Union independence from Labor key to change the rules for workers

BIll Shorten (centre) with union officials Dave Noonan, Mick Buchan, Chris Cain and Mich-Elle Myers in Fremantle.

Activists from the Australian Council of Trade Union’s campaign to “change the rules” for workers were told the day before pre-polling started that its official how-to-vote for the May 18 federal election would call on voters to put Labor first.

Disappointed, though not too surprised by the decision, some activists have decided not to hand out for the campaign.

The ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign initially called on voters to “Put the Liberals last”. This was important for involving campaigners who are members of parties like the Greens and socialist groups or none at all.

Many activists also believe that maintaining the campaign’s independence from Labor improves its chances of holding the party to account if elected.

The importance of political independence is illustrated by the fact that although Labor has agreed to many of the ACTU’s demands, it has already signalled it may compromise on certain issues such as extending industry-wide bargaining rights beyond low-paid industries.

The union movement has a history of helping Labor win power.

The ACTU spent $10 million during the 2007 election as part of its Your Rights At Work (YRAW) campaign that handed Labor government.

But the ACTU made few demands on Labor to improve workers’ bargaining power and demobilised the YRAW campaign after the elections.

Instead, the ACTU went on to largely support Labor’s Fair Work legislation, even though it preserved the basic structure of the Coalition government’s industrial relations and labour laws.

Within two years, then-Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was on the offensive against unions, targeting construction unions willing to challenge Labor and demanding less union influence within the party.

Despite this, there were few mass union rallies on any issue, let alone rights at work.

Construction unions were demonised, isolated and forced to struggle alone until 2012.

Things changed a little after construction union workers and officials hauled before the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) began to be threatened with jail.

As other unions joined in protests led by these unions, Labor realised this could seriously damage its support base.

Even then, Labor only modified the Coalition’s pernicious ABCC laws, leaving the substance in place for a later Coalition government to resurrect it.

With Labor relegated again to opposition, Labor-aligned union leaders have been engaging in a concerted campaign to win disaffected unionists back into the party’s fold.

But former Geelong Trades Hall secretary and Socialist Alliance industrial relations spokesperson Tim Gooden says that unions need to understand “they would have great power over Labor’s workplace policies if they were independent, politically and industrially, from the party”.

“Moreover, without a campaign of struggle, workers and their unions will not win reforms or substantial pay rises.”

“This is what we learnt from the struggle in 2007.

“Handing out a Vote 1 Labor leaflet ties the unions to the fortunes of a Labor government first and foremost, not the needs of the rank-and-file. And Labor’s track record on industrial relations is shit.

“Just because Labor is the alternative party of government doesn’t mean we have to accept what it has on offer.

“The Greens, the Socialist Alliance and Victorian Socialists have much better IR policies and, unless we push for that, we condemn workers to more of the same.

“I will continue to campaign to get rid of the Liberals in Corangamite. But I’m not going to pretend that Labor just needs a big tick when it needs to be held to account.”

ACTU secretary Sally McManus defensively told another unionist, who said they would not hand out the how-to-vote, that people could easily vote 1 Greens rather than Labor if they wanted to.

McManus said: “Obviously if someone wants the Greens first they would reverse the 1 and 2, but as you know only the ALP has a chance in your seat.”

To argue that we must vote Labor because it is the only party that “has a chance” is to deny the fact that preferences are a powerful tool with which voters can send a message to the major parties while ensuring Labor gets the vote if more progressive candidates do not win.

Changing the rules for workers should mean campaigning at election time for voters to allocate preferences to parties on the basis of policy.

The ACTU could have directed voters to give their first preference to the Greens and socialists, whose policies include scrapping all anti-union laws and legalising the right to strike, while urging voters to put Labor before the Liberals.

Instead, the ACTU has once again chosen the dead end path of blanket support to Labor.

[Sue Bull is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive and a union educator.]