist. It was certainly enough to convince union leaders that they were better off within the limits set by Labor, legally and politically, rather than battling issues out industrially with employers across a sector, or with governments.

However, there are severe limitations to this sort of deal making.

The extra funding for the community sector is not guaranteed to flow through to the workers, leading to a number of sharp battles with employers. A $1.2 billion boost to aged care workers’ wages sounds impressive, but when it is averaged over the 300,000 workers in the sector and over four years, it’s about $20 per week.

Crucially, the core of WorkChoices remains intact. Union rights to enter a workplace, talk with workers and enforce conditions are well short of what was commonplace in the 1980s. Effective strike action is banned in almost all situations, with severe penalties for unprotected industrial action. Employers can lock workers out, and force them into unfavourable arbitration, as Qantas showed in 2011.

But a big problem with the Rudd/Gillard-era changes is that reforms easily won can be equally easily stripped away. Because many of these changes have been won through parliamentary favours, mostly without sustained campaigns – let alone strikes – they are extremely vulnerable to attack. The ruling class has little fear of an industrial backlash from abolishing the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, because there was no industrial campaign to win this reform in the first place.

There have been occasional industry-wide stop-works in construction against the ABCC, but hardly the sort of campaign of mass disruption that could make the laws a dead letter and put the bosses in dread of another round of disruption if the ABCC is reintroduced.

The same is true for Labor’s Fair Work laws as a whole. There was a willingness among at least a section of workers to fight Howard’s WorkChoices with industrial action and civil disobedience, but that mood was channelled into a string of token one day strikes and then a purely electoral campaign. According to the script approved by Labor and our union leaders, WorkChoices was to be partially amended, by the proper authorities, after doing untold damage to workers and our organisations – not turned into a dead letter by mass working class action.

In contrast, the massive strike wave that freed jailed union leader Clarrie O’Shea in 1969 cracked open the industrial system in a way that mere changes to the law could never do. It wasn’t until later in the 1970s, after a major recession, that Australia’s rulers started seriously pushing back against the right to strike won in the O’Shea strike. And it wasn’t until the union-policed no strike policy embodied in Labor’s Accord, from 1983, that there was a sustained fall in the rate of industrial action.

So the closer we look at the balance sheet under Labor, the more striking it is not how much has been won, but how little – and how vulnerable those gains are to attack by the Liberals.

A boom for whom?

If an “unchecked culture of militancy” were really taking hold, the easiest place to find it should be in the resources sector. However, the remarkable feature of the current resources boom has been the lack of a wages explosion.

A short-lived resources boom in the early 1980s brought some serious disputes. Miners and construction workers in Queensland and the Pilbara won hefty wage rises, with many of these gains flowing through to other unions. Strikes in the metal industry, an 11 day national truck strike, and finally a 16 day national strike by Telecom workers smashed through the wage guidelines of the day, and workers made gains across the board.

This time around, the MUA in West Australia is one of very few unions able to boast about real gains. The high wages of miners and resource project construction workers are propped up by massive amounts of overtime, with workers doing 12-hour days, seven days a week, for weeks on end.

And if unionisation is patchy in mine construction, the actual mining remains a wasteland. Outside of coal, some 95 percent of the mining workforce is non-union. “Fly in fly out” arrangements help produce an overworked, exhausted and atomised workforce that no union, so far, has been able to make significant inroads into.

All of this has won high praise from the Reserve Bank, which noted in a recent report that in previous resources booms, “Australia’s centralised wage-setting system had the effect of spreading wage increases across the economy.” This time around, no other groups of workers have been able to leverage higher wages out of the boom.

Behind this remarkable fact, as the Reserve Bank notes, lies the destruction of the “award” system. A product of the great strikes of the 1890s, the system of “awards” – legally enforceable employment conditions that laid down everything from wage levels to your right to a union noticeboard – was a conservatising influence on Australia’s union movement.

Nevertheless, the award system could have a dynamic that the bosses grew to hate. Because wages and conditions across an industry were governed by the same award, there was a logic to strike campaigns that spread across an industry. For instance, in the pace-setting metal manufacturing industry, mass meetings of thousands would endorse a log of claims and hammer out an industrial campaign to achieve it. Aspects of the union claim would then be endorsed by the Arbitration Commission in order to keep the industrial peace. Many awards contained relativities – particular categories of work were meant to be paid more than others. So wage rises in one section of the workforce could be spread into other areas.

This entire architecture has now been destroyed, with awards now only a minimal set of conditions for the industrially weakest workers.

A handful of stronger unions, most notably in construction in Victoria, have managed to maintain a “pattern bargain” with good common terms and conditions across much of the industry. In many other industries, employers have been able to play divide and conquer. Because there are no common standards across an industry, for instance, companies such as Qantas can “outsource” work to another company, with workers doing exactly the same work but being paid dramatically less.

Hence the “race to the bottom” as employers cut wages and conditions to gain a competitive edge, in a way that was much more difficult when workers in an industry were covered by a comprehensive common award. Unions can be kept so busy fighting separate enterprise agreements that an industry-wide campaign seems out of the question.

