Monday, November 06, 2006
Rebuilding Democratic, Militant Unionism- Socialist Alliance
A. Introduction--the union movement today
On a global scale, there are more workers and more unionists than ever before. In newly industrialised countries such as Brazil, Korea and Indonesia, unionism has taken root. There has been a huge growth in the working class and in the number of unionists. These new unions often have a militant outlook.
In contrast, in Australia and other advanced capitalist countries union membership has been in decline for decades.
The ALP-ACTU Accord played a central role in this decline. Under Hawke and Keating, unions gave up on rank-and-file organising, looking entirely to deals at the top to advance wage, conditions and the “social wage”.
The results were disastrous—wages and conditions declined, social provision improved only marginally, the agenda of wholesale privatisation was set, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) and the Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) were smashed.
Even worse was the demobilisation of the unions. Official rank-and-file structures decayed. Delegates committees became entrenched in constant negotiations over implementation of national agreements, which always included productivity improvement. Mass meetings were few and far between, industrial action even rarer.
That legacy of hollowed-out unions continues to be a dead weight today. However, there are the beginnings of a revival, especially in Victoria. The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and other construction unions have made gains on hours and conditions. Workers First emerged as a potent force in the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), supported by the membership on a platform of standing up for members and being prepared to take on the boss.
Some of the densest concentrations of unionism can now be found in female dominated industries such as health and education which have immense potential.
The Textile, Clothing and Footware Union of Australia (TCFUA) in Victoria has shown what good leadership can achieve. A union whose leadership was racist, sexist and in the bosses’ pocket has been completely turned around.
Workers have the chance today to rebuild militant democratic unions. What our class needs is political perspective and organisation. Active, organised and militant trade unions are important in giving workers a sense of their own power when they are organised collectively.
Historically, union organising has usually involved a conscious intervention by the left. Two examples of this are the Militant Minority Movement, led by the Communist Party in the 1930s and the 1970s shop committees and workers’ control movements, led by the Communist Party left and other socialists.
In Australia today, there are hundreds of militant unionists scattered through a wide range of unions and workplaces. If these union militants were organised, they could have a big impact transforming more unions into more militant organisations. Socialist Alliance, as a united left organisation, could play a key role here, especially in countering the politics of the ALP leadership.
B. Socialists and unions
(i) General: Socialists since Marx have seen trade unions as the vital basic organisations of working class people.
It is only through struggle that the working majority in society wins any gains from the capitalists in our conditions of life. It follows that the better our organization and capacity to struggle, the more we can win and defend. A class without unions is atomised exploitation fodder for the owners of the workplaces.
The working class is also the bearer of the “the other world that is possible”. Only the workers have the social power to challenge the rule of the capitalists—only the workers have the motivation to establish a society based on solidarity. Hence, trade unions are indispensable arenas of struggle for all-round working class, i.e. socialist, politics.
(ii) Our principles: Socialist Alliance’s attitude to unions stands on these principles: solidarity, democracy, unity in action, independence from the state and the bosses, militancy, preparedness to break the law when necessary, internationalism and adopting a working class position on all political issues.
These ideas direct our action in the unions, which Socialist Alliance will strive to implement by showing leadership in practice. That leadership is not a one-way street—socialists have to learn as well as teach. We can draw out lessons from the whole history of the working class movement, but we have always to listen to developments amongst the union ranks.
Our goal is to restore the unions to the membership so that they truly become instruments with which a politically conscious membership decides on its own interests and action.
(iii) Leaders and ranks: Unions are most effective as fighting organisations when the ranks are organised, politically conscious and in control of the union and when they have a leadership with the will and the political understanding to lead struggles.
Often, however, unions produce leaderships that prefer an easy life of negotiations with the boss to the hard yakka of workplace organising and industrial action. Sometimes a sell-out official has started as a militant, but succumbed to the pressures of office. Sometimes they have been in the bosses’ pocket from the start.
Sometimes they have genuine motives but have succumbed to the idea that workers can only safeguard their jobs if they help increase their employers’ profits.
There are many such tame-cat union leaderships—the Shop Distributive and Allied (SDA) union leaders are an example of the worst sort. They constantly do sweetheart deals over the heads of the membership and use their base to pursue a right-wing Christian moralist agenda.
At all times we seek to organise the ranks, to increase the numbers, morale and fighting strength of the union membership.
When union leaderships act to forward those goals, we support them. If they do not, we work with other militants to pressure the leaders. If that is not effective, we work with others to organise rank-and-file action independently and develop an alternative leadership. In the early twentieth century words of J. T. Murphy in The Miners’ Next Step: “If the leaders won’t lead, the rank and file must”.
C. Unions and political representation: building the working-class political alternative
Unions cannot abstain from politics. Solidarity is not only among unionists, but also for all those whom capitalism does over.
That means unions need to encourage debate on broad political issues amongst the ranks and build a base of support for action around those issues.
Come election time, unions have a responsibility to their members to work for a government of the workers.
In Australia, most unions have seen the Australian Labor Party (ALP) as their party—either through formal affiliation or through informal ties (e.g. the teachers’ unions have rarely been affiliated, but their officials have generally been in the ALP and they have worked hard to return ALP governments in elections).
Socialist Alliance works towards a break by militant unions to build a mass class-struggle workers’ party.
