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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Workers, unions and stopping Abbott by Tim Gooden

Tim Gooden

For many union leaders afraid of a Coalition victory on August 21, campaigning against Tony Abbott simply means campaigning for Julia Gillard.

With a conservative win on the cards unions have escalated their pro-ALP campaigning. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union — which has filled Labor’s coffers with more than $340,000 – has also enlisted its officials for ringarounds in marginal seats.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has levied affiliates $1 per member, raising a further $1.8 million for electoral advertising. After three weeks of campaigning it had spent $2.13 million on metropolitan TV and radio ads, with the Australian Nursing Federation adding $475,000 of its own.

ACTU nonsense about Labor

Workers have every reason to be concerned about a Coalition victory: a triumphant Abbott would doubtless try to reintroduce aspects of Work Choices.

But does this mean that to defend workers’ rights the Rudd-Gillard record must be glossed over? Can unions campaign effectively against Abbott without being straight about Labor’s Fair Work Act?

Unfortunately, in their desperation to build support for Labor, the majority of unions are being dishonest about its industrial relations record.

For example, the ACTU executive’s pre-election resolution lists “protection from unfair dismissal for all workers” as a gain under Labor. But most workers in small businesses for less than a year have no right to appeal against unfair dismissal.

Another supposed gain is protection of delegates who exercise their workplace rights. But any union official who leaves the office desk knows union activists are regularly targeted and sacked, with successful reinstatement a rarity.

Many hail the FWA as a return to collective bargaining. While some FWA provisions do force the boss to negotiate, this law also gives the bloody-minded employer intent on frustrating bargaining an arsenal of weapons, with no obligation to reach an agreement.

By contrast, the right to strike remains one of the most restricted in any developed country and violates International Labor Organisation standards.

This makeover of the FWA has taken place even though workplace minister Simon Crean told the ACTU executive that there would be no “second tranche” of workplace reforms if Labor wins. It would also reintroduce legislation — blocked by the Coalition in the Senate — to replace the Australian Building and Construction Commission with a similar body with “coercive powers”!

Labor’s only carrot for the unions is its “Fair Entitlements Guarantee”, covering workers in businesses that go broke. This revamped version of the Coalition’s scheme significantly increases the guarantee to four weeks of redundancy pay per year of work. A welcome reform, even if it comes too late for the tens of thousands hurt by the Global Financial Crisis.

It’s no surprise then that a number of unions have broken ranks with the ACTU line. The Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union, which disaffiliated from the ALP earlier this year, is backing the Greens, as is the Victorian United Firefighters Union.

The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union is calling for a Green vote in the Senate, citing the ABCC and the charges against shop steward Ark Tribe. But the CFMEU has also contributed funds to the ALP campaign and is backing Labor candidates in the House of Representatives.

The Melbourne test

The dodgy argument that the unions need to support the ALP to keep the Coalition out of government is most plausible in marginal seats where the contest is between Labor and Coalition. It loses all punch in ALP-Green marginals such Melbourne, where Greens candidate Adam Bandt came within 4.7% of winning in 2007.

Bandt, a former lawyer well-known for his work defending workers and unions, is standing again, facing ex-ACTU official Cath Bowtell.

Reflecting the polarisation within the unions, the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s August meeting hosted presentations from Bandt and Bowtell. In discussion Victorian ETU secretary Dean Mighell asked the ALP candidate if she would be prepared to break Labor caucus discipline and speak publicly on issues of concern to unions.

Bowtell said she would make a judgment about “the most effective way to achieve reform…sometimes you will get reform working quietly and sometimes speaking publicly.” Bandt commented that “the ALP caucus is where progressive voices go to be silenced.”

Despite the Greens’ record in moving for the full abolition of Work Choices and the ABCC, some unions have gone into overdrive to support Bowtell. The ACTU has also approached affiliates seeking access to their membership data to allow a “cold-calling” campaign.

The Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, Community and Public Sector Union and Australian Services Union have donated funds, staff time and office space. Left-wing unions such as the Maritime Union of Australia and AMWU are also reported to be assisting.

Responding to an ACTU request for membership data, Dean Mighell told the August 3 Australian: “I just question the judgment of the ACTU on a whole range of matters, given the Greens policy on industrial relations is far more favourable to Australian workers than the ALP’s, yet the ACTU issues a call to arms to support that party.”

On August 10, Crikey.com reported that CFMEU national president Dave Noonan said “a Bandt victory in Melbourne was a ‘zero sum game’ in terms of worker rights because it did nothing to keep Tony Abbott out of power”.

This argument is nonsense. A Greens victory in Melbourne wouldn’t deliver government to Abbott, but it /would /deliver an MP able to speak out against the ABCC, which all unions say they oppose.

Defeating Abbott, strengthening labour
Urging workers to put Abbott last would have been part of any serious union campaign at this election. But glossing over the reality of Labor in government only helps breed cynicism, confusion and disengagement. It is this mood that periodically delivers Coalition governments and allows Labor to get away with its own anti-worker policies when the political cycle turns.

By contrast, if the Greens win the Senate balance of power at this poll a returned Labor government will have to publicly bloc with the Coalition to keep anti-worker laws in place.

Unions have a duty to be honest with members and credit them with enough intelligence to vote against anti-worker policies without voting for the Coalition. When workers fully understand Labor’s failure to deliver, they are hardly likely to vote for more punishment under Abbott.

They will look for other parties to support, those — like socialists and Greens — that really do defend our rights at work.

Socialist Alliancce member Tim Gooden is Geeelong Trades Hall Council secretary. Written in a personal capacity

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