ACTU turns blind eye to Rudd Labor's anti-union laws

By Nick Everett

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released on April 14 show an alarming decline in union membership. In the 12 months to August 2007, unions lost 89,000 members (5% of their membership). Union density declined from 20.3% to 18.9%. Only 14% of private sector workers are union members, compared with 41% of public sector workers, according to the ABS data.

In 1986, 2.6 million workers — 46% of the work force — were union members. Ten years later, union density had declined to 31%. Today, less than 1.7 million workers are union members. But, seemingly in denial of this downward spiral, Australian Council of Trade Unions president Sharan Burrow told the April 15 Sydney Morning Herald: “The data shows unions have survived Work Choices.”

Just five months ago, when the Coalition parties led by PM John Howard lost the federal election, the ACTU was trumpeting a great victory. In a jointly signed email to 180,000 supporters of the Your Rights at Work (YRAW) campaign, Burrow and ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence, stated: “Well done, you have helped make history.”

And it wasn’t just the ACTU that was seeking to portray Howard’s election defeat as a historic victory for the union movement in its campaign against anti-worker laws. In an article in the December 4 Green Left Weekly, headlined “Rudd Labor: what to look for”, Socialist Alliance national convener Dick Nichols declared that the Labor Party had won the election “on the crest of union and worker mobilisation against Work Choices”.

While acknowledging that Labor’s “Forward with Fairness practically strangles the right to strike and severely limits unions’ right of entry into the workplace”, Nichols asserted that “union and worker mobilisation against Work Choices” had “set a limit to how far [PM Kevin] Rudd and deputy leader Julia Gillard can go in feeding the anti-union appetites of the big end of town” and had left “the unions as institutions, as players in the game”.

In the December 7 Socialist Worker, International Socialist Organisation member Ann Picot wrote that “collective mobilisation by the working class both on the street and [at] the ballot box” had laid the basis for Howard’s demise. And in the December issue of Socialist Alternative, Sandra Bloodworth and Mick Armstrong declared: “When hundreds of thousands responded to the call for mass strikes and protest in the streets, it was the beginning of the end for Howard.”

But “collective mobilisation by the working class” and “mass strikes” did not feature as part of the ACTU’s YRAW campaign at all in 2007. And in the preceding two years there were just four national mobilisations, held in June and November.

ABS figures indicate that in each year of the campaign — between 2005 and 2007 — both the total number of industrial disputes and days lost to strike action declined. In 2007, there were just 135 industrial disputes in Australia, with 49,700 working days lost as a result of strikes, the lowest since records began in 1913.

Undoubtedly, the ACTU’s marginal seats campaign, which mobilised thousands of volunteers to doorknock and distribute flyers in 24 marginal seats, did contribute to Howard’s defeat at the ballot box. The union peak body spent $25 million on media advertising and dedicated 20 full-time organisers to marginal seats campaigning. But the YRAW campaign has not achieved a substantial rolling back of Howard’s Work Choices legislation nor halted the decline of union membership.

Anti-worker laws remain

On April 17 last year — seven months before the federal election — Rudd unveiled Labor’s industrial relations policy, pledging to retain key aspects of Work Choices. He told the National Press Club: “Under our laws, employees will not be able to strike during the term of a collective agreement.

They will not be able to strike unless there has been genuine good-faith bargaining. They will not be able to strike in support of an industry-wide agreement. And they will not be able to strike unless it has been approved by a mandatory secret ballot.”

In addition to retaining legal prohibitions on the right to strike, Rudd committed Labor to retain the Howard government’s restrictions on union right of entry under the 1996 Workplace Relations Act (WRA). He also committed a Labor government to maintain the Australian Building and Construction Commission — with its coercive powers to intimidate, fine and jail construction workers — until 2010.

On March 19, after the federal parliament passed Labor’s Forward with Fairness amendments to the WRA, Rudd told the media: “Today, we declare Australian Workplace Agreements to be dead and buried.” While the amendments disallow new AWAs, existing AWAs will be allowed to stand until 2012, and employers can enter into new Individual Transitional Employment Agreements (individual contracts by another name) for the next two years. In addition, the new legislation introduces “award modernisation” — the stripping back of awards to 10 “industry standards” (half the number of “allowable matters” under Howard’s original WRA).