As steps along this road:
# We argue for unions to take a stand on politics and to involve their membership in those debates;
# Where unions are affiliated to the ALP, precise tactics will vary. We argue for the union to seriously take up the fight against the pro-capitalist politics of the ALP leaders;
# We stress the need for unions to organise publicly for pro-worker politics. We argue against secret deals with ALP leaders and governments;
# Where there is a move towards disaffiliation from the ALP, we argue for rank-and-file debate and conscious, democratic choice by the union membership instead of intra-bureaucratic factional maneuvering;
# Disaffiliation on the basis of “anti-political” conservative politics is no advance—what is needed is a concrete alternative that will improve the union members’ political representation;
# For disaffiliation from the ALP to be political step forward, there needs to be a process of generating rank-and-file involvement in the decision as to what alternative political proposal the union should adopt;
# Socialist Alliance will take every possible opportunity to promote, initiate and/or host debate and discussion on the road to rebuilding an authentic political voice for working people, within individual unions and across the movement as a whole;
# Socialist Alliance does not, at the present stage of its development, encourage unions to affiliate directly to it. We do urge unions to fund political parties, Socialist Alliance included, to the degree that the union membership judges that such parties advance their interests; and
# We encourage as many individual unionists, including militant union officials, to join and participate in the Socialist Alliance.
D. What Socialist Alliance needs to do in unions
Socialist Alliance offers big possibilities for a trade union practice that goes beyond that of any individual affiliate. In many unions, Socialist Alliance has a substantial number of members. If we organise them and develop well-grounded perspectives, we can have a big impact.
Already Socialist Alliance is beginning to be seen as an organising force among militant workers.
Our work this far has been limited, but promising. We have built successful meetings in solidarity with the Skilled Six and Workers First and have made a start on organising networks in particular unions.
The Trade Union Solidarity Committee in Melbourne is a useful initiative—holding regular forums and producing a trade union bulletin.
Socialist Alliance needs to prepare for long-term consistent work—this is a perspective over years, not days or months.
To have an impact in the unions, Socialist Alliance needs to:
# Be active and provide serious leadership on the day-to-day issues of wages and working conditions;
# Propose campaigns around key issues such as the shorter working week and propose that unions adopt the method of pattern bargaining instead of enterprise bargaining;
# Work to rebuild delegate structure, workplace meetings and trade union democracy and participation;
# Propose campaigns that extend and defend the interests of the members of individual unions and organized labour as a whole (for example, shorter working week, repeal of the Workplace Relations Act, against full privatization of Telstra, in defence of Medicare);
# Promote solidarity with unions and unionists that are being victimized and attacked by the state and the bosses;
# Integrate struggles over the special needs of women workers, lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered workers and people of colour;
# Consistently take an internationalist, working-class approach, especially to “difficult” issues (refugees, racism), in this way, combatting Australian nationalism and xenophobia;
# Bosses try to divide workers along race, sex, skill level and age lines. It is important that Socialist Alliance activists in unions strive for their unions to overcome these divisions in order to build a strong union based on solidarity;
# Unions need to have a class approach when taking up campaigns. Issues such as the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, racism, women’s rights, Medicare, workers compensation, unemployment benefits and Work for the Dole schemes are all class issues. These issues may only directly affect some union members, but indirectly, these issues effect all union members because they affect the whole of the working class—the family members of unionists, unemployed workers and retired workers. Social issues need to be taken up by unions because they are working class issues;
# Be in the forefront of campaigns to organise and unionise unorganised workers, especially young workers and casual workers;
# Maintain a flexible attitude to existing rank-and-file formations and class-struggle leaderships. We will apply the principle that we support leaders when they lead; and
# Help members in non-militant unions develop as workplace delegates and develop unionism in the workplace.
To be able seriously to take up these goals, Socialist Alliance will undertake the following:
# Where useful, establish Socialist Alliance networks in individual unions at local, state and national level, open to non-Socialist Alliance members and operating as loose collectives based on consensus;
# As these networks develop their organisation and a perspective for the union, they should consider establishing workplace and/or union-wide bulletins as well as establishing and/or strengthening—with others—a broader militant and democratic formation;
# The networks will promote alternative policies and democratic, militant unionism in union elections. This may mean supporting existing leaderships that are leading struggles (for example, the Victorian and WA CFMEU, Victorian AMWU Workers First, Victorian TCFUA) or participating in electoral challenges;
# Seek to recruit unionists into the Socialist Alliance. As part of this we seek to build the links within the Alliance between members who are active trade unionists and other members who are students, fulltime political organizers, unemployed, and others. We aim to become a major resource for militant unionists.
# As appropriate, establish local, state and national cross- union committees (e.g. the Victorian Trade Union Solidarity Committee) open to non-Socialist Alliance members;
# Develop Socialist Alliance trade union publications (state and national) as organisation of our work develops; and
# Hold education and training forums and workshops on the history of struggles, debates in the union movement and organising methods, in order to develop both the practical skills and political analysis of unionists.
# When appropriate, initiate a national conference of union militants.
This perspective outlines a significant amount of work. Implementing these decisions and further developing our political orientation and practice in the unions needs a serious commitment from all levels of the Alliance. Branches, regional, state and national bodies will need to organise regular discussions to ensure that priority and focus are maintained.
National Conference believes that trade union organization is a crucial issue for Socialist Alliance. As such National Conference directs the National Executive to do the following: a sub-committee be setup to construct a trade unionists’ education program. This to be properly resourced and deal with: history of struggles, debates in the union movement, and organizing methods as well as strategy, tactics and critical analysis skills. Further that these courses should be delivered locally, regionally, statewide and nationally and be open to non-Socialist Alliance members.
If resources allow, the working group, in conjunction with the National Executive, is to produce a pamphlet which runs over the history of the trade union movement, current debates and industrial issues, and the Socialist Alliance trade union policy. Such a pamphlet would include the Liberals’ anti-union agenda, the Workplace Relations Act, as well as tactical issue such as pattern bargaining. As part of the education program and the Alliance’s activity the working group, in liaison with relevant state and national organizations to investigate the possibility of hosting broad meetings/seminars on the attacks on the unions and resistance to these attacks, and the fight to build militant, democratic unions.