Wouldn't be bad if we did...
Mike Newman looks at the June 28th day of protest and rejects both the official 'waiting for Beazley' and the impatient-left's 'mass-strike' strategies
"They reckon we used to run the country a while back … I reckon it wouldn't be bad if we did run it."
Greg Combet, ACTU secretary
The Australia-wide June 28 day of protest against Howard’s boss-friendly industrial laws saw another determined response from the Australian working class. It is difficult to get fully accurate numbers for those attending, but the ACTU estimates that about 300,000 attended rallies across the country, with 150,000 cramming into the centre of Melbourne and up to 40,000 demonstrating at Blacktown in Sydney's west.
The Blacktown rally was well represented by a wide range of workers from many unions. Firefighters led the march. In terms of numbers the Teachers Federation was the biggest with post office workers, the AMWU manufacturing union and NUW storeman union having sizeable contingents, possibly because of Blacktown’s location close to one of Sydney’s manufacturing and logistics centres. The CFMEU numbers were smaller than might be expected, but still sizeable. CFMEU state secretary Andrew Ferguson and his organisers campaigned hard to build this rally. As Dan Murphy comments from Adelaide this might be due to the specific draconian laws aimed at building workers starting to bite with freedom to organise on building sites being curtailed.
Beyond the raw impressiveness of the union movement mobilising 300,000 to attend rallies and protests in the middle of the working week, there is a tangible shift in the mood among workers. On the train back to the city, there were the normal post-demonstration sentiments of those who gain confidence from a confirmation of the potential of our collective strength. But more importantly there was the beginning of a sentiment that we have the collective power to stop Howard’s laws and see the end of 10 years of coalition government. This is what the union officials and ALP leaders are banking on - and they may be right, yet it is a long time until the next election. And should we subordinate our strategic aims merely to the election of an ALP government?
The belief in the union movement that appeared briefly during the waterfront dispute is slowly beginning to reappear. This self-belief and confidence has been missing since the self-inflicted defeat of the prices-and-incomes Accord of the Hawke-Keating years.
Our growing confidence is starting to seep into and affect society in general. News reports would normally be rabidly anti-union, would downplay and dismiss the numbers attending, drag in the demand that the ALP to distance itself from union dinosaurs: this time the bosses' propaganda was most noticeable because it was almost absent.
Instead this is how the capitalist press delivered its reports:
Thousands rally in IR protest
“Almost 40,000 workers today called on the Howard Government to roll back its industrial relations reforms in what unions say is the largest protest rally ever staged in Sydney's suburbs. Teachers, police officers, nurses, truck drivers and firefighters were among those who gathered at Blacktown Showground, in Sydney's west, as part of today's national day of action. Carrying banners, waving flags and chanting loudly, the workers, many with children in tow, caused traffic chaos in surrounding suburbs. But their message was simple and peaceful – ‘Howard's IR reforms have to go.’”
The Sydney Morning Herald
Unions target MPs in IR protest
Thousands of South Australian workers taking part in a national protest against the federal government's industrial laws will target marginal Liberal MPs in Adelaide today. SA Unions' secretary Janet Giles said workers from every union in the state would be involved as well as many people who were not union members. Ms Giles said the South Australian action would focus on three key marginal Liberal seats that could decide the future of the coalition Government at the next election.
Thousands rally to protest new IR laws
Tens of thousands of workers who rallied against workplace reforms across Australia are the nation's true patriots, federal opposition leader Kim Beazley says. Mr Beazley described the campaign against the changes as a battle to retain the ordinary Australian way life, and promised Labor would rip up the laws once it was in office. The ACTU said 300,000 people marched in capital cities and dozens of regional centres around Australia to protest against the Howard government's unpopular WorkChoices laws.
This isn’t meant to demonstrate that Labor Tribune has started to go soft on the bosses’ media, their owners are our enemies. But even for these mouthpieces of the capitalist class, to have reported June 28 any differently was impossible. At the moment, and we cannot tell how long this will last, the labour movement, through the efforts of thousands of members, delegates, organisers and its leadership has gained control of the IR agenda, their ideas on this matter are to the forefront, what we do and say is the news – even the Murdochs, Packers and Fairfax cannot rub against the grain of sentiment in society, at least when that sentiment is moving behind the organised working class.
Interestingly the DSP performed its own count of the Blacktown rally. They didn’t come up with the 40,000 reported in The Sydney Morning Herald; instead they counted 15,000, about the same numbers reported by local police. The DSP has obvious political differences with the rally organisers; they had campaigned for a demonstration in Sydney's centre and have a vested interest in downplaying the numbers at Blacktown. But even if this didn’t sway the accuracy of their count, it must be extremely rare for the media to report union figures when the police numbers were so much lower. One TV news bulletin upped the figures even more and reported 50,000. In fact the numbers are barely important now, what is central is the impact we are having.
