What will it take to revive our union movement?
What will it take to revive our union movement?

As we lurch towards a likely Abbott landslide, Jerome Small takes stock of the union movement

Despite the huffing of the conservative press, unions have made few gains under Gillard. Very little of the ground lost under Howard’s WorkChoices laws has been recovered. The biggest resources boom since the 1850s has come and (it seems) gone, but the unions have made almost no substantive gains. This is a bad sign for our side as we prepare for an Abbott government and an economic downturn.

It’s important to understand and debate the overall shift in union power that has occurred over the last few decades. Australia in the 1970s had one of the best organised and most militant union movements in the developed world. But today the majority of workplaces don’t have an active union presence, let alone a union that dictates terms to the boss.

The decline of our unions and the state our movement is in now have not been automatic. The union movement has been pushed in particular directions, by people guided by particular political ideas, over many years.

We make our own history. Not on a blank page, of course, and not in circumstances of our own choosing. But workers and our organisations had a big part in the making of this history – and that means we can remake it. If we want to change the course of history, though, we have to understand it. If we are serious about getting out of this mess, we have to know something about how we got into it.

Our debt to history

For a century, Australian unions benefited from the legacy of the colossal workers’ struggles of the early 1890s. In a series of bitter confrontations, unions in the crucial industries of shearing, metal mining (at Broken Hill) and the waterfront and maritime industries were taken on and broken by the employers. The union movement suffered catastrophic defeats, employers being aided by a deepening economic depression as well as the ruthless use of state power to jail unionists and clear pickets.

However, the level of struggle, the extensive solidarity between workers and the sharp class polarisation scared the daylights out of Australia’s ruling class. The result was something of a class compromise, sometimes referred to as the “Federation Settlement”. A major part of this was the establishment of a system of industrial arbitration, which was to last almost a century.

As workers quickly found out, the major role of the Arbitration Commission was to discipline, fine and even deregister unions that pushed “too far” in the pursuit of their members’ interests. The incentive to play by the rules was an elaborate system of “awards” – legally enforceable employment standards that dictated every aspect of wages, working conditions and union rights.

The award system was taken for granted by generations of workers, and underpinned wages and conditions that were relatively high by international standards.

On the other hand, the award system had a conservatising effect on unions, most officials being content to argue a case in the commission and accept the result, rather than take the risks involved in organising workers to fight outside the system. To sum up the dominant political outlook promoted by this system, you need just two words: class collaboration. According to this theory, the interests of workers are best served by a partnership between labour and capital. The capitalist system is taken as a given, and an important role for unions is to work to ensure the profitability of “our” section of capital.

A short survey of Australian history, however, shows that to make breakthroughs in wages and conditions, or even to retain them when capital’s profits are under pressure, has always required unions to go outside the limits of the system – risking fines, jail or deregistration. For workers to succeed in this on any sustained basis, we need two things: a high level of organisation among rank and file workers and an alternative political strategy that can challenge the dominant politics of class collaboration.

Communists in the unions

In Australian labour history there have been two such organised challenges. The first was the Industrial Workers of the World.

While the mainstream leadership of the labour movement preached arbitration, backed up by carefully limited measures of industrial action, the IWW promoted revolutionary syndicalism – the idea that workers, united in “one big union”, could not only win gains in our conditions by our own actions, but could actually overthrow the system. The IWW was the first revolutionary current to gain significant influence in the Australian working class. It was smashed by state repression during World War One, but its ideas remained influential.

During the 1930s, another political challenge to class collaboration took shape: the Communist Party of Australia.

The Great Depression arrived early in Australia. In 1928 a new, cut-price award was handed down for waterfront workers. When workers refused to work for the lower rates, they were locked out. A bitter and violent dispute followed, Alan Whittaker being fatally shot by police in Port Melbourne during one confrontation. The wharfies went down to bitter defeat.

In 1929, 10,000 coal miners were locked out in the coalfields around Newcastle, NSW. Union leaders advocated a passive strategy and relied on the Labor Party – but when Labor won the election at the end of the year, it did nothing, and the miners’ union was crushed.

These defeats, and the rise of mass unemployment, meant that many unions were simply overwhelmed by the Depression – industrially, financially and politically. Class collaboration was no guide in a situation in which the bosses were not collaborating and could simply rip up the rule book.

The CPA was essential to the union revival. Coming into the Depression era as a tiny group of a couple of hundred revolutionaries, the CPA was much too small to turn around the situation at first. But organising against evictions in working class suburbs gave their activists experience and won many new recruits who knew how to organise, fight and sometimes win.

