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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Should unions leave Labor? by Tim Gooden

Congratulations to Victorian Electrical Trades Union secretary Dean Mighell for his frank comment in the February 11 The Age ("Unions must leave Labor").

Unionists, including ALP members, must not be afraid to have this debate publicly. The troubled trade union movement cannot move forward if discussion is kept away from rank-and-file members.

Everyone knows why the debate is on: the union movement fought (and spent millions) to get the rid of Work Choices, only to have the Rudd government replace it with "Work Choices lite" (the Fair Work Act).
Howard's Australian Building Construction Commission still prowls building sites and its powers have been extended. Contact with union organisers and lawful industrial action is restricted, and award simplification makes many workers worse off.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions says that the Fair Work Act contains 15 serious breaches of human rights, but does nothing about it — it doesn’t want to embarrass Rudd.
So should unions dump the ALP? Absolutely.

Dean Mighell is right — passing over workers’ money to a party that represents big business has not worked. However, disaffiliation alone is not enough. It could even weaken the disaffiliating union when it comes under attack from a Labor government.

Where does the union movement then head? Dean Mighell’s solution is to convert the unions into a politically independent lobby group. The problem with this approach is that neither of the major parties are going to offer any concessions to workers' interests unless they have to, and converting the existing half-demoralised union movement into a politically unattached lobby group won't achieve that.

Neither will using disaffiliation as a threat to scare the ALP into paying attention to worker and union demands. The disaffiliation manoeuvres of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union in Western Australia were water off a duck's back to the former state Labor government.

Labor is also trying to move away from relying on donations and affiliation towards taxpayer-funded elections. That would dramatically undermine union influence within the party and kill another tactic that unions have tried to get Labor governments to listen to them — only funding Labor candidates that support union values and demands.

This tactic has been widely used by British unions. The most principled and committed union-backed Labour parliamentarians remain impotent on the back benches; the others have succumbed to the call of personal ambition. The political strength of the British working class has not improved.

Finally, there's the tactic of supporting other existing parties that support worker and union demands — like the Greens and the Socialist Alliance. The union movement should definitely fund the political forces most sympathetic to it. If the Greens won the senate balance of power at the next election it would rob a second-term Rudd government of its pretext for refusing to improve industrial laws.

However, it would not shift the biggest roadblock — a political system where neither of the "parties of government" are friends of working people.

To begin to move that barrier the union movement has to relearn the lesson that led to the formation of the ALP in the first place, after the failure of the 1890s strikes: that industrial action was inadequate without a political voice.

The union movement should think about creating a political process where union members and working people can develop demands and elect candidates based on those demands; and guarantee the ability to recall candidates if they stray.

This sounds like pie in the sky at the moment. Two things that would make it more real are:
If some unions opened up a rank-and-file debate about affiliation to the ALP. They would learn that union members are sick to death of their money being wasted on Rudd Labor and keen to discuss alternatives;

If existing socialist organisations got over the delusion that their program alone represents salvation for the working class, and started to take the issue of left unity seriously. A bigger, more united socialist left would help give the lie to the age-old ALP "truism" that there's no political home for workers outside Labor ranks.

In this year of national and state elections — when most union officials will be involved with party pre-selections and maneuvering — let’s have an open discussion on how workers can create their own political voice.

[Tim Gooden is the secretary of the Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council.]

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