Defiance? No. Defence, hopefully.
A primer on South Australia's labour movement, by Dan Murphy.
Dan Murphy is a union organiser active in the Your Rights at Work community campaign in Adelaide and a member of the Southern Adelaide Workers Defence Committee.
Defence not Defiance is the title of the authoritative history of the South Australian labour movement. Written by academic John Wanna in 1981, as the name suggests it contends that historical and cultural factors have determined that the political and industrial wings of the labour movement in this state have tended towards moderation and even conservatism. If the interest existed, he could reissue the book now without having to change the title or conclusion.
That might not have seemed the case last November 15 when Adelaide gave a good account of itself when more than 30,000 people filled Elder Park on the banks of the Torrens. This is believed to be South Australia's largest ever labour rally. SA Unions, formerly the United Trades and Labour Council, organised the day well. So widespread was concern at the unfairness of the industrial relations law changes that a significant proportion of the crowd on the day was a walk-up not directly mobilised by unions.
Of course that they were aware of the issues and the demo was largely due to the work of SA Unions under secretary Janet Giles and the media blitz by the ACTU. An former president of the teachers union, Giles is nothing if not energetic. Under her reign the Labour Council has been renamed and reinvigorated and has certainly upped its profile.
Campaigning here mostly takes its cues from the ACTU, meaning it has undergone a loss of momentum since the heady days of November. The lack of clear direction and purpose is illustrated by the assortment of approaches to June 28 around the nation.
ACTU secretary Greg Combet, on the defensive at last year’s ACTU Organising Conference, said the "acid is now on you to deliver". He was addressing those who had successfully lobbied for a National Day of Action despite the reluctance of people like himself. Well deliver they did but now ‘the acid’ is back on the ACTU as campaign momentum has waned.
While some responsibility for this lies at the top the fact is that, with the advent of the new year, the campaign entered a new phase. Adjusting to this has been a problem for a local labour movement with a defensive history and mindset.
Moderation is also practised by the employer class in South Australia. Union busting has never been pursued with any real aggression by bosses or the Liberals when in power. Adelaide hasn’t seen a good blue for a long while and it shows in the approach of unions to the IR campaign. Organisers, delegates and members don’t seem to be on an action footing.
The community campaign now is about a million and one little actions: making sure fliers stay up on noticeboards, tables outside the shops, on-site meetings (especially in large multi-union workplaces), speaking to meetings of other community groups, local rallies, stickers, letterboxing and lots more. These are the links on the chain that have to be built now but members need to be mobilised to do them.
In Adelaide, the lack of disputes and campaigns in recent times means the activist networks don’t exist. Due to the defensive and moderate tradition they are proving difficult to build.
On June 28 rallies will be held at different times during the day in Victoria Square and outside Liberal MPs' offices in the three targeted seats. Lower-key approaches taken to this day of action may have to do with a fear of failure second time around. The emphasis the ACTU has placed on the targeted seats could be guided by a belief that enough people have already made up their mind against the IR laws and all that is needed is professional American-style campaigning up to the next election.
If that is the case they could be in for a nasty October-November surprise next year. Howard will be trying to keep the issue off centre stage and will be up to his usual wedge politics and dirty tricks. If it is a straight up presidential popularity contest he’ll be confident of winning. He can be defeated if the election is fought on rights at work and the future for Australian workers.
To fight on our ground we have to build the foundation of the campaign now, separate from the preselected ALP candidates’ campaigns.
SA Unions has taken a lead in this area but is hampered by a lack of commitment from affiliates. Hopefully the June 28 rallies provide the impetus for rebooting the Your Rights at Work Campaign in the suburbs.
Whether the local labour movement can shake off its torpor is of national significance as South Australia is home to three of the four most marginal Liberal held seats, Kingston, Wakefield and Makin. All of these were safe Labor seats under Hawke-Keating.
While the union movement needs to build campaign committees there is also a need for the ALP to select high-quality candidates. Federal preselections haven’t taken place yet and there is some uncertainty surrounding them due to recent factional manoeuvring.
Preselections have been dominated for some years in South Australia by deals between the soft left and right factions.
The soft left’s power base is the LHMU and its key leader its state secretary, Mark Butler. He is keen to succeed the long serving Rod Sawford in the ultra-safe seat of Port Adelaide. There is talk of a Hotham-style local revolt but this seems unlikely as Sawford does not have a big following and pre-selections are centrally determined anyway.
Butler has a lot of people talking him up including Michael Crosby in his recent union bureaucrat’s handbook, Power at Work. Under his leadership the LHMU has been reinvigorated and very visible around town. He has some real ability and takes care to prepare for speaking in public, usually opting for the rousing climax.
Preselections for the three important marginals could be affected by recent talks between the right and powerbrokers from the manufacturing workers' union (AMWU).
Upset at not getting a fair share of the spoils, the AMWU dumped the other parts of its 'hard-left' faction based around the vehicle builders to do a deal with the right a couple of months back. This was reportedly about preselections but no endorsement of AMWU people for any position or seat has been announced yet, although they have given up a state upper house seat to the SDA shopworkers' union in the meantime.
As the time between news of the deal leaking out and proof of any tangible benefits grows, there is a possibility they’ve been 'Dean Mighelled'. That is, they’ve copped all the flak for doing a deal with the right, then been double-crossed and ended up with nothing much to show for it.
The stakes are real high next federal election and the ALP needs to pick top quality candidates with strong local roots. For this reason, Tony Zappia should get another shot at Makin, Duncan’s old seat. The former mayor of Salisbury is not factionally aligned but brought a 7 per cent margin down to less than 2 per cent at his first attempt against the national trend.
Wakefield and Kingston are on even smaller margins and are mostly working class. Given the IR backlash there is a bit of complacent talk around that Labor can already chalk these up as wins. Without strong candidates these could easily be lost and certainly in Kingston no one has staked a strong claim
It behoves the factional powerbrokers to promptly pick the best candidates with the biggest chance of winning even if they lie outside their faction or even the current membership of the party. The stakes at this election are simply too high.
Spend some time active in the South Australian labour movement and you soon realise you won’t be getting involved in too much defiance.
There is still some way to go to mounting an effective defence however. More work from unions to get their members active is required and the ALP needs to preselect the best possible candidates, whoever they may be.