Labor’s preservation of most of the Coalition’s anti-worker laws has much to do with minimising resistance to Rudd’s gung-ho austerity agenda. During the election campaign, Rudd announced that Labor would reinstate the expenditure review committee of the previous Hawke and Keating Labor governments. The new “razor gang”, headed by the minister for finance and deregulation, Lindsay Tanner, will slash $10 billion from government spending over four years. “Any program we find that’s not working, that will be a target”, one ALP official told the December 1 Sydney Morning Herald.

On December 3, Treasurer Wayne Swan told the ABC’s 7.30 Report: “We ran as economic conservatives and we will govern as economic conservatives.” When asked about the danger of rising prices and interest rates, he declared that “dealing with inflationary pressures in the economy is our number one priority”, adding: “That’s why we need strict budget discipline.”

A Melbourne Herald Sun/Galaxy poll taken over the May 17-18 weekend found that just 23% of voters believed they will be better off as a result of Rudd Labor’s first budget, brought down on May 13. Writing in the May 20 Australian, Greens leader Senator Bob Brown noted that the “Rudd Government’s inaugural budget spent $31 billion in inflationary tax cuts, $40 billion in `future funds’ for education and infrastructure projects, $22 billion for defence and $500 million on a `clean coal’ fund...

“The tax cuts will deliver people such as Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson, who earn more than $200,000 a year, an extra $91 a week from next year, rising to $116 in 2010. Australia’s 1.2 million pensioners, on the other hand, live on just $273 a week. To put that in perspective, the Prime Minister earns $13,000 in a fortnight, while a pensioner, in a year, gets a little more than $14,000.”

Class collaboration

The ALP’s federal electoral victory owed much to big business’s desire to wed the union movement’s pro-Labor leadership to its “reform” agenda. As Business Council of Australia president Greg Gailey told ABC Radio on November 26: “Business has worked with unions for a very long time. They’re part and parcel of the community. I’m absolutely confident that we will continue to work effectively with unions.”

The vast majority of union leaders, desperate to distance themselves from Liberal Party advertisements that sought to portray unionists as “thugs”, have been similarly enthusiastic about preaching collaboration between unions and big business. Unions NSW secretary John Robertson told the November 24 Australian that there is a “fundamental difference to the way the Liberals and Labor manage industrial relations. For the Liberals it is a battle with an enemy. For Labor it is a process to be managed to develop results that are in everyone’s interests.”

In a January 30 address to the National Press Club, Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes urged union leaders to be “responsible” and “show we have economic credibility and we are relevant in today’s economy and society”. Describing himself as an “economic conservative”, Howes called for wage restraint in exchange for tax cuts. “I also know that large wage growth will just feed into the inflation cycle, and quickly wipe out these gains”, he declared.

The new “sweet talk” between union leaders and big business is not simply a response to the Howard government’s derision of union leaders. It reflects a dominant trend within the Australian union movement — a class-collaborationist outlook — that seeks to preserve the relative privileges of better-off workers and self-seeking union officials over and above the interests of the working class as a whole.

The YRAW campaign did not help to install a government elected on a “crest of union and worker mobilisation”. Its leaders demobilised the initial outpouring of anger against Work Choices and channelled it into an elect Labor campaign. Rallies against Work Choices served this electoralist strategy, providing a platform for union officials and parliamentarians to urge electoral support for Labor. As a result, the incoming Rudd government has been given free rein to pursue its pro-big business agenda.

A genuine rolling back of Howard’s anti-union laws can’t be achieved by seeking to persuade the ACTU to transform the YRAW campaign into a direct challenge to Labor to abolish those laws, which it supports. Instead, a genuine grassroots campaign is needed that seeks to build the fighting strength of the union movement. Such a campaign must function independently of Labor’s corporate agenda and seek to dispel workers’ illusions that the ALP can govern in their interests. Union structures — eroded by the Accord years of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments — will need to be rebuilt to increase membership participation and democratic functioning.

Just five months ago, when the Coalition parties led by PM John Howard lost the federal election, the ACTU was trumpeting a great victory. In a jointly signed email to 180,000 supporters of the Your Rights at Work (YRAW) campaign, Burrow and ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence, stated: “Well done, you have helped make history.”

And it wasn’t just the ACTU that was seeking to portray Howard’s election defeat as a historic victory for the union movement in its campaign against anti-worker laws. In an article in the December 4 Green Left Weekly, headlined “Rudd Labor: what to look for”, Socialist Alliance national convener Dick Nichols declared that the Labor Party had won the election “on the crest of union and worker mobilisation against Work Choices”.

