Seeking answers to the decline of Australian unions


After the Waterfront – the Workers are Quiet
Published by the LeftPress

The LeftPress collective has taken on the daunting task of analysing the state of the union movement, its weaknesses and the relationship between the rank and file and the leadership. LeftPress chose not to list this book’s authors, but acknowledgments are made to Bernie Neville, Pamela Curr and Jim Sharp for their contributions. After the Waterfront is the culmination of work that started at the end of 1998, the year the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) was attacked by Patricks and the Howard government.

The book attempts to answer many of the questions in the minds of trade unionists today, without any hesitation at approaching controversial topics. It examines the problems with the leadership of the movement, tensions between leaders and the rank and file and weaknesses in rank-and-file responses to repression. The book could have benefited from a more thorough analysis of the rise and fall of the union movement in the 20th century to give context to the present situation, particularly the period between the world wars, when unions went through many periods of growth despite the depression and repressive governments. In this context, the decline of the union movement today is shocking, and the graph printed in chapter one illustrates this quite clearly.

Rather than giving a comprehensive historical overview of trade unionism in Australia, the book focuses on its decline in the period since 1985: the effects of the Prices and Incomes Accord, enterprise bargaining, the Workplace Relations Act and of course Work Choices. The appendix is very useful, charting the regulations introduced to curtail union activity since the 1950s as well as a list of significant defeats the movement has suffered. One of the authors, Ian Curr, explained to me following the book launch that LeftPress was considering printing an additional pamphlet to cover the Fair Work Australia legislation and political manoeuvring of the Labor government. This would be a useful discussion starter among union activists about how to raise the spirit of militancy and further rank-and-file organisation.

Patricks dispute

Most instructive was the commentary on the 1998 Patricks dispute. Patricks and the government hoped to end MUA control of labour on the wharves, to defeat it as a political-industrial weapon and to divide the ALP. The government hoped there would be a flow-on to other industrial sectors. The book notes:

“Many workers and socialists were hopeful that the tide had turned, that unionism was returning as a growing force in the Australian political landscape. The pickets, the rallies and the overwhelming sense of solidarity contributed to the determined resistance and the euphoria surrounding the victory in the High Court which permitted the wharfies, who had been sacked ... to return to work.”

But unions did not grow; they continued to decline. The dispute did not lead to a generalised upsurge or even extend into other firms on the waterfront. Firms such as P&O continued to operate, and, with few exceptions, the union rank and file supported the legal strategy of the ACTU and John Coombs leadership of the MUA.

The central critique of the book is aimed at social democracy and its failure to advance the interests of the working class. The militancy of the Victorian unions following the waterfront dispute is characterised as a spike in industrial struggle lacking cohesion or effective political organisation. A comparison is made between the jailing of Ted Roach and Craig Johnston to illustrate the point. Roach was a leader of the Waterside Workers Federation in the 1950s and a member of the CPA; Johnston was Victorian state secretary of the AMWU between 1998 and 2002 and a member of the Socialist Alliance. Roach was released from prison after six weeks of political demonstrations and industrial action. Johnston’s campaign focused on a legal battle, with Johnston eventually entering a plea bargain. Thousands had rallied in his defence, but he ended up serving nine months in prison.

There is also an analysis of the campaign against Work Choices. The book characterises the unions’ approach as “piecemeal” and consistent with the ACTU’s strategy in the MUA dispute. Defiance of the laws was not coordinated and lacked planning, and action against the laws was delayed until the legislation was enacted. The protests were exercises in containment and were by and large stage-managed affairs; the efforts of the trade union leadership were half-hearted. Strike action was limited, and when it did occur, it was not because of any initiative of the union leaders. This squares with my own experience at the Queensland Rail workshops: union members were directed by their officials to apply for leave to attend the protests; strike action was strictly forbidden. The campaign was subservient to the electoral needs of the ALP:

“In the piecemeal approach there is little disciplined, organised and systematic co-ordination of defiance of the laws. This was evident in the defiance of anti-picketing laws in Sydney where workers, acting spontaneously, tore up railway tracks, and welded barricades in front of wharf gates. There is little effort committed to political organisation; workers are left to their own devices, often acting spontaneously without planned political support of their actions. It is the workers who will wear the repression. This may reduce legal sanctions for the unions or their peak body. For example, the ACTU were distanced from the 1998 MUA pickets by court rulings. One of the ACTU’s main lawyers in the MUA dispute claims that he was banned by the court from attendance at the pickets, and took no part in haranguing scabs.”

The book contains much justified criticism of the ALP and the trade union bureaucracy, but errs in relation to the far left, perhaps reflecting syndicalist attitudes towards political parties. For instance, it equates the selling of left-wing papers at pickets with parliamentary opportunism. However, this is a minor distraction and even contradictory to an otherwise well thought through and refreshingly honest book. The analysis of the MUA dispute and its political implications is spot on. The book is conclusive on the ever present need to struggle and is emphatic that the trade union struggle is always a political one.

You can order the book by sending your address with $10 plus postage to: LeftPress, PO Box 5093, West End Qld 4101.