Unions in Australia finished the year with a shocking near-death experience: a vote in the Senate on the “ensuring integrity” bill was tied, meaning the bill was defeated. For now. If passed, it would have given any “person with sufficient interest” the right to apply to deregister a union, or for the Federal Court to appoint an administrator to “exercise any power” of a union. This is the sort of control over union affairs that was previously known only in dictatorships.
This existential threat to union independence was met by the combined force of the country’s unions waging … a lobbying campaign. Not one street protest. No industrial action. No indication of what we’d do if or when the first administrator was appointed. No plan whatsoever, apart from sending an email to crossbench senators.
The tied vote in the Senate relied on the votes of vicious racists like Pauline Hanson. Hanson has spent decades doing the job for the ruling class, peddling a steady diet of bigotry, anti-worker measures like scrapping penalty rates, and handouts to the rich. Once in a while, under pressure, Hanson will flip-flop in a populist direction. But both Hanson and fellow crossbencher Jacqui Lambie have indicated they are open to a version of the bill that more narrowly targets the strongest unions.
The government expects its setback to be only temporary. One week after the tied vote, on the last parliament sitting day for the year, the Liberals reintroduced a version of the bill – with amendments requested by Lambie and Hanson – and rammed a vote through the House of Representatives.
The fact that the union movement is down to begging right wing shitbags like Pauline Hanson for survival tells us something about the state of our unions. It’s one more piece of evidence, if one was needed, of the deep crisis in Australia’s trade union movement. This crisis is the worst our unions have ever faced. Union membership peaked in the early 1980s at over 50 percent of the workforce. Today it’s 15 percent, and even lower in the private sector.
There has never been a slump in strike action this deep in Australia, nor for this long. And the legal pressure intensifies every year. There is nearly universal compliance with Australia’s vicious industrial laws, and no indication that our union leaders have a way out – beyond praying for an electoral miracle.
Workers have paid a high price for this, even if the impact has been felt unevenly. The fragmentation of enterprise bargaining – introduced by Labor in the early 1990s – has affected some sections of workers more than others, and at different times. Some were left to go to the wall long ago, with unions such as United Voice, the telecoms union and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association basically refusing even to attempt any serious organising. On the other hand, some sections of the class have had industrial agreements that were hard to undermine or scrap, and which even survived the onslaught of John Howard’s WorkChoices laws in the mid-2000s.
By 2017, however, Red Flag was reporting on a “vicious turn” in the class struggle. Workers at major industrial and public sector sites, with well-established industrial agreements, were finding themselves under serious attack.
One of the new employer tactics was to seize on a legal precedent to apply for the Fair Work Commission to terminate longstanding industrial agreements – reducing wages and conditions to the legal minimums in the award. Queensland rail company Aurizon pioneered this in 2015, followed by Griffin Coal in Western Australia in 2016, Loy Yang AGL in Victoria’s power industry and Murdoch University in Perth, both in 2017.
The result was a series of long, bitter disputes at key industrial sites as groups of workers put up heroic resistance to these employer attacks. With few exceptions, however, the industrial resistance wasn’t enough to stop bosses exacting serious concessions.
A two-year dispute that started in 2017 at Esso/BHP’s gas platforms in Bass Strait challenged a dramatic wage cut (of around 50 percent) and rosters that would open jobs to fly-in-fly-out workers. The workers put up heroic resistance, but picketing never aimed to stop the flow of scabs, or gas. The unions ended the dispute in July this year, with the union-busting enterprise agreement still in place.
Similar attacks have happened across the oil and gas sector. According to a Fair Work Commission submission by the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) and maritime union, base rates of pay in the offshore oil and gas industry have fallen from $136,000 to $96,000 per year since 2014 – an extraordinary cut for workers who have real industrial power.
What was a shocking new employer tactic in 2015 has become thoroughly routine in 2019. The threat of terminating an agreement is now so common that it’s barely news – just another employer tactic in any long dispute. In the past two years, Channel 7, BP and Alcoa joined a host of lesser known employers in making such threats.
It’s a feature of the times that the courts, freed from any serious pressure from our side, find ever more flimsy pretexts for trashing workers’ rights. In December 2017, Esso convinced the High Court that an ambiguous, badly drafted paragraph in Julia Gillard’s Fair Work Act meant that any violation of an order from a court or the Fair Work Commission in the course of bargaining, no matter how trivial, would mean all industrial action for that particular enterprise agreement loses legal protection – even long after the order has expired or become irrelevant.
In early August, the federal court barred union members at Metro in Melbourne from keeping barriers open as a form of industrial action. The union complied, and the action never went ahead. But because the union failed to put notices on every single union noticeboard throughout Melbourne’s rail network over a weekend (a difficult task at the best of times), it was technically in contempt of a court order. On these trivial grounds, a Federal Court judge in December ruled that the workers are barred from taking protected action.