While acknowledging that Labor’s “Forward with Fairness practically strangles the right to strike and severely limits unions’ right of entry into the workplace”, Nichols asserted that “union and worker mobilisation against Work Choices” had “set a limit to how far [PM Kevin] Rudd and deputy leader Julia Gillard can go in feeding the anti-union appetites of the big end of town” and had left “the unions as institutions, as players in the game”.

In the December 7 Socialist Worker, International Socialist Organisation member Ann Picot wrote that “collective mobilisation by the working class both on the street and [at] the ballot box” had laid the basis for Howard’s demise. And in the December issue of Socialist Alternative, Sandra Bloodworth and Mick Armstrong declared: “When hundreds of thousands responded to the call for mass strikes and protest in the streets, it was the beginning of the end for Howard.”

But “collective mobilisation by the working class” and “mass strikes” did not feature as part of the ACTU’s YRAW campaign at all in 2007. And in the preceding two years there were just four national mobilisations, held in June and November.

ABS figures indicate that in each year of the campaign — between 2005 and 2007 — both the total number of industrial disputes and days lost to strike action declined. In 2007, there were just 135 industrial disputes in Australia, with 49,700 working days lost as a result of strikes, the lowest since records began in 1913.

Undoubtedly the ACTU’s marginal seats campaign, which mobilised thousands of volunteers to doorknock and distribute flyers in 24 marginal seats, did contribute to Howard’s defeat at the ballot box. The union peak body spent $25 million on media advertising and dedicated 20 full-time organisers to marginal seats campaigning. But the YRAW campaign has not achieved a substantial rolling back of Howard’s Work Choices legislation nor halted the decline of union membership.

Anti-worker laws remain

On April 17 last year — seven months before the federal election — Rudd unveiled Labor’s industrial relations policy, pledging to retain key aspects of Work Choices. He told the National Press Club: “Under our laws, employees will not be able to strike during the term of a collective agreement. They will not be able to strike unless there has been genuine good faith bargaining. They will not be able to strike in support of an industry-wide agreement. And they will not be able to strike unless it has been approved by a mandatory secret ballot.”

In addition to retaining legal prohibitions on the right to strike, Rudd committed Labor to retain the Howard government’s restrictions on union right of entry under the 1996 Workplace Relations Act (WRA). He also committed a Labor government to maintain the Australian Building and Construction Commission — with its coercive powers to intimidate, fine and jail construction workers — until 2010.

On March 19, after the federal parliament passed Labor’s Forward with Fairness amendments to the WRA, Rudd told the media: “Today, we declare Australian Workplace Agreements to be dead and buried.” While the amendments disallow new AWAs, existing AWAs will be allowed to stand until 2012, and employers can enter into new Individual Transitional Employment Agreements (individual contracts by another name) for the next two years. In addition, the new legislation introduces “award modernisation” — the stripping back of awards to 10 “industry standards” (half the number of “allowable matters” under Howard’s original WRA).

Labor’s preservation of most of the Coalition’s anti-worker laws has much to do with minimising resistance to Rudd’s gung-ho austerity agenda. During the election campaign, Rudd announced that Labor would reinstate the expenditure review committee of the previous Hawke and Keating Labor governments. The new “razor gang”, headed by the minister for finance and deregulation, Lindsay Tanner, will slash $10 billion from government spending over four years. “Any program we find that’s not working, that will be a target”, one ALP official told the Sydney Morning Herald of December 1.

On December 3, Treasurer Wayne Swan told the ABC’s 7.30 Report: “We ran as economic conservatives and we will govern as economic conservatives”. When asked about the danger of rising prices and interest rates, he declared that “dealing with inflationary pressures in the economy is our number one priority”, adding: “That’s why we need strict budget discipline.”

A Melbourne Herald Sun/Galaxy poll taken over the May 17-18 weekend found that just 23% of voters believed they will be better off as a result of Rudd Labor’s first budget, brought down on May 13. Writing in the May 20 Australian, Greens leader Senator Bob Brown noted that the “Rudd Government’s inaugural budget spent $31 billion in inflationary tax cuts, $40 billion in `future funds’ for education and infrastructure projects, $22 billion for defence and $500 million on a `clean coal’ fund<193>

“The tax cuts will deliver people such as Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson, who earn more than $200,000 a year, an extra $91 a week from next year, rising to $116 in 2010. Australia’s 1.2 million pensioners, on the other hand, live on just $273 a week. To put that in perspective, the Prime Minister earns $13,000 in a fortnight, while a pensioner, in a year, gets a little more than $14,000.”

