Which side in the unions are you on?

13 May 2020
Rick Kuhn

Are you on the side of workers or of bosses? Do you defend workers’ wages, conditions and rights or the “health of the national economy”, which is based on the bosses’ capacity to make profits? If you’re on the side of workers, then you support unions. But these questions also apply within trade unions.

There, being on the workers’ side sometimes means opposing the policies of union officials. The right-wing Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association and the Australian Council of Trade Unions recently reached an agreement with the peak employer organisation to eliminate overtime rates and rostering in advance of work for McDonalds workers.

The SDA is well known not only for being in bed with management but for making the bed and laundering the sheets. Some of the deals the union’s leaders did with Coles and other big employers were so detrimental to union members that even the pro-boss Fair Work Commission eventually overturned them. The Commission also rejected this latest sell-out agreement.

But it isn’t only in notoriously right-wing unions like the SDA where members’ interests and those of their officials don’t align and the officials’ actions need to be opposed.

United Workers Union officials have done a deal that allows bosses in the hospitality industry to force employees to work down to 60 percent of their previously guaranteed hours, to do other jobs and to take annual leave on 24 hours’ notice. In endorsing the proposed change in the industry award, the Fair Work Commission said that it “may result in low paid employees working less hours and consequently receiving less pay. It is axiomatic that such a reduction in pay will mean that they are less able to meet their needs”.

The deal is supposedly about saving jobs, but there is nothing in it guaranteeing that jobs will be retained, let alone that many thousands of sacked casuals will get theirs back. The Commission’s assertion that “this is a time for co-operation, not conflict” is wrong. When wages and conditions are under attack, it is precisely the time for union resistance, not collaboration with bosses.

In the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) there is currently serious resistance to union officials collaborating with employers to sell out members. The union’s full-time officials have negotiated and are arguing in favour of a “national framework” deal with university managers that will undermine protections in university enterprise agreements and allow vice-chancellors to cut hours of work, leave rights and pay rates.

The union membership was not informed about the specifics of negotiations. The deal agreed by NTEU officials and vice-chancellors can lead to a 10 percent cut in hours combined with a 10 percent cut in the wage rate, resulting in pay cuts of up to 15 percent.

Some NTEU officials are former members of socialist organisations and still profess to be socialists. They have used this, and credibility gained from the union’s admirable but low risk positions on questions of racism and sexism, to promote the sell-out.

Again, it’s supposed to protect jobs. There have been major increases in workloads, due to the shift to online work, without payment of overtime. The union has done nothing about this. The officials’ deal states that it won’t result in increased workloads. But that’s unlikely to be enforced, given what has already happened. Increased workloads, because masses of casual tutors, library, clerical and other staff have been laid off, will endanger more jobs.

Lower enrolments have meant that there is less work overall, so the prospects for many or any casuals getting their jobs back under the deal are small. Payments for stood-down workers are largely irrelevant because uni bosses have not been keen to use stand-downs anyway. Additional protections against redundancies in the deal are trivial. It contains no guarantees against stand-downs or redundancies.

There have been revolts by rank-and-file NTEU members across the country, most powerfully at the three campuses where the union is strongest and has the largest memberships: Sydney, RMIT and Melbourne universities.

Networks of militants opposed to the sell-out and calling for a “no” vote in any ballot to change enterprise agreements are being built, with socialists in the lead, on many campuses. A thousand union members have signed an open letter against the proposed deal.

Unfortunately, some on the left have undermined the “no” campaign by arguing that it undermines unity with the officials. Instead they put their energies into a “day of action” on 21 May. Protests on that day to demand the government fully fund higher education, which the officials support and will mainly be online, are unobjectionable. But to counterpose such action to the defence of important enterprise agreement provisions by mobilising union members to vote no to any reduction in wages or conditions lends a left complexion to the very officials who are promoting concessions on pay and conditions as the way forward for the union. This mobilisation is far from “passive” as has been alleged. It’s an active response to attacks by uni bosses, which are backed by union officials.

Nor is criticising the officials anti-union or divisive. One participant in a debate on 8 May, over attitudes to union officials and the importance of resisting attacks on enterprise agreement rights, summed it up: “Getting the NTEU to fight the fight we need to see is not divisive or navel-gazing. It’s making the union accountable to its members”.