It’s not just employer aggression that is to blame for the state of Australia’s union movement, though. Employer hostility, after all, is not new. Some of the blame is on our side. Unions that have spent years coasting as a result of historic victories have found that following the industrial rules – while reducing the risks in the short term – leads only to a dead end.
A classic example is the former union heartland of coal. Australia’s estimated 38,000 coal miners have extraordinary industrial power, if they use it. Their labour generates 60 percent of the country’s electricity and 15 percent of exports. But over the past two decades, the coal union has come under attack from fly-in-fly-out and contracting arrangements. Rather than the national strikes that established and maintained conditions from the 1930s through to the end of the 1990s, the battles in coal have been fought piecemeal – with predictable results. Today, more than half of BHP’s coal mining workforce are outsourced, earning wages $50,000 a year lower than direct employees.
One of the most significant recent disputes was at Glencore’s Oaky North coal mine in central Queensland. In early 2018, after 230 days locked out and under the threat of their agreement being terminated, 175 coal miners reluctantly voted up a new agreement that included concessions on rosters and contracting. Arguably more decisive in this defeat than Glencore’s application to terminate, however, was the coal miners’ union passing up an opportunity to take legally protected action at multiple Glencore mines. The Oaky North miners’ heroic resistance to the company was isolated, and production was continuing at the mine throughout the lockout under threat of injunctions.
The details differ, but the overall story in key blue-collar industries is similar. Seven years after the extraordinary mass picketing during the Grocon dispute, Melbourne’s CBD is still a centre of strength for the construction unions. But this bastion is under siege, with the finishing trades a disaster zone and new non-union builders constructing substantial multistorey apartment blocks on the city’s fringe.
Against this dismal backdrop, there are a few stories of successful organising. The maritime union and AWU organised for and won a significant breakthrough in some offshore agreements covering the INPEX gas field, workers winning casual conversion and an immediate 20 percent wage increase, though off a low base. The electrical union in Victoria has also made gains in the lift industry over the past 18 months, using straightforward industrial organising methods. And the farm organising of the National Union of Workers (now United Workers Union) continues to inspire, making some real gains in a very tough sector.
All these efforts show that the basics of class struggle organising still apply. But they also shine a harsh light on the rest of the union movement. With 90 percent of private sector workers un-unionised, every union should aim to emulate theses successes. Instead, we have the Change the Rules campaign.
For any healthy movement, the failure of a major project should prompt a public stocktaking. It’s an opportunity to reassess, and hopefully to change direction. But in the aftermath of the embarrassing flop that was the ACTU’s Change the Rules electoral campaign, it was a struggle even to detect a pulse in the union movement. An internal union review found that the slogan “Change the Rules” made little sense to anyone outside existing union organisers and activists, and that the campaign foundered on workers’ cynicism about Labor, as well as about politics generally. The ACTU refuses to acknowledge these straightforward truths, let alone reorient to an approach based on organising and industrial action rather than relying on Labor. After the review was leaked, the ACTU praised the “incredible progress” represented by its Change the Rules campaign. Too much more “incredible progress” like this, and we’ll really be in trouble.
Australia’s unions had a near-death experience in the 1890s. But they clawed their way back through determined organising and some colossal industrial disputes, often led by revolutionary unionists known as syndicalists. Unions were overwhelmed by the Great Depression at the start of the 1930s, but by the end of the decade a new brand of militants trained by the Communist Party were rebuilding the unions, kicking out defeatist officials and leading some important disputes.
For a generation after World War Two, unions were shackled by the infamous penal powers, which inflicted stiff penalties for industrial action. But in the late 1960s there was a rank and file upsurge, inspired by the radicalism of the revolt against the war in Vietnam and sustained by strong delegate organisation in which radicals played a crucial part. This set the scene for the famous rolling general strike that freed Victorian tramways union leader Clarrie O’Shea from jail in May 1969, smashed the penal powers and unleashed one of the great waves of militancy and worker radicalism in Australian history.
It took the ruling class more than a decade to put the genie back in the bottle. They are still trying to roll back the conditions won in that upsurge. And just as politics has been crucial to every union revival in Australian history, politics has been crucial in curbing the militancy of the 1970s. In this vital task for Australian capitalism, a central role was played by left trade union officials who sold the idea that class collaboration, rather than class struggle, was the way forward. This strategy was enshrined in the industry plans of the early 1980s and the notorious Prices and Incomes Accord begun by the Hawke government. In this era, organising and industrial action weren’t so much neglected as consciously undermined and smashed. The Accord is long dead, but the politics underpinning it still dominate. The neglect of serious organising, and the electoralism of the Change the Rules campaign, are proof enough of that.
There are no easy solutions for Australia’s union movement – any more than there were for previous generations of unionists fighting to rebuild their unions. Organising still works. But it will take a new generation of radicals to really turn our movement around.