No unions have come through this change unscathed, and even the strongest have not made up all the ground lost under Howard. In the MUA, wharfies’ jobs and conditions were negotiated away after the Patrick dispute in 1998. While the MUA in West Australia has made real gains from its aggressive organising during boom conditions, casual employment is still widespread at the national stevedoring companies. Australian-flagged coastal shipping was decimated under Howard, and the union-controlled roster for the employment of seafarers was dismantled, with no sign of its return.

In construction, the CFMEU has held on to much of its ground, especially in Victoria, and has made some hard-fought gains elsewhere, such as with the prolonged strike at the Queensland Children’s Hospital in Brisbane last year. But the fact that Grocon is building a string of the largest sites in Melbourne without union shop stewards or safety reps is a warning of where things could head. For years, many major sites in other states have been built without an active union presence, with predictable results for conditions and health and safety.

In warehousing, the National Union of Workers has made some steady gains on wages and casual conversion in warehouse enterprise agreements. The NUW has been prepared to mount some serious pickets, involving a level of solidarity from other unions and activists not achieved for some time. But there is plenty of work to do here – there are many WorkChoices era “greenfields” sheds that have still not got back to the pre-WorkChoices conditions. Manufacturing presents a similarly mixed picture.

State public sector workers have gone backwards, despite some impressive actions. Queensland unions copped massive cuts with only token protests. The entire structure of the public service is under serious attack in Queensland, WA and NSW without any serious fightback, and Victorian teachers have in effect given up permanency.

We could continue the list, but the point is clear enough. The fact that the union movement, with a very small number of exceptions, has failed to make significant gains in “boom” conditions, under a legal framework as good as we’re likely to get for years, is an indictment of current strategy. The strategy will have to change dramatically if we want to confront seriously the tough times ahead.

Prospects under Abbott

Despite our side’s obvious problems, it would be a serious mistake to think it has to be one way traffic under Abbott.

Politically, the Coalition remains somewhat haunted by the ghost of WorkChoices, as their defensive language and “small target” strategy around their industrial relations policy indicates. And the Financial Review has fretted that Abbott is already unpopular, even among people sick of Labor, which might limit his scope for rapid action.

We also have to remember that the class struggle is capable of sharp turns. The past three decades have been a period of union retreat. But they have also shown that there can be particular times when the ruling class goes too far and creates a backlash that carries the potential for a sharp break in the situation.

If someone had told me at the start of 1998 that, by Easter of that year, I would be helping workers build barricades in the streets of Melbourne, defying courts and cops in mass pickets of thousands, I would have told them they were dreaming – but we did all of that, with plenty pushing for more, in the mass pickets that defended the MUA in 1998. The Kennett protests of 1992 and the national mass rallies against WorkChoices in 2005 also presented a chance to break out of the pattern of retreat and defeat.

All these opportunities went begging – but this doesn’t reflect any fundamental lack of power in our unions.

Despite the decline, there is still a serious union presence in every key industry in the country. Most of the time, people can feel defensive and ground down. But if unions were to take concerted action during one of these sharp situations when the mood shifts, it could cause a massive crisis for the ruling class.

The fact that this hasn’t happened – in 1992, 1998, or 2005 – isn’t due to a bad set of laws, a shortage of members, or a lack of potential strength. It has been our side’s lack of preparedness to use that strength at key points that has been our downfall. That is, it has been the conservatism of the union leadership, and the lack of any significant organised left in the unions to challenge this, that remains our side’s key weakness.

Of course, there is no predicting the timing for any such crisis. But we know from history how fast things can shift. In the meantime, we’re certainly not for unionists sitting on our hands, moaning about the lack of a fight.

Four tasks for militants

First, to build workers’ collective strength where we are. There is simply no substitute for the often slow, slogging work of recruiting the next member, working to develop the confidence of the next activist or union delegate, and finding ways to have workers assert their collective organisation, strength and self-confidence.

For Socialist Alternative’s union members, looking for opportunities, large and small, to rebuild the collective strength of workers is our bread and butter. The old Communist Party’s slogan was “Make every member an activist.” Today, that is often a hard and patient task, carried out one member at a time. We have to have a big measure of bloody-minded perseverance, realising that every ounce of strength we build today will prove vital in the struggles of tomorrow.

Second, to show solidarity with all workers in struggle. History tells us that we all go forward together, or we all go back together. Every time workers set up a picket line, we have to find a way to support it – by motions, by delegations and ultimately by joint action.

Third, our activity has to be social as well as industrial. A crucial part of Howard’s strategy to push through attacks on working class people involved vicious scapegoating of Aboriginal people, refugees, Muslims and LGBTI people. A crucial part of our side’s strategy has to be countering these attacks. We have to remember that standing up for human rights is standing up for all of us.

Finally, we have to remember that the key to our side’s weakness is political. If we’re to do better than slow slogging work and the large scale, sometimes heroic, failures of the Howard years, we have to apply ourselves seriously to building a political alternative to Labor’s politics of deal making, compromise and retreat.

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