Where is the union movement headed?

Barely a ripple of interest surfaced with the announcement by the Australian Council of Trade Unions on April 20 of a new president-elect for Australia’s peak union body. Elected unopposed, Ged Kearney, federal secretary of the Australian Nursing Federation, will assume her new office at the end of June, replacing Sharan Burrow who will assume the post of general secretary of the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation, again unopposed.

Kearney’s election, widely seen as a compromise among various union officials and factions, comes at a crucial time for the union movement facing a still generally declining membership, continuing erosion of rights and conditions for working people and questions continuing to surface about the relevancy and efficacy of the organised labour movement as it is represented by the ACTU.

Current ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence pointed to many of the failures of the union movement over the past 10 years in an address to the National Press Club on March 17. He highlighted a decline in the minimum wage from 50% to 42% of average earnings. Lawrence pointed to a wider social impact on the ability of working people to keep their heads above water, noting that OECD statistics on inequality ranked Australia sixth worst among the OECD countries. There are many other telling examples that point to the relative deteriorating standard of living of workers in Australia, including those who are living the precarious trance of the resource boom, including the widening gap in pay between male and female workers.

It remains indisputable that the ACTU, and most national union leaderships have done very little to redress the growing gap between Australia’s corporate rich and those who create their wealth. On many indices this gap has markedly grown since the election of the Rudd Labor government and its deliberate economic policies in stimulating and nurturing big business, as well as the Labor government’s retention of many of the previous Howard Government anti-union laws.

It is ironic that the ACTU is again spending millions of dollars on an advertising campaign in this election year slating the Tony Abbot-led Liberals who want to reintroduce the content of Howard’s Work Choice laws. But many unionists working under Rudd’s Fair Work Australia legislation understand that this is really “Work Choices lite”. Contravening international labour standards to which Australia is a signatory, the FWA laws prescribe the right to strike, except in a “protected period” and under secret ballot provisions if negotiations with the bosses prove fruitless during enterprise bargaining. Few unions (apart from the Maritime Union of Australia) have successfully applied and succeeded in winning improvements in wages and conditions under onerous legislation.

And despite proclaiming opposition to the Howard-created Australian Building and Construction Commission, the ACTU has done little to oppose its continued use or campaigned against federal employment minister Julia Gillard’s planned version, the Building Industry and Special Projects Inspectorate, legislation for which is currently before the Senate. Under this legislation, it is still possible for individual workers to be prosecuted for failing to answer compulsory questioning from the inspectorate.

The ACTU and its affiliates have made matters worse by essentially adopted a “business” approach to building union membership in organisational drives, with some unions even employing contractors to recruit union members, offering inducements of special shopping deals for joining the union. At a time when overall union membership remains stagnant at best, the ACTU and most unions believe increasing union membership is simply question of such organisational drives. The value of combined strength in a workplace to protect conditions and earnings, and issues of democratic decision making by members, have become secondary to this organisational drive for union dues.

Figures released by Unions WA on May 18 on membership data indicate the fluctuating fortune of such membership drives. Although figures from 2009 indicate a 19.7% growth in WA union membership, there have been no consecutive years of growth. This is in direct contrast to the WA Maritime Union which has steadily increased its membership since the election of a new rank-and-file oriented leadership in 2003. The WA MUA has since tripled in size, to 3215 members and is projecting a further 13% growth in the coming year. But the projections of the WA MUA are not based on solely recruiting but an active involvement of members in determining the future of the union, reaching out and forming alliances with other unions and community organisations and placing active solidarity within the union at the forefront.

Dean Mighell, secretary of the Victorian Electrical Trades Union, took issue with the approach of the ACTU and many of its affiliates in an article in the February 11 Melbourne Age. He urged unions to break from the ALP and adopt a position of independently lobbying whichever capitalist party is in government. Mighell made very pertinent points about the ineffectiveness and ultimate irrelevancy of unions if they continue their abject subordination to the ALP’s pro-business politics. For many union officials such an orientation is regarded as essential to their next career move ― becoming a Labor MP, and then a Labor government minister.

However, to suggest, as Mighell did, that unions adopt an “independent” lobbying approach to whichever pro-business party is in government points away, not towards, making unions effective instruments for the defence of workers’ interests. The AFL-CIO union federation in the US has this long had this approach, which has proved to be disastrous for unionised labour, both in terms of membership numbers and defence of wages and conditions.

Making the unions effective organisations for the defence of workers’ interests requires far more than formal disaffiliation from the structures of the ALP structures. It requires a radical change in union politics, a complete break from regarding the capitalist employers and all their industrial relations and political institutions as potential partners; it requires a clear recognition that there is a fundamental antagonism between working people and the employing class. It requires a consistent recognition by working people and their leaders that, as the old Builders Labourers Federation said, “If you don’t fight, you loose”.

[Ian Jamieson is an MUA delegate working on the wharves in Fremantle and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]