June 28 was another plank in the construction of the official movement's campaign against Howard's laws and his government. Howard’s counter-attack on Greg Combet’s comments about unions running Australia fell flat. The normal sure footedness and consummate media performer tried his best with: "It's not about the welfare of unionists, it's not about getting the unemployed back into work, it's not about boosting their real wages. It's about union power." But the coalition government is face-to-face with an Australian public that knows that its laws are designed to attack welfare, pay and conditions and threaten work-for-the-dole when workers refuse an individual workplace agreement. A growing number of workers knows this is about increasing profits and employer power at their and their family’s expense.
The most concrete effect that increased confidence has had was Beazley’s announcement at NSW ALP conference that a federal Labor government will abolish AWAs. Unsurprisingly, this was received by conference with rapturous applause and resulted in blanket media coverage for Beazley; he has misfooted critics inside the ALP and the Howard government. Anything is possible in politics; we’ll leave others to reduce perspectives to the art of ‘Marxist’ crystal ball gazing, but it seems unlikely that the federal leadership will be able to retreat from this pledge. If so then the next election will be fought out primarily on industrial relations.
However, Howard will try to play the "union behemoth" against "ordinary battlers". Union density has slumped to about 20 per cent of the workforce and it is important that the movement shows that WorkChoices is an attack on us as a class, not on the vested interests of the union hierarchy.
The fight by the unions against the IR legislation has been a success, at least in terms of the limited perspectives of the ACTU. Hearts and minds, setting the media agenda, affecting ALP policy, maintaining operational unity – it has gone pretty much to plan. It is possible that the current strategy could well result in a Beazley government. At this level Combet, Burrow, Boyd, Robinson, et al should be congratulated for the handling of the campaign. They might yet go down as master strategists of the modern movement, the union bosses that devised the campaign that swept Howard from office. If they do, they will have unprecedented influence on a Beazley government - and not through a class-peace Accord process, but one based on growing union militancy and confidence.
Many on the left don’t see or refuse to see how successful this has been to date. Taking a broad sweep of the Marxist groups outside the ALP, there are a number of common threads and similarities. First and foremost is the elevation of strikes to a level of strategic importance. The Socialist Alliance/DSP suggests that the movement follows the trajectory that French workers took to defeat the attacks on young workers. Nice idea, but as (the murdering bastard)Stalin once said of the Pope, "How many battalions do they have?"
Strategy and tactics
Labor Tribune takes a different view; we treat strikes not as the principle strategic weapon of the working class but as a tactical device to be used when appropriate. Defensively mostly and only offensively when it can inflict the greatest damage on our class opponents. Used offensively, it usually puts the question of state power on the agenda. And only a madman would think that is where we are now.
The strike tactic sits in an armoury of additional and, if skilfully used, powerful weapons such as community pickets, delegate organising, rallies, marches, media campaigns, boycotts, naming and shaming and so on. Tactics must include both legal and 'unlawful' responses to the bosses. Australia has a history of penal laws and workers breaking those laws, often successfully. Neither legal or illegal actions, strikes nor TV adverts, community action or mass rallies are fetishes, they are simply options available for workers to engage in the class struggle with.
While strikes can be very powerful tactical weapons, used incorrectly, they can also display unevenness and weakness. Our approach to industrial action now is still defensive. We do not have the operational or, more importantly, the political capacity to
"strike Howard's laws out" as our erstwhile Trotskyist friends would have us do.
However, the official campaign has its weaknesses too. We oppose basing our strategy on preparing for the next election and merely helping Beazley into power. This strategy concentrates on a top-down, PR-focused approach, with a few union tops directing the membership and delegates from above. Rank-and-file activity is to be turned on and off like a tap. The working class, in this theatre, is to have a walk-on, walk-off bit part.
This is not to dismiss the role of leadership; it is one of the vital elements in any battle. However, in the final analysis, the ability of Combet, Burrows, Robertson and their spin experts and strategy witchdoctors to lead this fight doesn’t rest on their individual skills, media savvy or ability to outfox the bosses, Howard and their media allies (though these are not unimportant). The strength of the movement rests fundamentally on the millions of workers and working-class families who want to fight to defeat the WorkChoices and who want to defend their trade unions.
If our strategy is subordinated to the election of a Beazley government, then we are missing a great opportunity to politically rebuild the labour movement. For Marxists, elections and strikes are important - but they are both tactics in an overall political approach to the capitalist state. We need to put politics to the fore through a republican campaign for profound constitutional change, not mere tinkering with what already exists. The right to bargain collectively, to strike and organise should be constitutionally guaranteed. To win this, we need to abolish the current constitution and replace it with a radical republican settlement with the working class at the centre of political life. As comrade Combet would have it, that wouldn't be so bad.
The 'general strike' demands of the Trotskyist far-left, while they sound radical, are in reality in subordinated to more reforms under the current monarchial constitution. Rhetoric about socialism is put off for the distant future.
However, the strategy of union officialdom essentially keeps our class passive. Demonstrate, organise and vote. Then go home. This misses the opportunity for activists to lean on the new found morale in the movement to repair the damage caused by the Accord and 10 years of coalition government. It is important that we don’t underestimate the damage, some of it self-inflicted, that has affected our movement. By the same token we must not underestimate the space that has been opened up for activists to begin repairing this damage. Opportunities like this are rare and the present one won’t last indefinitely – we need to seize it and start work now.
