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Thursday, April 29, 2010

May Day 2010: "Let’s get serious about building an alternative to the ALP"-Socialist Alliance

                                         Rudd and Gillard: Strangling Our Rights at Work

What more do Federal and State Labor governments have to do to workers before we start getting serious about building a working-class political alternative to the ALP?
Look at the first four months of 2010:

• Occupational Health and Safety standards have been reduced in the name of “harmonisation”, even as deaths on building sites have climbed since the Australian Building and Construction Commission Gestapo was set up;

• Julia Gillard has called on high school parents to strike break and oversee literacy and numeracy tests if the Australian Education Union goes ahead with a ban on their introduction;

• Since “modern, simplified” awards came into force under Fair Work Australia, tens of thousands of workers face wage cuts and are being driven to appeal to FWA to ensure they will not be worse off;

• The latest report of the International Labor Organisation’s Committee of Experts has confirmed that the ABCC breaches conventions signed by Australia. The ILO is waiting for Canberra “to indicate any measures taken to instruct the ABCC to refrain from imposing penalties or commencing legal proceedings” while new legislation is before parliament. But Julia Gillard has ignored the ILO’s request. She has also made a point of visiting the Pilbara to show her solidarity with the mining bosses and—effectively backing the ABCC—scold workers at the Pluto LNG processing plant who struck “illegally” against Woodside Petroleum’s plan to force them from fixed to motel accommodation.

• Bosses are using the Fair Work Act to tie unions up in endless costly litigation, as in the Tahmoor (NSW) mineworkers EBA struggle. For 18 long months multinational mining giant Xstrata has refused to negotiate the EBA in good faith, using dirty tactics such as lock-outs to wear the mineworkers down.

The Rudd government’s industrial law is making it near impossible for the union movement to defend workers around issues not covered by their EBA. In the face of the pay cut of $10-$25 a week due to the wage freeze imposed by the last decision of the Fair Pay Commission, the ACTU is claiming a $27 increase in the minimum wage, affecting 1.4 million workers. ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence recently took four of these workers to hear him address the National Press Club and challenged “anyone to look them in the eye and tell them they don’t deserve a pay rise”.

And what if the new Minimum Wage Panel of FWA decides they don’t? Unions can’t launch industrial action in defence of the low-paid without breaking the law. They would also face massive fines if they walked off to demand serious action on global warming, to protest Labor’s own industrial law or to show solidarity with workers in struggle anywhere.

And that’s just at the federal level. In NSW and Queensland workers and unions have been fighting hated privatisations. No wonder that polling by Unions NSW shows that a majority of union members would vote Green, Independent or Coalition at the next NSW election, and that more unionists would vote Coalition than ALP!

ALP link a millstone

So why should unions continue to support Labor?  
We’ve all heard the standard reply—the Coalition would be worse and Labor has to be supported to keep them out of office. The latest expression of this line is the ACTU’s campaign against Tony Abbott—he’d bring back Work Choices by another name.

As long as this argument rules in the union movement we are doomed to permanent retreat—bound to support one slightly less anti-union party over the other. And Labor governments will always get away with implementing the smallest possible improvements—safe in the knowledge that their union supporters will paint these as massive pro-worker reforms.

Take the ACTU’s recent celebration of the first year of the Fair Work Act. Because it has abolished Australian Workplace Agreements, partially restored protection from unfair dismissal, put in place a slightly improved safety net and an arbitration system with draconian powers (“independent umpire”) Jeff Lawrence describes FWA as “light years away from Work Choices”!

Of course Abbott will try to put as much of Work Choices back on the agenda as he can. Yet while unions must warn about this danger, why do they have to remain virtually silent about Labor’s failure to rip up Work Choices? Why does the ACTU never point out that FWA is actually worse than Howard’s 1996 Workplace Relations Act? Why must it mean that Labor gets almost unconditional support, both political and financial?

Let’s not forget that Labor has refused to repeal the Fraser government’s 1977 secondary boycott laws and all subsequent penal provisions. These make organised labour unequal in law with employer organisations.

Under FWA our right to organise is also stuck at an enterprise level—unlike the employers who can set their prices and conditions of sale across entire industries. That defeat was imposed by the Keating government. As a result our unions as a whole have become weaker even with every success at the negotiating table.

That’s because the best EBA result still accepts a legal framework which binds us to show no solidarity with our fellow workers. Stronger unions may win good agreements, but weaker ones lose out and workers increasingly wonder about the value of unions at all.

To reverse this retreat we must grasp that support for Labor is not key to keeping the Liberals out of office. The best way—which also keeps Labor under pressure—is for unions to remain independent of the ALP and run strong campaigns for their members. Then workers who see that Labor has failed to deliver will be much less likely to vote for the worse option of the Liberals.

At election time our unions should support all candidates prepared to stand with organised labour in pursuit of our rights—socialists, Greens, independents and even Labor candidates who pledge to put workers interests first.

Getting serious about an alternative to Labor

And that’s just at the federal level. In NSW and Queensland workers and unions have been fighting hated privatisations. No wonder that polling by Unions NSW shows that a majority of union members would vote Green, Independent or Coalition at the next NSW election, and that more unionists would vote Coalition than ALP!

There are heartening signs that some in the trade union movement are searching for an alternative to the political retreat of our movement. Victorian Electrical Trades Union secretary Dean Mighell has called for unions to break their ties with Labor; the ETU Queensland branch has sacked two MPs who refused to oppose the Bligh government’s privatisations; the Victorian branch of the CFMEU has called for a Senate vote for the Greens. These signs must be strengthened.
The crucial step is to spread the growing discussion on union political representation out to all union members. This could start with special delegate seminars where the arguments for and against unions breaking with the ALP could be debated.

The discussion would involve financing existing political parties. One important point would be to deduct all fines—starting with fines imposed through the ABCC— from donations to the ALP, redistributing them to alternative parties and independents.

Thirdly, unions committed to creating an alternative political voice for working people should discuss with all left, progressive and community organisations how they might become involved. That approach would also put positive pressure on the divided left to seek greater unity.

For its part, the Socialist Alliance is 100% committed to helping build a political voice—a new workers’ party—that would truly represent and fight for their interests. Let us work together and help meet the most important challenge facing working people in this country!

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