When the economy revived a little, CPA activists steeled in these struggles entered the workforce and began to organise seriously. They were central to the Wonthaggi coal strike in 1934. With their militant approach and their dedication to rank and file organisation (their slogan was “make every member an activist”), they broke through and won an important victory. The CPA then played a leading role in the 1936 coal miners’ strike – arguably the most effective national strike in Australian history.

The CPA set up militant “minority” groups in some unions, which ranged from ginger groups to serious rank and file movements that could lead wildcat strikes. The CPA helped to win some important victories, and won influence or control in a string of key unions.

By the 1950s, however, the CPA was under siege from the developing Cold War atmosphere. CPA leadership was toppled in some unions. In others they held on, but as a besieged group. The party’s Stalinism was also an obstacle to developing rank and file participation. Tough anti-union “penal powers” laws imposed harsh penalties on strikes, curbing union militancy.

By the time of the wave of radicalism of the late 1960s, the CPA had split into three. But these communist parties between them still controlled branches of some of the most important unions – seafarers, wharfies, coal miners, meat workers, public transport, the construction industry – and had a significant presence in other key unions such as the metalworkers. And despite their serious political problems and bureaucracy, they were well enough connected to militant workers to play a role in the upsurge of that time.

The Clarrie O’Shea strike

In 1969 a week-long rolling general strike shook Australia. From Melbourne trams to the Brisbane waterfront, from Wollongong steelworks to the Pilbara mines, workers struck in protest at the jailing of Melbourne Tramways Union leader (and prominent Communist) Clarrie O’Shea, who had refused to cooperate with the punitive anti-union “penal powers” laws.

The penal powers had held unions in check for 20 years. But from the mid-1960s, a growing number of workers demanded that their unions move from polite protest about the laws to open defiance. The jailing of Clarrie O’Shea was the signal for an extraordinary wave of industrial action.

This act of mass defiance terrified Australia’s ruling class into releasing O’Shea within a week. And it did more than that. The strike wave turned the penal powers into something that the bosses were simply too scared to invoke. This fundamentally changed the industrial landscape.

The O’Shea strike opened up a “right to strike” that was never legislated, but existed in practice because employers were shaken by the militancy of the strike wave. These were the years of union militancy that won many of the decent wages and conditions (such as workers’ compensation, long service leave and shorter hours) that many workers in Australia enjoyed for a generation. The O’Shea strike also opened the door to workers’ action on social issues, against war and racism and in many other struggles.

The politics of the Accord

Things began to change in 1975, as the greatest boom in the history of world capitalism came to a grinding halt. For the first time in a generation, there was mass unemployment to discipline workers. Gains were not so easily won. This was a serious political test – and one that the unions and the Communist Party ultimately failed.

Though the CPA was part of the upsurge around Clarrie O’Shea, by this time it was far from a revolutionary organisation. For years the most powerful people in the party had been union officials who were more used to operating within the system than outside it.

Dominated by left nationalist politics, the CPA was attracted to industry plans. The response to the recessions of the mid and late 1970s was to claim that jobs could be saved by making industry more efficient – by cutting jobs (!) and trading off conditions. The CPA, long captured by bureaucracy, was now the chief architect, salesman and enforcer for a no-strike policy and strict class collaboration.

The ultimate outcome of this logic was the historic Prices and Incomes Accord, signed between the incoming Labor government and the ACTU in 1983.

The promise of the Accord was a growing economy, which would enable better social welfare. The result, however, was disaster – and an object lesson in the “fruits” of class collaboration. The economy grew, but with the unions bound to a no-strike policy, the winners were the ruling class, as profits soared. Real wages declined and then stagnated. Most of the social gains never materialised.

Builders’ labourers’ and airline pilots’ unions continued to fight for their members, and were ruthlessly crushed by the Labor government in the 1980s. Meanwhile, other forces in the ruling class took on and smashed the powerful Pilbara mining unions and Queensland electricity workers, while the rest of the union movement sat on its hands to preserve class peace.

The worst effect of the Accord, however, was the decline of workplace organisation. A well-organised and militant membership, with a layer of union delegates and activists who can take matters into their own hands and maintain a healthy level of political debate, is an essential asset to any union keen to make and keep gains. It is a positive obstacle, however, to a union trying to rein in industrial action in the name of social peace. So the Accord years saw a dramatic decline in shop floor organisation.

