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Monday, July 27, 2009

Don’t flog a dead horse, bury it by Dick Nichols

As the Australian Labor Party holds its 2009 national conference, there’s an old union saying that’s never been more apt: if you don’t fight, you lose.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and Unions NSW seem determined to lose. They have successfully put pressure on the building industry unions not to protest against Labor’s continuation of Howard’s Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) Gestapo at the conference. Their alternative tactic is a powerful lunchtime fringe seminar: “Jobs and Rights for Working Australians”.

There’ll be no embarrassing revolt like last November’s successful demonstrations in support of Victorian Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union official Noel Washington. That was a rare win in the general tide of retreat since the ACTU leadership kept pretending that Rudd Labor would “tear up” Work Choices — even as workplace relations minister Julia Gillard and PM Kevin Rudd made it clear Labor would preserve core parts of the previous government’s hated law.

This loss of ground is the bitter fruit of the ACTU’s refusal to fight the ALP, its don’t-embarrass–Kevin-and-Julia-too-much approach, and of its tender support for yesterday’s union mates turned ministers — Martin Ferguson, Simon Crean, Greg Combet and co.

Now, with a federal election in the wind, we can bet the ACTU will say Labor has been trying to improve the building industry law but the Coalition plus “independents” Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding have blocked them. And that our energy should be spent not in protest against Labor but in helping the ALP to win control of the Senate.

Swallow that argument and we’ll just keep going backwards.

Not only because the Labor machine will do behind-the-scenes deals to make sure conservative independents win Senate seats before Greens and the left. And not only because Rudd and Gillard have made it clear the ACTU pipe dream of a second term of Labor industrial relations reforms is just that — a mirage.

Most importantly, it’s because it stops us thinking hard about the two most important questions:

1. How should unions defend workers’ conditions and rights under the anti-worker “Fair Work” Act?

2. How can betrayed unions help to build a workers’ alternative to the “Labor” Party, which has sold us out time and again?

Of course, these are tough issues with no simple answer. There is, for example, no single recipe that applies across all industries for defending and extending workers’ wages and conditions in the face of crippling anti-union laws.

But some things are certain: workers need union action now and will join unions and actively support them if they dare to struggle. Unions have neutralised anti-union laws in the past — the whole history of the movement has been an unending battle to advance workers’ interests against laws designed to restrict them.

What counts most of all is the will to struggle. And when we fight we can win, as with the refusal to co-operate with the ABCC, a tactic successfully implemented by Washington.

What about the even harder issue of creating a real workers’ party?

At least the first step is easy: stop giving the ALP workers’ and unions’ money. That’s what the Queensland branch of the Electrical Trades Union is doing so long as the state ALP government pushes on with its privatisation plans. Similarly, the construction industry unions should deduct all fines imposed by the ABCC from their contributions to the ALP.

The second step is for all those forces — unions, left political parties, social, environment, community and solidarity organisations — that recognise the need for working people to have their own political voice, to start some serious discussion. A good first step would be a labour political representation conference, an organised discussion about how to begin building political representation for working people, sponsored by unions or union branches sick of being knifed by Labor.

The Socialist Alliance is committed to doing all we can to help reverse the industrial and political retreat of the labour movement. We want to be part of, and contribute to, any discussion about how to do this. We want to hear everybody’s thoughts about how it can best be done.

The pro-corporate ALP is a dead horse. The job of organised labour is to bury it.

[Dick Nichols is a national co-convener of the Socialist Alliance.]

From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #804 29 July 2009.

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