Socialist Alliance trade union perspectives

December, 2009
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Role of trade unions

The role of the trade unions is to defend the basic interest of the workers, such as working conditions and wages. Unions have come into being with capitalism itself as working class organisation of resistance to the exploitation workers faced by the bourgeoisie. The existence of unions also highlights a fundamental conflict of class interests inherit in the capitalist mode of production that strives forever for increasing profits at the expense of workers.

Regarding industrial issues, the main tasks facing union militants in the movement are:

  1. To achieve legislative change in favor of worker’s rights through mass campaigns
  2. To fight attacks taking place at individual workplaces

The Rudd government and Industrial Relations

The election of the Rudd Labor government in 2007 on the back of the “Your Rights at Work” campaign and with the promise to rip up the Coalition government’s infamous WorkChoices legislation (2005) has not brought any significant change in favour of workers and trade unions.

The ALP’s new industrial relations regime “Fair Work Australia” (FWA) is a continuation of Work Choices with the aim to make unions redundant as representatives and bargaining agents for workers. FWA contains strict limitations on the right to organise, bargain and strike and has failed to restore unfair dismissal provisions to those prevailing before WorkChoices. FWA still outlaws industry wide (pattern bargaining). 

Under FWA’s process of award modernisation, many awards are being stripped of hard-won conditions and entitlements, clearly putting many employees, especially women, at a disadvantage. All awards must include a ‘flexibility clause’ that allows for individual contracts.

FWA is designed to atomise the work force and isolate trade unions through secondary boycott legislation; is very costly to members and criminalises industrial action through the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

To date, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has supported FWA.

The notorious Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) continues to exist and persecute building workers like Ark Tribe for refusing to answer questions about industrial action. In 2010 the ABCC will be replaced by a new building industry inspectorate, which will essentially retain many of the coercive powers of the ABCC.

Labor’s plans to harmonise all Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) laws into one set of new laws poses a serious threat to current OHS legalisation in Victoria and New South Wales in particular. The new set of laws is designed to take away some hard-fought-for rights and minimise the power of OHS representatives to make important and potentially life-saving decisions. At the same time negligent bosses get away with murder because of the absence of industrial manslaughter legislation

Global Economic Crisis

The Global Economic Crisis (GEC) has been very effectively used for a range of anti-worker measures by employers and the government. Pressure has been put on individual workers and unions to accept wage restraint, reduce their working days (“down days”) and annual leave—at their own expense. The ACTU has supported the “down-day” model “to save jobs” when in fact this short-sighted measure helps save businesses, not jobs.

There has been minimal resistance to this pressure by most union leaderships due to a combination of their inability to counter the boss’s arguments; their class collaborationist position; their fear of job cuts and their inability to envisage how a militant campaign could win.

Wages and Equal Pay, parental leave

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 1999-2000, the richest 20% of income units received 48.5% per cent of total income. The poorest 20% of income units received less than 4% of total income.

The situation for women is even worse. In May 2009, the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated that women earn 7.4% less then men for full time employment; in industry sectors this gap can be as large as 30%. Taking into account part-time and casual work, the total gap is actually 35%.

Australia is one of only two OECD countries without some form of paid maternity leave. We have witnessed a back pedalling by the Rudd government on the question of parental leave (citing the Global Economic Crisis), leaving Australian women and parents with a highly inadequate scheme

Minimum wage

The current minimum wage is set at $543.78 a week before tax. On July 7, the Australian Fair Pay Commission (FPC) ruled out a pay increase citing the Global Economic Crisis as the key factor. Adjusting for inflation and a rise in living costs, the “wage freeze” imposed by Harper amounts to a pay cut in real terms for workers. 

In its submission to the FPC, the federal government did not advocate an increase in dollar terms but warned that a higher minimum wage increase is likely to encourage higher wage claims and outcomes in workplace bargaining negotiations, and hence flow-on to a greater number of employees.  

The Federal government was referring to a number of large certified agreements due to expire in 2009 in car manufacturing, construction and the retail sector. It is highly likely that a decent minimum wage increase would also increase the bargaining power of these workers and lead to a better wage outcome.

Unions and the ALP

The Your Rights at Work campaign was rapidly demobilised after Rudd’s election victory in 2007, which weakened the ability to fight Labor’s unfair FWA. Sections of the union movement thought that Labor would get rid of Work Choices. It is only now that Labor’s Fair Work Act is in place that the union movement is beginning to realise how inadequate it is. 

Trade unions’ traditional links and affiliations to the ALP have undermined and compromise union leaderships ability and willingness to fight for workers interests. The election of a federal Labor government has put this into a new light. 

Most trade union officials are reluctant to criticise the federal ALP and therefore also to mobilise against its industrial relations regime. They do not want to embarrass the party (although this is not always the case at the state level). With some notable exceptions, unions have focused their energy on lobbying politicians with little positive outcome for their members.