This disaster was predictable – in fact, it was predicted by all the socialist groups that rejected class collaboration, including the predecessor organisations of Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative. But even put together, these political forces were far too small, and not implanted enough in the workplaces, to sway the course of events.

This set the pattern for the history of the past 30 years. Having softened us up with over a decade of rigidly enforced class collaboration, the ruling class was happy for Howard to continue the job from 1996. Disillusioned by the meagre fruits of class collaboration – restraint followed by sharp recession followed by more restraint – enough Labor voters switched to the Liberals to produce a landslide.

In the meantime, the various communist parties, riddled with the contradictions of Stalinism and bureaucracy, vanished or dramatically declined. This left us, over the last 30 bitter years, with no mass political force in the working class that could pose an alternative to the dominant politics of class collaboration. We have paid a heavy price for this.

Opportunities lost

In three decades of working life, I’ve seen three opportunities where the whole political situation could have been transformed by workers’ action.

The first was in 1992. Following the deep recession of the early 1990s, the discredited Victorian Labor government was bundled out of office by the Jeff Kennett’s Liberals.

Kennett avoided spelling out any policies during the campaign. But after the election, he announced the closure of 230 schools. Eight thousand teachers would go. Public transport and electricity would be privatised. The state award system would be abolished, leaving a third of the Victorian workforce without any enforceable minimum conditions.

The backlash was extraordinary. I was a Telecom technician and a union delegate. Suddenly, workers who had never talked about the union were grabbing my arm, demanding a general strike to get rid of Kennett. On 10 November the biggest strike in Victoria’s history shook the state: 800,000 struck and 150,000 marched in Melbourne. The Australian Financial Review editorialised: “[A] complete disaster is brewing in Victoria”.

But rather than push ahead with a sustained industrial campaign, the unions backed off. We had no further mass strikes until March 1993, followed by another day of action in September. By that time our side had lost the momentum, the ruling class had lost its fear and cuts had gone through.

Trades Hall secretary John Halfpenny wrote later: “If we were given a rerun of the events … we may have decided to go in much harder in the wake of the November 10 rally”. It’s not like he wasn’t told at the time. I was part of a group of left-wing shop stewards who got a third of the vote at a mass delegates meeting, pushing for a serious campaign of industrial action. Halfpenny opposed it, clinging to hopes for class collaboration even when the other side was smashing us. Instead of another Clarrie O’Shea moment, we had a sell-out.

It was a similar story in 1998, when the Howard government backed the sacking of 1400 workers at Patrick Stevedores and unionised wharfies were replaced by thugs in balaclavas.

Again, the reaction of rank and file workers was spectacular. For weeks, at any time of the day or night, you could go down to East Swanson Dock and find hundreds or even thousands of people picketing the wharf, defying Supreme Court injunctions, building barricades, facing down the police, discussing solidarity strikes – all like it was the most normal thing in the world.

But rather than build on this, union leaders sold us short. The union survived, the wharfies marched back in, the pickets were sent home. But in the months that followed, jobs and conditions on the docks were negotiated away.

The third opportunity I’ve seen to turn the tide was in late 2005. John Howard’s WorkChoices laws were set to be introduced, destroying much of what remained of basic union protections and completing the destruction of the award system. I’ll never forget the discussions on the construction site I was working on, with workers who had never cared too much for politics discussing exactly how we could strike, call out other sectors and stop the city: “Well, what are they going to do – arrest 20,000 of us?”

We set records for marching in the streets – 250,000 in Melbourne and 600,000 marching around the country in November 2005. But rather than a sustained campaign of industrial action, even our one day protest strikes were wound down into a purely electoral campaign.

To see opportunities like this squandered repeatedly is heart breaking, but it’s no surprise. Even in the days of Clarrie O’Shea, the majority of union leaders – including O’Shea himself – were paying the fines and grumbling, until a slow-building revolt from below pushed them to act.

Crucially, what the workers in 1969 had, and what we didn’t have in 1992, 1998 and 2005, was a political party that can translate that sentiment into action.

The task today is to build such a party. A party based on class struggle and rejection of capitalism, rather than class collaboration. A party that organises international working class solidarity as our alternative to capitalist competition. A party that advocates, as the early Communist Party did, “make every member an activist” as the source of union strength. A party that doesn’t shy away from the difficult political questions that arise at every stage of workers’ struggles.

We don’t pretend this will be easy or straightforward. But by standing on the legacy of those who have gone before, by building on their strengths and learning from their weaknesses, we can make a serious contribution to rebuilding working class strength, and remaking our history.

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