The election of Sally McManus as Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary in March 2017 came with bold rhetoric about the right of unions to break Australia’s unjust industrial laws. 

All the usual sucks for the bosses condemned McManus’ “outrageous” statements. But she stood her ground.

Many union activists hoped this was a sign of a new spirit of resistance. They hoped that after decades of workers’ rights being eroded, penalty rates being cut and union membership plummeting, the union leadership had at long last woken up and was going to launch a fightback.

The shameful reality, however, is that the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign has failed to measure up to McManus’ initial rhetoric. It has instead turned out to be little more than an electoral campaign to get the vote out for Labor, the party which when in government introduced many of the harsh anti-union laws we are now fighting against.

Any decent trade unionist will obviously want to see the Liberals, the loyal servants of big business, driven from office. But that does not mean we should uncritically fall into line behind the ALP.

Labor might claim to represent working class interests. But in office, both federally and at the state level, it has consistently implemented neoliberal, anti-working class policies over the last three decades.

The Hawke-Keating Labor governments slashed wages and crippled the unions under the Prices and Incomes Accord of the 1980s. As a result, workers’ share of national income fell from 60.8 percent to 55.7 percent, while the profit share surged.

Federal Labor privatised the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and a raft of other government-owned enterprises and prepared the ground for Telstra to be privatised. State Labor governments have also been ruthless privatisers. Many tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs, vital public services have been run down and the private owners have been gifted billions of dollars in profits.

Labor in government cries poor when it comes to properly funding the vital public services we need. But it has always been able to find the cash to give billions of dollars in handouts to big business and to increase military spending. And it was Labor that cut the company tax rate from 49 percent to 33 percent.

At a mass Your Rights at Work rally in June 2005, then Labor leader Kim Beazley promised to “rip up” WorkChoices, the Howard government’s hated anti-worker legislation. But in office under prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Labor did nothing of the sort.

Labor’s Fair Work Australia legislation contained only a few token concessions to the unions and was rightly dubbed WorkChoices Lite. Labor could get away with this because in the lead up to the elections, the ACTU had turned the industrial campaign of mass mobilisations against WorkChoices into a vote Labor campaign with a focus on marginal seats.

This shift was epitomised by the abandonment of the campaign’s slogan “Your rights at work: worth fighting for” and its replacement with “Your rights at work: worth voting for”. The unions gave Labor a blank cheque. And once the ALP was in office, the union campaign wound up and Rudd and Gillard were under absolutely no pressure to deliver.

Indeed, they screwed over the very workers whose votes they had depended on to get them their plush ministerial seats. Gillard, supposedly from the Labor left, stridently defended the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission Gestapo in a vile diatribe against construction workers fighting for their jobs and conditions on Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge in 2009.

The ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign is even more electorally focused than Your Rights at Work. The overwhelming thrust of the campaign has been organising street stalls, leafleting, door knocking and phone banking to “change the government”. 

For the five by-elections on 28 July, hundreds of union organisers and activists were mobilised to door knock for Labor.

Victorian Trades Hall Council recently held a meeting of 200 union activists in Morwell in the La Trobe Valley. The sole purpose of it was to get people to volunteer to do election-oriented street stalls. Not once throughout the proceedings was the idea of organising in workplaces or challenging the bosses raised.

Most workers in Morwell are understandably and rightly cynical about Labor, so there was no great enthusiasm for doing stalls to re-elect them. The union officials clearly recognised this and did not go on about the supposed merits of Labor. Instead of calling the stalls “vote Labor” stalls they tried to hide behind the façade of them being “change the government” stalls.

Australia’s industrial laws are some of the harshest in the Western world and place incredible restrictions on workers’ right to organise, hold workplace meetings, stand up to “wage theft”, resist bullying supervisors and counter the victimisation of fellow workers. 

To organise any form of industrial action, workers have to jump through legal hoops. Yet there are virtually no restrictions on the bosses’ right to sack, stand down, punish, victimise or lock out workers.

So far, Labor leader Bill Shorten has offered to make only minimal changes to these oppressive anti-union laws – laws which, it should be remembered, he helped write during the last Labor government. 

As the Rudd-Gillard governments show, there is no guarantee that the few promises Shorten has made, such as to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission and to clamp down on sham industrial agreements, will be implemented. Particularly if Labor faces no pressure from the unions via sustained mobilisations of workers.

The bottom line is that we need a totally different strategy from the union leaders’ one of relying on a Labor government to save us. It won’t.

Instead, we need a concerted campaign to rebuild the unions as a fighting force at a grass roots level. Rather than door knocking for Labor, union activists should be attempting to organise fellow workers in their own workplaces and organising non-union workplaces.

Activists need to be finding out what workers’ grievances are with their bosses, signing them up to the union, establishing delegate structures and giving them the necessary confidence and ideas to fight for their rights. 

It is only by rebuilding a strong, rank and file-based, fighting union movement that we can have any hope of standing up to the bosses’ attacks and forcing reforms out of any government, whether Liberal or Labor.