In the meantime attacks have continued and intensified, such as against the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) in Victoria. These attacks not only come from the bosses but also government officials and agencies and also other unions.

This union orientation to the ALP, combined with the leaderships’ lack of a strategic view on the way forward, has led to some demoralisation among the more militant officials and union members.

The ACTU has been increasingly exposed as a simple mouthpiece for the ALP.

Union resistance/responses to Rudd

However, tensions between the union movement and Labor governments have grown over the last two years with Rudd’s refusal to break with Howard’s’ anti worker regime.

At a state level, the NSW and Queensland government’s attempts to privatise public assets has met with some resistance from the union movement. The campaign in Queensland, which has been led by the Electrical Trades Union, has been more broad-based than that in NSW, where it led to a compromise supported by much of the union movement. The decline in the organising strength of unions is being exploited by Labor machines.

We have also seen important struggles take place, such as the National Tertiary Education Union’s fight against federal government attempts to further casualise and privatise the higher education sector. The Victorian CFMEU and AMWU took on construction giant Holland during the “Westgate Bridge’ dispute over critical employment standards and the right for those two unions to organise on Holland’s site. The Victorian branch of the AMWU has also successfully fought employer attempts to use Labor’s mandatory “flexibility” arrangements to introduce individual contracts through the back door. The national campaign to abolish the ABCC and drop charges against Ark Tribe is also still continuin.

Militant unionism and independence from ALP

Most workers would today question the value and the point of being affiliated to the ALP if given the chance by their unions. Some unions have cried foul in NSW over government selections of cabinet members etc, and have announced they will not pay party fees. The ETU in Victoria has already started to fund election candidates other than ALP picks. But these moves still fall short of even the limited steps made by some British unions to break with Labor and re-establish a political voice for workers.

Workers are still prepared to take action and follow their union leadership when it leads. Two recent examples in Geelong where workers took action were over the sacking of council workers and at the Geelong Hospital where 24 workers were to be sacked before Christmas. In both case workers walked off the job in wild cat strikes and won their demands within a day or two. It is not always as simple as this but it does demonstrate that where unions lead and train their members action is possible and victory for workers is more often than not the result.

Unionists and climate change

A CSIRO study indicated that 2.7 million jobs could be created in Australia over the next 15 years in any switch to a low-carbon economy and the deployment of renewable energy; and this is a conservative estimate. The majority of union leaderships have, in general, not taken up climate change in a serious way with its members. 

Australian Workers Union secretary Paul Howes and CFMEU mining and energy division president Tony Maher are outspoken in their support for the bosses’ and the government’s go-slow agenda on climate change. Howes’s push for a nuclear option as a solution to climate change might well get a hearing amongst many workers.

Yet, while the ACTU as given uncritical support to the Rudd government’s carbon trading scheme (CPRS), many individual union leaders unofficially support green jobs and a transition to renewable energy. 


Socialists in the union movement 

The Socialist Alliance recognises the important role socialists play in the trade union movement to defend and extend workers interests and is committed help build resistance in a range of unions.

  • The Socialist Alliance recognises the limitations of trade unions vis-a-vis building a working class alternative beyond capitalism. Socialist Alliance is committed to fight alongside fellow workers for industrial and immediate economic rights plus engage in the political struggle to build consciousness beyond reformism.
  • As part of this political struggle Socialist Alliance members commit to introduce and support non-industrial issues, such as indigenous rights, climate change, women’s rights and anti war – building solidarity with broader sections of the community and also internationally
  • The Socialist Alliance recognises that the balance of power within the trade union movement favours ALP politics, class-collaboration and narrow national interests. At the same time we recognise that a substantial section of trade union activists either feel betrayed by Labor or are opposed to Labor. Socialist Alliance is committed to keep working with and strengthening the militant class struggle wing of the union movement.
  • The Socialist Alliance will actively promote and support actions that contest the legitimacy of the FWA and support and participate in individual workplace struggles and union campaigns.
  • The Socialist Alliance recognises the crucial importance of building the climate change movement within unions, both at a policy level, but also at a grass-roots activist level. Our task is to win workers and union leaderships to understand the necessity of taking action on climate change to help this movement win its demands for public ownership, green jobs and sustainable renewable energy.

Building Socialist Alliance

  • The Socialist Alliance will continue with its task to build rank-and-file bases in unions to draw rank-and-file activists towards class struggle activism and socialism. We also project to work within unions as officials and to win leadership positions where strategically useful.
  • The Socialist Alliance is committed to eencourage members to get jobs were we can do effective trade union work and help build a class struggle wing, (e.g. education sector)
  • The Socialist Alliance is committed to continue organising on a union sectoral basis and coordinate our activity in a national level
  • The Socialist Alliance pledges to use Green Left Weekly in the trade union movement as a tool to reflect government industrial relations policy, workplace and unions struggles and promote Socialist Alliance solutions