In its present state, the union movement is only capable of launching limited or defensive struggles – this is because our unions have been weakened. Union organisation relies on workplaces strength and the years of the Accord and after have seen this diminish dramatically. Some of it has been destroyed by economic change, some by attacks from governments (Labor and Coalition) wedded to a neoliberal agenda, some workplace power has been drawn back into union head-offices through bureaucratic mergers and mismanagement.
Delegate cover is patchy. For many members the union is something that pays a visit two or three times a year, if you're lucky. The first union that most people join when they are young is the conservative SDA retail union - and that really can't help. Where delegates are present, training and support from union offices is uneven, delegates rarely face election or competition for their role; most are volunteers filling a vacuum. But this layer of activists takes on the primary responsibility for establishing the day-to-day presence of the union in a workplace. It is incredible, almost reckless, that anyone could suggest a mass-strike strategy while shopfloor organisation remains unprepared. A mass-strike strategy now has more to do with the schematic and fantasy politics that some on the left pass on as Marxism, than with a serious thought-through response to the needs of, and what can be achieved by, our class in the here and now. At best it is leftist posturing that will attract a handful of recruits. It is driven by the impatience caused the impotence of the revolutionary left.
In contrast there is a control-freakery and conservative reluctance on the part of many unions to take the steps necessary to rebuild at a workplace level. For this to develop its own momentum, workplace delegates will need to organise independently of union head offices. Even so, a component of rebuilding workplace delegate structures involves unions to take the lead in co-ordinating where they are strong, and supporting where others are weak.
There was recently a small move in this direction among union organisers in western Sydney. Organisers from the CFMEU, NUW, NTEU, Teachers Federation, among others, planned to meet regularly to co-ordinate work and discuss issues across western Sydney. Instead of seeing this as a step forward for collective work in a major working-class area, union bosses initially saw this as a threat and tried to clamp down on it. The last we heard was that a valuable initiative was in danger of collapsing into a campaign against workers on temporary visas.
Critically, delegates knew nothing about it. It was kept in the hands of union employees, tightly controlled by officialdom. You get the distinct impression that union officials don't trust their membership.
Such initiatives, however, point the way for cross-union organisation - but if they do not take on life from below among rank-and-file workers, they will go nowhere.
The waterfront dispute offers the movement a number of lessons, not least the involvement of the community. Hazel Blunden, a Green Party member commented about the Blacktown rally:
"It was a great atmosphere. We need to follow up my making life difficult for those employers who sack workers or try to use AWAs to reduce wages and conditions by naming, shaming and disrupting their business.
"These new laws need to be made unworkable"
We agree and, as the recent Finlay Engineering dispute in Melbourne showed, one of the best ways of tackling employers using Howard’s laws is the active involvement of the community alongside workers under attack. UnionsNSW showed considerable foresight in this regard by launching the Community Action Network in 2005. It collected thousands of names of people who want to be involved in the fight against the IR laws. At the same time activists have shown the initiative to setup Your Rights at Work groups and union defence committees. It is obvious that these local groups would be more effective if they were given access to the contact details of workers who had signed up for CAN.
Unfortunately, those who control the names sent to CAN are unwilling to release them to local groups. Labor Tribune has been told that this is because of the risk of names being used by groups to the left of the ALP. This is bureaucratic paranoia gone mad. Imagine, just to stop the DSP from advertising their next paper sale to CAN volunteers, they would rather remove these volunteers from our communities and our fight against Howard. What is the worst that can happen? A few people will be upset because someone tries to sell them a left-wing newspaper, a few people might even join a left group and vote for irritating motions at public meetings; UnionsNSW might receive a few complaints. But in return the movement will activate potentially thousands of community-based activists to join the fight against Howard.
Combet’s comments, which Beazley was quick to dismiss as a joke, raise important and serious questions about state power. Of course Beazley performed a quick PR save, his focus groups will tell him that
"unions running the country" isn’t popular in marginals – and they will be quite correct, there aren’t many votes for the working class running Australia, at least not yet. His advisers will also tell him to concentrate on the defensive battle, make Howard and big business seem like the aggressor – which won’t be so hard. But beyond the attempts at media management sits a vital truth for socialists and working-class activists. One year ago this joke wouldn’t have been possible, least of all by Combet, sober and in front of a public audience. The battle against the IR laws is opening space for class politics - and not merely of the economic "strikist" variety, but of a more profound political nature.
It's the state, stupid
Combet is not the first union leader to make such comments. In April Labor Tribune supporters attended a public forum in Leichhardt, Sydney, organised by federal Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese to discuss Howard’s IR counter-reforms. At this forum John Robertson, secretary of Unions NSW, said that it was union members, ordinary workers, who built everything of value in Australia. For the bosses and for Howard, these are dangerous ideas: they don’t just call into question a particular, nasty piece of law. Ideas like this make our class begin to question the legitimacy of a system that politically empowers and materially rewards a tiny minority from the efforts of our lives and the accumulated efforts of the generations before us.
Howard’s arrogance and a refreshingly adept campaign by the union leadership has created the space for these questions to be posed, socialists need both strategic sense and a measure of audacity to leverage this open.