A member of Solidarity, a small political group which does counterpose the two issues, said officials should be welcome to meetings of rank-and-file activists at this time, when their concession bargaining is so clearly against the interests of members, and that “I’m not going to hand out leaflets outside UTS [the University of Technology, Sydney] saying vote against our national officials”. But ignoring the sell-out that the officials are working on lets them off the hook, makes their efforts to sell this shit sandwich to members easier, and disorganises and undermines resistance to it.

As the rank-and-file organisation of union delegates in Scotland’s industrial heartlands on the Clyde put it in 1915: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them”.

The real pay-off from the deal advocated by NTEU officials is that they will get to be minority participants on national and local committees which implement the attacks on their members’ wages and conditions. In a briefing provided to members of the union’s highest decision-making body, they boasted that their goal was “a strong union role in managing the introduction of any cost-saving measures”. Hardly the objective of a union fighting for its members.

The betrayal of members’ interests by union leaders is not an isolated or recent phenomenon. Trade unions are fundamental self-defence organisations for workers under capitalism. Without them, individual workers are close to powerless in the face of bosses. Through unions we have collective strength.

If one worker quits or strikes, they have no effect on management. Depending on their skills and the level of unemployment, in most cases they can be replaced. Only when we organise to take action together do we have serious leverage. It’s our labour which makes the company, corporation or public institution function. Profits are made through our labour.

To organise effectively and in large numbers, to confront employers’ power with our own, we need ongoing structures and full-time officials. We need unions. Full-time officials are essential to maintain unions, co-ordinate union action, collect and administer their funds; to keep track of industrial laws and what bosses and governments are up to; and the to co-ordinate collective action.

But union officials, whatever their personal backgrounds, are not workers like their members. They’re not employed by a boss, but by the union. Their job is not to make profits for an employer or to keep public institutions running. Top officials especially work in much more favourable circumstances than their members. The general secretary and president of the NTEU, for example, earn more than $200,000 a year.

Under capitalism, our ability to work – labour power – is a commodity sold to employers. The labour bosses extract from us, having bought our labour power, is the source of society’s wealth including employers’ profits.

The role of union officials is to act as bargaining agents over the terms under which their members’ ability to work is sold to bosses. They are under pressure from their members below, who want to defend and improve wages and conditions, and from employers and governments above, who want to maximise profits and the economic growth it generates. Consequently, as British Marxist Tony Cliff argued: “At all decisive moments the union bureaucracy is bound to side with the state, but in the meantime it vacillates”.

The pressure from below has been weak in Australia since the 1980s, when the Accord between union leaders and Bob Hawke’s Labor government undermined the autonomy, self-confidence and militancy of unions’ workplace organisations. The pressure from above has been intensified by the COVID-19 crisis.

Desperate to maintain their relevance as intermediaries in difficult circumstances, and seduced by the profile and praise they get by advancing national unity – that is, the interests of the CEOs and politicians who run the nation – they are trading their members’ well-being for “a seat at the table”.

The ambiguous role of full-time union bureaucrats won’t be resolved while labour power is a commodity – that is, until we get rid of capitalism. But there are things we can do this side of a revolution. They revolve around establishing and expanding workers’ organisations, independent of the officials, and their sense of solidarity within and across workplaces. This also rebuilds unions’ strength and memberships. Such organisations can mobilise protest and industrial action, whether the officials like it or not, campaign to replace officials, and keep up pressure on whoever wins union elections to act in members’ interests.

Today, that means arguing with our workmates about the need to defend what we’ve got, linking up with other activists, distributing written material and taking the kinds of action we’re currently capable of. Workers at Amazon warehouses, Whole Foods groceries and Target in the United States have recently protested and co-ordinated to call in sick over the working conditions, especially lack of precautions against COVID-19.

But even if our actions are as modest as using limited legal rights, in a mobilising and campaigning way, organising protests, acts of collective defiance, to throw some sand in the gears of the processes that are reducing our wages and conditions, can to promote a sense of solidarity and potential power that can take ongoing organisational forms.

If sustained, actions like these can expand the scope of rank-and-file organisation to new work areas and workplaces and increase the unions’ ability to engage in sustained strike action. And, from the socialist perspective, they are not only effective means of defending and improving the terms on which we sell our labour power today, they also increase the working class’s potential to get rid of capitalism altogether.

Rick Kuhn is a life member of the NTEU.

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