Class collaboration

The ALP’s federal electoral victory owed much to big business’s desire to wed the union movement’s pro-Labor leadership to its “reform” agenda. As Business Council of Australia president Greg Gailey told ABC Radio on November 26: “Business has worked with unions for a very long time. They’re part and parcel of the community. I’m absolutely confident that we will continue to work effectively with unions.”

The vast majority of union leaders, desperate to distance themselves from Liberal Party advertisements that sought to portray unionists as “thugs”, have been similarly enthusiastic about preaching collaboration between unions and big business. Unions NSW secretary John Robertson told the November 24 Australian that there is a “fundamental difference to the way the Liberals and Labor manage industrial relations. For the Liberals it is a battle with an enemy. For Labor it is a process to be managed to develop results that are in everyone’s interests.”

In a January 30 an address to the National Press Club, Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes urged union leaders to be “responsible” and “show we have economic credibility and we are relevant in today’s economy and society”. Describing himself as an “economic conservative”, Howes called for wage restraint in exchange for tax cuts. “I also know that large wage growth will just feed into the inflation cycle, and quickly wipe out these gains”, he declared.

The new “sweet talk” between union leaders and big business is not simply a response to the Howard government’s derision of union leaders. It reflects a dominant trend within the Australian union movement — a class-collaborationist outlook — that seeks to preserve the relative privileges of better-off workers and self-seeking union officials over and above the interests of the working class as a whole.

The YRAW campaign did not help to instal a government elected on a “crest of union and worker mobilisation”. Its leaders demobilised the initial outpouring of anger against Work Choices and channelled it into an elect-Labor campaign. Rallies against Work Choices served this electoralist strategy, providing a platform for union officials and parliamentarians to urge electoral support for Labor. As a result, the incoming Rudd government has been given free rein to pursue its pro-big business agenda.

A genuine rolling back of Howard’s anti-union laws can’t be achieved by seeking to persuade the ACTU to transform the YRAW campaign into a direct challenge to Labor to abolish those laws, which it supports. Instead, a genuine grassroots campaign is needed that seeks to build the fighting strength of the union movement. Such a campaign must function independently of Labor’s corporate agenda and seek to dispel workers illusions that the ALP can govern in their interests. Union structures — eroded by the Accord years of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments — will need to be rebuilt to increase membership participation and democratic functioning.

While most unions’ memberships have plunged in recent years, there have been some notable exceptions. The Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union has doubled its membership in the last 10 years. ETU Victorian branch secretary Dean Mighell told the April 15 Sydney Morning Herald that a cosy relationship with the Rudd Labor government, similar to the accords that the unions signed with the Hawke and Keating governments, would be disastrous. “We don’t want any more Accord-style deals,” Mighell said. “The last time we did that the unions took a big sleeping tablet... Having polite coffees with ministers is no substitute for organising.”

The West Australian branch of the Maritime Union of Australia has also bucked the trend. Writing in the April 2008 edition of the union’s WA Rank and File Voice, WA MUA branch secretary Chris Cain observed: “Many unions have seen their numbers shrink and with that their ability to influence the industrial and political landscape. By contrast, during this time the experience of the WA Branch of the MUA could not have been more stark... Since June 2003 the WA Branch has grown about 60%. On average, that’s more than 10% per year... We are a union that believes in building strength though our members and the elected delegates. This is the foundation of the growth of the WA Branch. The figures speak for themselves.”

The Australian Education Union has increased its membership — by 20,000 last year. AEU president Andrew Gavrielatos told the April 15 SMH: “We are in dispute with virtually every state government to defend our members and public education generally.” With the exception of its Victorian branch, the AEU has operated outside the jurisdiction of Work Choices over the last three years.

While union militancy on the waterfront in Western Australia and in the Victorian construction industry has helped some union branches maintain or increase their membership, the movement as a whole faces a challenging future. For unions to renew their fighting strength and prove themselves “relevant” to young workers, militancy in the industrial arena needs to be combined with a break from Labor in the political arena. Now, more than ever, working people need a party of their own.

[Nick Everett is a Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association workplace delegate in Perth and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]